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Agbara Bryson is getting the word out about his ancestor Annie Malone

An Annie Malone portrait on display at the Peoria Riverfront Museum.
Tim Shelley
An Annie Malone portrait on display at the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

James Agbara Bryson is coming off a banner year in 2021 when more people heard about his illustrious ancestor.

Not only was there a local TV documentary, “My Journey with Annie Malone: James Agbara Bryson,” that aired on WTVP-TV in November, but Malone’s story was featured in an exhibit at the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

Bryson is gratified at the attention being focused on the woman he said was his grandfather’s aunt, a woman whose success started in Peoria.

Born in 1869 to escaped slaves, Annie Turnbo Malone would build a national empire based on hair-care products while founding the nation's first African-American cosmetology college in St. Louis.

“Annie moved to Peoria in the very early 1900s,” said Bryson, noting that the girl found a home and a mentor with the Moody family in Peoria.

“What she learned from Mother Moody laid the groundwork for her business,” he said. Malone attended Peoria High School but never graduated due to health problems that kept her out of school, said Bryson.

But what she learned from Mother Moody about the value of herbs and natural products not only helped her retain her health but laid the groundwork for her business career, he said.

“She knew her purpose. She had a vision and a plan. She went door to door in Peoria,” said Bryson, referring to Malone’s technique of dispensing hair products designed specifically for African Americans.

“African Americans at the time didn’t want what they called the plantation look, the naturally curly hair. They wanted their hair to be straight. That trend has turned around today,” he said.

Products that Malone sold were also designed to cope with hair and scalp issues, said Bryson.

Malone moved with her sister Laura to Lovejoy, an all-black community not far from St. Louis. “She realized there was a greater market in the St. Louis area, particularly at the time of the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904,” he said.

Her success at the world’s fair launched Malone’s line of hair products, said Bryson.

Malone was so successful that she opened Poro College in St. Louis in 1918. The college also served as a civic center for African Americans who, due to strict segregation laws, were unable to attend public events in the St. Louis area at the time.

The college was a springboard for many black women who found they could make a good living in the black beauty business, said Bryson.

Some like Madame C.J. Walker, a Poro agent, were able to go into business for themselves and become wealthy. But it was Malone who should be credited as the first black female millionaire, said Bryson.

Although Walker later moved to Chicago, she never forgot her Peoria roots, he said. She stayed in contact with members of her family in Peoria throughout her life and bought a house for Bryson’s grandparents near Tanner’s Orchard, he said.

As for Bryson, he’s not done promoting his famous family member. “I plan to work to expand the Annie Malone collection and see if we can’t establish a permanent exhibit at the museum. They have an Annie Malone parade in St. Louis. Perhaps we should have one here,” he said.

Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.