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The story of Turnbo Malone

The experiential group tours at the Hotel Metropolitan get rave reviews by connecting the audience with a pivotal piece of American history while highlighting the importance of Kentucky’s geography and culture. Photo: Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau
Photo: Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau

A grooming product inside the Hotel Metropolitan, restored as an African-American heritage museum, represents Annie Turnbo Malone. Most won’t recognize her name, but Turnbo Malone was the first African-American woman millionaire in the United States.

Considered the mother of the African-American beauty industry, Turnbo Malone revolutionized black hair-care methodologies.

“Ol’ Annie came up with a way for us to have some straight hair,” says Betty Dobson in her role of Miss Maggie Steed, in one of Paducah’s signature experiences that immerses tour-goers into the time period. Steed was the original proprietress of the Hotel Metropolitan. Unknown to many is the roster of world-renowned entertainers it hosted prior to desegregation: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and Cab Calloway, among others.

Guests tour the museum as “Miss Maggie” points out artifacts representative of famous African-Americans with ties to western Kentucky, including Turnbo Malone, who was born just across the river in Metropolis, Illinois.

“Annie patented the pressing comb,” she says. “When it gets hot, you could go to town.”

Turnbo Malone created other products, including a straightening solution and a product she named The Great Wonderful Hair Grower. The talented inventor and entrepreneur also opened a cosmetology college and an orphanage.

“Black women didn’t have many options for their hair other than braided,” says Dobson. “Annie wanted curls and she achieved this. She also wanted to help less fortunate women and came up with the idea of selling the products door to door.”

The pressing comb isn’t the only surprise on the tour. Visitors also meet a former hotel guest.

“We go upstairs, and I usually have a performer—typically Billie Holiday—staying in one of the rooms. She’ll be a little shocked when I knock on her door, but she’ll come out and perform a medley of songs,” Dobson says.

Tours also include a glass of tea and a piece of homemade chess pie that Dobson makes herself from a century-old family recipe.


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