Sara Spencer Washington

Copy photo provided by Ralph Hunter, of Sara Spencer Washington, one of the first black female millionaires, who created a line of beauty products.

Remnants of Sara Spencer Washington’s empire are scattered across Atlantic County.

In Galloway Township, the Pomona Golf and Country Club started as the Apex Golf Club, one of the first African-American-owned golf courses in the nation. Washington made headlines in 1946 when she bought the upscale Brigantine Hotel, now the Legacy Vacation Club, for $70,000. Her factory still stands on Baltic Avenue in Atlantic City, though her signature “Apex” mural has long faded from its brick facade.

But the self-made millionaire’s most important legacy is the booming industry of black hair salons and beauty products she helped create. In an era of segregation, Washington’s schools taught black women a skill that enabled them to find work and wealth outside the resort hotels and restaurant kitchens.

“It’s not only the products she sold, but the African-American women she helped to become entrepreneurs,” said historian Ralph Hunter, whose aunt was one such student. “The beauty shops they ran helped feed families.”

Born in 1889 to a lower middle-class Virginia family, Washington earned a bachelor of science degree in business administration at Northwestern University and studied at Columbia University. She moved to Atlantic City in 1911 because a doctor suggested salt air would improve her mother’s health.

After working various domestic jobs, she opened a beauty shop on Arctic Avenue in 1916 from which she developed the beauty system that would make her wealthy. Three years later, she founded the Apex News and Hair Company.

Washington gradually accumulated patents for hair pressing oils and scalp creams that improved on existing methods of hair straightening. She taught hairdressing at night, eventually establishing 11 schools across the country.

“Now is the time to plan for your future by learning a depression-proof business,” proclaimed the school’s marketing materials.

By the mid-1930s, the schools were graduating as many as 4,000 students each year. According to a 1946 newspaper report, more than 45,000 agents were selling Washington’s products, which had expanded to include beauty creams, cosmetics and perfumes.

“Her premise was to have an independent service and provide income for yourself,” said Richlyn Goddard, a history professor at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

With as many as 500 employees at its height — including chemists and lab technicians — she valued professionalism. She was also a shrewd businesswoman, Goddard said, with knowledge of the chemistry behind the products she sold. She demanded the best work from her employees.

A lifelong Republican, Washington was elected to the Atlantic County Republican Committee in 1938 and served as a New Jersey delegate to the GOP national convention. She also supported many community organizations, including founding a school for girls that bore the name of her mother, Ellen Hunter.

After suffering a stroke in 1947, she retired from most of her business duties. All of the Apex Beauty schools were sold to their directors before she died in 1953, at age 72. Her adopted daughter and biological grandniece, Joan Cross, inherited the controlling interest in the rest of the company. Eventually, the company was sold outside the family.

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