A connection to a home grown success story

Published 4:24 pm Monday, April 17, 2023

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Will Smith starred in a 1993 movie ‘Six Degrees of Separation.’ The idea of the movie was the premise that all people on average have six degrees or fewer connections to other people.  When it comes to Washington NC, you don’t have to go very far to find a link to nationally known people, places, ideas or events. There’s usually some kind of connection.

I discovered this while watching a movie ‘Self Made’ The Story of Madame C. J. Walker on Netflix last week.  Madame C. J. Walker whose real name was Sarah Breedlove Walker, was one of the country’s first female millionaires. The movie begins with her meteoric rise to becoming a world-famous entrepreneur creating, manufacturing and selling her hair and cosmetic line. She began by becoming an agent of another famous Black woman who had invented a hair growing and strengthening product for Black women.   Sarah copied some of her formula, refining it with other ingredients and therein lies the genesis for her successful hair products and cosmetic empire.

Madam C. J. Walker’s products became staples in many black family homes.

My mother brought one of her products called Glossine.  It was promoted to strengthen and add shine to the hair. My mother liked another product better though. She brought it from Washington’s most renown Black beautician of her day, Mrs. Lillian S. Smith.

Mrs. Smith owned and operated a well-known beauty shop at 410 Gladden Street called The Poro Inn and used and sold Poro products. The Beauty Shop became a landmark in that location from the mid 1930’s until the mid 1950’s.  It was next door to Washington’s only Black Dentist, Dr. Haywood Nathaniel Dowdy until he moved into his much more well-known office at the corner of Fourth and Gladden Streets.

The beauty shop was named after the Poro Beauty Empire that was started in St. Louis by Mrs. Annie Turnbo Malone. She is the entrepreneur who created the ‘Wonderful Hair Growing Product’ that Madame C. J. Walker supposedly copied when employed by Mrs. Malone as a commissioned agent.

Mrs. Malone established Poro College in 1918 as a cosmetology school and business center in St. Louis. The Poro College Complex was a city block in size and in addition to the cosmetology school, it housed a retail store to sell her products, a manufacturing plant, businesses, offices, a chapel, a bakery, an auditorium, gymnasium and dormitory. The Poro Empire was a dynasty, and it’s reach extended beyond St. Louis. By 1920, Malone’s hair care empire employed 300 people locally and 75,000 agents nationally compared to just 150 local employees and 25,000 agents in 1918.

Poro’s students were mostly black women, such as future beauty care entrepreneur Madame C J Walker.  Poro expanded the range of economic opportunity for its students, teaching them how to care for hair, manufacture hair pieces, and perform manicures and massages. It provided a 10-day review course for its agents who sold Poro hair care products as independent contractors. Through franchising, the Poro name and teaching method spread across the US and even abroad.

Mrs. Malone is recorded as the first Black millionaire in the United States based on reports of 14 million in assets held in 1920.   Malone was in addition to being an entrepreneur was also an educator and philanthropist.  The Guinness Book of World Records credits Madame C. J. Walker the first self-made female millionaire.

Mrs. Lillian Smith certainly was well known and celebrated in her own right.   I heard that during many of the social events for Blacks hosted locally it was really difficult for women to get an appointment as she was always booked. Mrs. Lillian S. Smith, a Washington NC legend and our connection to The Poro Dynasty.

Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-founder and co-executive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.