(Look Back is an occasional series with content and images from the Atlantic County Historical Society.)
Born June 6, 1889, in Beckley, West Virginia, almost 25 years after the legal end of slavery in the United States, Sara Spencer Washington became a phenomenon throughout the country by establishing Apex Hair Products in Atlantic City and becoming the first black business women to become a millionaire. She was known as Madame Washington
Her career started in 1905 as a dressmaker. Her family wanted her to become a school teacher but she took a different career path and attended Columbia University, where she studied advanced chemistry. This led her to the new field of beauty culture, opening a small hairdressing shop in Atlantic City in 1913.
She worked in the shop during the day and sold her products door to door at night. From there, Washington developed her own hair beauty system, which she then taught to other beauty operators. She gradually accumulated patents for hair pressing oils and scalp creams.
In 1919, Washington founded her own beauty school and went onto establishing branches across the country. By the mid-1930s, the schools were graduating as many as 4,000 students each year.
From 1937 to 1939, she constructed a laboratory in Atlantic City where she made about 75 products. By the mid-1930s, the Apex Beauty Products Co. was the largest black-owned business in New Jersey and one of the nation's leading black manufacturing companies.
Washington, one of the first black millionaires, was awarded a medallion at the 1939 World's Fair as one of the most outstanding woman in the country.
Her system of agents provided black women with a job that allowed them to become small business owners selling her products.
Although she suffered a stroke in 1947, she continued helping the community by assisting in start-up businesses and community activities, including the famous African-American Easter Parade on Arctic Avenue, where the women of the community dressed in their Easter finery. The parade was led by a score of white Cadillac convertibles provided by Washington.
Founded in 1913, the Atlantic County Historical Society has been preserving historical materials in its library and museum since. Every week, Wednesday to Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., it opens its doors to share these collections with anyone who is interested. The society building is at 907 Shore Road in Somers Point. More information is available at www.atlanticcountyhistoricalsocietynj.org and on Facebook, or by calling 609-927-5218.