Waltz Through Time

The Beauty of Beating the Odds

By AC Weekly Staff
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 20, 2005

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The salesgirl had miscalculated. She had just come on duty, and here was this black woman standing before her on the main floor of Wanamaker's Department Store in Philadelphia. The woman was nicely dressed to be sure, but she was, after all ... well, she was someone who simply would have to wait while more important customers were served. Like the blue-haired dowager ogling a sea of sable. Or the smartly tailored secretary eyeing the latest silk blouses.

They took priority, the salesgirl figured. But then her supervisor appeared and the rules suddenly changed. "Mrs. Washington," the supervisor greeted the black woman, who was well into middle age. "Back so soon?"

"I'd like to get one more if I may," said Mrs. Washington, whose look of mounting anger had turned to irony.

"Of course."

Now the supervisor flashed daggers at the salesgirl. "Bring Mrs. Washington another mink, please. The same as the one on her sales slip from half an hour ago."

No cash register was big enough for the salesgirl to hide in.

The year was 1946, and while Sara Spencer Washington -- founder of a cosmetics empire -- could write a pair of thousand-dollar checks to the same department store on the same day without breathing hard, the nickel-and-dime prejudice of the wider world still could regard her as a second-class citizen. But Madame Washington, as she came to be known in defiance of the popular mentality, was a powerful counterpuncher. When one restaurant refused to serve her, she rented the joint for the night; she took another inhospitable eatery to court and made off with everything down to the linens. In Atlantic City, her home base, she created an alternate Easter Parade on Arctic Avenue for black women shunned by the Boardwalk's.

She had been born Sara Spencer in Virginia in 1889, and came north at the age of 22. She established a one-room beauty shop on the first floor of an Arctic Avenue building she would eventually own. Hairdressing was a respectable trade, but Sara Spencer had her eye on bigger things.

She trained others to work on the customers, while she developed a product line to be sold door-to-door. In the years ahead, she received a patent for a hair curl-removal system, and touted pomades, hot-comb pressing oils, perfumes, lipstick, and facial creams.

She went corporate, and her expanding Apex Schools of Scientific Beauty Culture would boast 4,000 graduates a year at locations in a dozen American cities, South Africa, and the Caribbean. Four other companies launched under the Apex banner, as the businesses encompassed drugstores and publishing (a national beauty magazine) in addition to hair salons. Boxcars of raw materials poured into a laboratory on Indiana Avenue and 75 different Apex products emerged, to be trucked to 45,000 Apex agents across the country and beyond the country's borders.

The vision was complete. The visionary ran Apex from her home office at Indiana and Arctic, and hosted social functions at the stately structure as well. Her immaculate appearance was a billboard for her company. But Sara Spencer Washington was about more than building profits. Her Apex Rest offered furnished rooms and recreational facilities at a time when blacks had to search hard for either. Apex Hall hosted the likes of colorful bandleader Cab Calloway, then turned the dance floor into a basketball court when it was time for hoops. The Apex Country Club, now Pomona Golf Course, put blacks on the links long before Tiger Woods.

Washington also turned her attention to the political arena, serving as a county Republican Committee representative in 1938 and backing state banking commissioner Horace Bryant in his successful run for Atlantic City commissioner.

In the 1940s, she purchased the Brigantine Hotel from flamboyant evangelist "Father Divine," precipitating the first integrated beachfront in the area. Her second husband, Shumpert Logan, joined Apex, but she remained Madame Washington to the business world and the social order of the day. Yet she never forgot the road she had traveled -- she could be photographed with the Astors and Huttons, but Atlantic City's north side was home to the end.

"She was held in awe by young folk," said the late local historian Sid Trusty, longtime house musician at Club Harlem.

After a stroke paralyzed her in 1947, Mme. Washington battled back to regain her voice and, ultimately, dispensed with the cane. When death finally claimed her in March 1953, she left an estate of more than $1 million. Her adopted daughter assumed the presidency of Apex, but time was short for the symbolically named company. In the early 1960s, the business was absorbed by a Baltimore firm. The name, if not the original company, survives in the beauty industry.

Sara Spencer Washington was a trailblazer along several paths. In 1997, she was inducted into the Atlantic County Women's Hall of Fame. Nearly six decades earlier, the 1939 World's Fair in New York had named her one of the "10 most distinguished businesswomen" on the planet.

Rarefied atmosphere, for certain. Guess the department store salesgirl couldn't quite see that far.

Jim Waltzer's Tales of South Jersey, co-authored by Tom Wilk, is published by Rutgers University Press.

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