Sara Spencer Washington
Businesswoman and philanthropist
Born: June 6, 1889, in Beckley, West Virginia
Died: March 23, 1953, in Atlantic City, New Jersey
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2021: Enterprise
What started as a one-room beauty salon in Atlantic City blossomed into a global cosmetics empire, making its founder, Sara Spencer Washington, one of the first African-American millionaires.
The future entrepreneur grew up in West Virginia coal country. Her parents sent her to prep school in Philadelphia and to Norfolk Mission College in Norfolk, Virginia. She also studied advanced chemistry at Columbia University, which later would help her in the development of beauty products.
Washington first came to Atlantic City for the sake of her mother; it was believed the sea air would be beneficial for the older woman’s health. Initially earning a living as a dressmaker, Washington opened her first beauty salon in Atlantic City in 1913. Six years later, she founded the Apex News and Hair Company, a name that hinted at the scope of the business she envisioned.
In addition to operating her salon, Washington created cosmetics products—including pomades, lipsticks and perfume. She published Apex News, providing information for her beauticians and sales agents. She established Apex Laboratories to develop new products, and Apex Beauty Colleges to train prospective employees. Before long, she had opened at least a dozen beauty schools in the United States and abroad. Thousands of agents sold her Apex products worldwide.
In 1939, Washington was honored at the New York World’s Fair as a “Most Distinguished Businesswoman.” It was a remarkable honor, increasing the visibility of this self-made millionaire. Washington had a knack for recognizing—and fulfilling—the needs of her community. For the aging, she created Apex Rest, a nursing home in Atlantic City; for golfers shut out of restricted clubs, she developed one of America’s first black-owned golf clubs.
Washington was also admired for her generosity. Among other philanthropic initiatives, she contributed land for a camp for black youths and gave an endowment of a home to the National Youth Administration Program for girls. According to one local history, she founded an African-American Easter Parade to boost pride among the city’s black residents. There are stories of Washington providing coal to poor families in Atlantic City during the Great Depression. It was quite a distinction for a woman who had escaped coal country to make her fortune.