The Writer: Patty Wetli
Date first published: 21 February 2019
The movie “Green Book” is up for Best Picture at Sunday’s Academy Awards. From 1936-1967, the real Green Book was an essential guide for black travelers, providing information about the establishments where they would be safe and welcome while navigating their way across a segregated country. This is the third in a series of articles about the legacy of Green Book sites in Chicago.
BRONZEVILLE — Mollison Elementary is rightfully proud of its heritage.
The school is named in honor of Irvin Mollison, a Chicago lawyer who in 1945 broke down color barriers as the first African-American to be appointed to a federal judgeship in the United States.
Along with that legacy, Mollison’s location at 4415 S. King Drive places it within a historic community that the school’s “About Us” web page notes was once home to author Lorraine Hansberry, Bessie Coleman (the first woman of color to hold a pilot’s license), publishing titan John H. Johnson and the legendary musician Louis Armstrong.
An impressive list to be sure, but there’s one name missing, a name that construction of the school, through no fault of its own, inadvertently buried: Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone.
Malone’s Poro College, categorized as a “tourist home” in Green Book editions 1947-62, formerly graced the land now occupied by Mollison, an instance of one institution with ties to a key figure in African-American history resting atop the ghost of another.
Malone may not be a household name today, but the line of Poro hair care products that she invented — revolutionary straighteners and oils that didn’t damage the scalp — were once a staple in African-American households, sold door to door by Poro’s network of agents.
Poro reported assets of $14 million in 1920, making Malone arguably the first recorded female African-American millionaire. Adjusting for inflation, her fortune would be worth $186 million in today’s dollars, which has led some to call Malone the Oprah Winfrey of her day. But Estee Lauder or Mary Kay Ash would be a more apt comparison, or possibly even Sergey Brin.
“If you worked for Poro, it was equivalent to Google or Apple,” said Reynard Allison, a Bronzeville resident with more than two decades of experience in the hair industry.
Allison has spent the past several years researching Malone, among others, while in pre-production on a documentary called “Black Hair Empire.“
The original Poro College, established in St. Louis, included a manufacturing plant, theater, dormitory, chapel, laundry service, dining hall and rooftop garden among other amenities.
Black beauticians came from across the country for instruction in black hair and skin care, training that would provide them with the foundation to establish their own beauty care businesses. Courses including coaching on how to walk, talk and dress for work. Among the program’s graduates: Chuck Berry, a guy better known for the way he wielded a guitar than barber’s shears.