“Last hired, first fired” was a slogan that I heard a lot growing up and I still hear it today, because it speaks to the state of the Black community’s economy after integration. It speaks to the fact that we cannot keep our people employed because we do not own or control enough businesses in or outside of our community, although we are the biggest consumers. Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X were big supporters of Black people doing for self in all facets of our existence, especially when it comes to feeding, clothing, housing and educating our community.
In an era when the Koreans own the multi-billion-dollar Black haircare industry in the U.S., we need to know about and learn from Black business pioneers like Madame Sara Spencer Washington, who took her hair care products and beauty schools from the East Coast to Black people all over the world. Atlantic City’s Madame was a multi-millionaire in the ’20s, running a business empire called Apex Hair and News Co.
Her grandson, filmmaker Royston Scott, sat down with me to discuss his very important documentary called “The Sara Spencer Washington Story,” which will be screening at the San Francisco Black Film Festival in a couple of weeks.
M.O.I. JR: What made you want to do a film on Madame Sara Spencer Washington? And why is she important?
Royston Scott: My mother, Joan Cross, was Sara Spencer Washington’s niece and was adopted by her at a very young age so as to become the heiress of her company, which was called The Apex Hair and News Co. Although Mrs. Washington was twice married, she never had children for whatever reason.
While growing up, I was well aware of the significance of the Apex company but it was never really discussed much. My mother’s first husband was named Holton Hayes and she had three children with him, Wesley, Thomas and Saverne.
After Mrs. Washington’s death, my mother inherited the company and ran it for several years with her new husband’s assistance. At this point (late 1950s) Apex had been in operation for 30 years and due to increased competition from white-owned companies eager to cash in on the lucrative Black cosmetics market, the company was on its last legs.
Mother divorced Mr. Hayes as the company was dissolved and thereafter married my father, Dr. Royston Scott (Senior) of Guyana. He was none too keen on mother’s first marriage, so the topic of Apex was never much discussed when I was young.
Mother divorced my father after a couple of years and struggled to raise four children as a single mother during the ‘60s and ‘70s, all the while still proud of her legacy of one time wealth and fame as one of the premiere East Coast’s Black debutantes. Years later I had moved to New York to attend NYU, where I studied theater and film.
My mother became very ill just around the time when I was thinking about documenting her story. Time was not on my side.
After my mother’s death, when cleaning out her basement, I came across several boxes of Apex Hair and News Co. memorabilia and found several scrapbooks that had newspaper clippings for several cities of Apex graduates in their caps and gowns. Page after page of them.
I then realized just how many Black women (and men) the Apex company influenced, educated – thereby giving them not just jobs but a sense of pride. I cried.
M.O.I. JR: What role did she play in teaching the Black community?
Royston Scott: Atlantic City was created to be a resort town – built from scratch in the rough pine barrens of the southern New Jersey coast. Built upon the back of Black laborers, once up and running it was the poor Blacks, now free, migrating from slavery and the lack of jobs who toiled as menial laborers, cooks and cleaners in the burgeoning hotel industry.
Religion and education was important to Sara Spencer Washington and she led by example, obtaining several degrees and supporting the church and its ability to nurture the Black community. She became a Christian Scientist.
When she moved to the town in the early ‘20s, she saw the vast number of Blacks and opportunity. From opening a successful salon, selling her homemade hair products door to door, patenting a hair curling process, and founding her company called Apex, she showed all those she met what a Black woman can do.
M.O.I. JR: What role did Apex play in the local Atlantic City economy? How many employees did she have at her zenith?
Royston Scott: The Madame was a godsend during the Depression. Due to her business acumen, the rapid growth of the Apex brand necessitated a factory, a warehouse, offices and a lab to be built in Atlantic City. Apex Beauty Colleges opened in Black cities on the East Coast, and she created the Apex Hair and News magazine to market the brand and as a newsletter detailing employees’ and graduates’ successes.
Product was shipped by boxcars and the local post office was said to have been expanded due to Apex’s mail order sales. There were over 200 employees to run the enterprise at its height in the 1940s – around 3,500 sales agents and 4,000 graduates yearly.
M.O.I. JR: What role did Madame Sara Spencer Washington play on setting trends? What was her effect on culture?
Royston Scott: The role of the beauty salon has always been an important part of a woman’s life and by entering this field she knew how influential she could be. To become a graduate, there were not only classes in techniques but business and anatomy as well.
While Mrs. Washington’s predecessors – namely Madame C.J. Walker – focused on straightening unruly Black hair, the patented Apex process imparted waves and curls in the hair via pressing oils, hot combs and curling irons. Hairdressers could experiment with new looks and the Apex Hair and News Magazine featured pictures of the latest hairstyles.
These would be accompanied by ads to purchase the hair dressings and supplies for the home or salon. The latest fashions of the day and home décor tips were accompanied by recipes, celebrity updates, cartoons and inspirational prose. Proper hygiene, nutrition and other women’s health issues were not shied away from. It should be noted that Apex also sold skin bleaching creams which were not uncommon at the time.
M.O.I. JR: What role did the Madame play in politics?
Royston Scott: The Madame was a member of numerous political organizations and a Republican as were most Blacks due to Democratic affiliation with Southern politics at the turn of the century. She was instrumental in the Northside YMCA – and later the YWCA – which became the center for Black social and political organizations.
There she befriended C. Morris Cain, who was chosen to run the Stanley Houses, the first public housing development in New Jersey, which replaced the squalid living conditions of most of the Northside’s Black residents. The Madame was a delegate to the GOP national convention and elected to the Atlantic County Republican Committee in 1938.
She served as head of The Northside Business Women’s Club as well as being awarded a medal at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 for being one of the “World’s Top Ten Businesswomen.” Mrs. Washington backed the political career of Horace J. Bryant, the first Black man to run for city commissioner in Atlantic City.
She tirelessly raised money for the war effort and her buying a $10,000 war bond led to her being asked to christen the S.S. Harriet Tubman.
M.O.I. JR: How rare was it for Black people to be millionaires in the ‘30s and ‘40s?
Royston Scott: At the Madame’s death in 1953, the Apex company and its holdings surpassed the million-dollar mark – a rarity for Black people, especially a woman. The first Black female millionaire in the U.S. was Madame C.J. Walker, who also happened to make her fortune in the hair care business. She was Madame Washington’s predecessor by almost 20 years but no doubt a great source of inspiration.
M.O.I. JR: How widespread was the distribution of APEX products?
Royston Scott: Not only were there Apex Schools of Beauty Culture in 11 of the East Coast’s Black major urban centers, but there was one in Chicago at 47th and Parkway, one in Cuba and even one located in the ground floor offices of the Bantu World newspaper in Johannesburg, South Africa.
M.O.I. JR: What was Madame Sara Spencer Washington’s role in creating Black media?
Royston Scott: It has been said that as a Black person in the 1930s, the blue and white Apex logo would be as recognized as the Nike swoosh is today. Apex had a savvy marketing approach – one free with a dozen – print ads, billboards and radio campaigns, the most notable of which was the Harlem disc jockey Dr. Jive, who would play Apex radio commercials on his show.
Trade shows proved to be extremely lucrative for business, and Apex floats in local beauty pageants and parades were eagerly anticipated.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk about the many businesses that the Madame ran?
Royston Scott: Not only were there the beauty schools and factories but there was an Apex Drug Store, the Apex Rest, an upscale resort for well-to-do Blacks in Atlantic City and a farm to supply fresh produce for these businesses. There was the Apex Golf course, one of the first of its kind to cater to Blacks in the state.
Along with Father Divine, the Madame purchased the Brigantine Hotel, thereby integrating its beach on the island of Brigantine. This is right next to Atlantic City and still stands today. Sara Spencer Washington also donated property for homes for wayward girls, summer camps and old age homes.
Degrees from Northwestern and Columbia University in business and chemistry, numerous awards, philanthropic efforts and the advancement of Black women – and the race in general – led this role model to be one of the earliest inductees into the Atlantic County Women’s Hall of Fame in 1997.