Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Documentary Showcases Millionaire Woman Who Pioneered African-American Beauty Industry
WBAL Updated: 5:53 PM EST Feb 26, 2019
Barry Simms 

Magazines from the 1930s with pictures of black women and children are among items discovered in a box in a basement that provided Pikesville native and Park School graduate Royston Scott a wealth of family history.

"I found a treasure trove of black-and-white photos and pamphlets," Scott said.

The New York filmmaker had only heard stories about his great aunt Sara Spencer Washington and the company she founded, Apex News and Hair. Now, he had proof and decided to tell her story in a documentary, which he has named "The Sara Spencer Washington Story."

"There were pomades, hair straighteners, hair tonics, perfumes and what not," Scott said.

Washington became a millionaire selling her line of black hair care and beauty products. Her magazine had articles on hair, running a proper beauty salon and tips on grooming and cooking. She also ran beauty colleges in cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Richmond, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

"From what I hear, some of the trainees were better than others, but that was part of the learning curve," Scott said.

Washington began her business in 1919 in Atlantic City. Retired New Jersey Judge Nelson Johnson said she was extraordinary and very persuasive.

In Scott's documentary, "The Sara Spencer Washington Story," Johnson said, "A lot of people don't have an appreciation for just how difficult it is to try to sell product door-to-door, because the first thing you have to do is sell is yourself, and then you sell your product."

The business expanded. Washington had hundreds of employees and a warehouse. Her beauty supply and drug stores offered jobs. While the Great Depression wiped out other companies, Apex survived and flourished.

In Scott's documentary, "The Sara Spencer Washington Story," former employee Etta Nelson Francisco said, "One thing she always used to say, 'Be a lady, be a lady.' And I've always tried to be a lady. And I worked in the drug store."

Thousands of people graduated from her schools every year. She helped many of them start their own salons by giving them interest-free loans and discounts on products.

"She was all about empowering the black community, especially women. Education was her main goal," Scott said.

Washington became one of the first African-American female millionaires. She died in 1953 at the age of 64. The company she built declined by the 1960s.

Scott believes Apex was a victim of its own success. He said major, white-owned companies took notice of the lucrative black hair care and cosmetics market and began mass marketing their own products.

"It was the black power movement and hairstyles changed, everyone was going natural, so people weren't into relaxing their hair, straightening their hair, curling their hair," Scott said.

Scott said the items he found in that box led him on a wonderful journey into his family's legacy, and are important in African-American and U.S. history.

Scott shares his documentary March 7 at the Pikesville Library.

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