Black female entrepreneurial success on display

By Kevin Beese Staff Writer

Annie Malone

The Peoria roots of the first Black woman millionaire will be highlighted in an upcoming exhibition.

Annie Malone, an entrepreneur, inventor and philanthropist, earned her fortune by developing the Black hair care industry. With humble beginnings in Peoria, Malone rose to international acclaim through the creation of the Poro hair care and cosmetics line and Poro College, established in 1918 as the first Black-owned cosmetology school and education center.

The Peoria Riverfront Museum will be displaying the largest collection of items related to Malone. An exhibition “Life and Legacy of Annie Malone,” opens Saturday, Sept. 16.

The acquisition to the museum’s permanent collection is a gift from Agbara Bryson, Malone’s great-grand-nephew, a frequent visitor and patron of the museum.

“The exhibition is not just how she got to the point of being a millionaire,” said Everley Davis, community engagement and Every Student Initiative coordinator at the museum. “It talks about her becoming an international name and one of the first major Black philanthropists as well.”

John Morris, president and CEO of the Peoria Riverfront Museum, noted that more than 15,000 students are expected to see the exhibit between its opening and spring. He said he is excited that 90 percent of the students of color in Central Illinois will learn about Annie Malone through the exhibition.

“It’s not to say a little boy can’t see the exhibit and say, ‘I want to be like Annie Malone,’ but she is a role model for Black female entrepreneurial success. You don’t have those role models on every corner.”

Morris said the Annie Malone story is “an inspiring, confidence-building story of the first Black woman millionaire.”

The exhibit will include Malone’s briefcase, a coral ring made in Peoria that she would give to her employees on their five-year work anniversary, one of her address books, keys to her buildings in Chicago and letters she exchanged with friends.

“She was an incredible figure,” Davis said. “Her parents were slaves. She moved from Metropolis to Peoria. She went through two divorces. She transplanted to Chicago.”

Malone being a devout Christian is also explored in the exhibit, Davis said.

“To not tell about her being devout in her Christianity would be washing away the essence of her story, about a person who plowed through adversity and was compelled to do things for others,” she said.

Davis said the entrepreneur’s time married to Aaron Malone was important in her education, fusing in Christian values that all people matter.

“He was big on promoting feeling beautiful from the inside out,” Davis said.

Davis said there will be other Annie Malone exhibits at the museum in the future as there were too many artifacts to fit into one exhibit.

Morris noted that Peoria was a small slice of Malone’s life, but that she was in the community during her formative years.

A parade is still held in Malone’s honor every year in St. Louis. The parade is the Annie Malone Children and Family Services agency’s largest fundraiser with proceeds covering both direct program costs and operating expenses not covered by other sources of revenue. It has grown to be the second largest Black parade in the country.

“When the exhibit opens to the public, it will be the largest and most important exhibition on Annie Malone that there has ever been,” Morris said.

The museum’s CEO said even in the Black community, Malone is not a well-known figure.

“People question her being a millionaire. They say they’ve never heard of her. People are doubters.” Morris said. “It’s the museum’s job to bring her story to the forefront. We need to be leaders when it comes to telling stories like hers.”


The Annie Malone exhibit is included in the museum’s general admission price of $15 for adults, $13 for students and seniors (age 60 and older)  and $11 for children ages 3-17. The museum, located at 222 SW Washington St., is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturdays, and from noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.