A black woman conquered Atlantic City through hair in the 1920s. A new film tells her story.
Her Apex logo was like the 'Nike Swoosh' of her day
ATLANTIC CITY — Sara Spencer Washington was "extremely famous" in her time, her grandnephew recalls. The logo of the black women's hair care and cosmetics company she created, Apex, was like the Nike Swoosh of its day.
"Madame," as she was known, arrived in Atlantic City in the 1920s looking for opportunity and found a thriving black middle class on the Northside.
A chemist with degrees from Columbia and Northwestern Universities, she patented products and started a salon, a school, and a factory, along the way accumulating an impeccable reputation and vast wealth as head of the Apex empire. Tens of thousands of black women found financial independence by getting licensed in her schools or becoming Apex door-to-door saleswomen.
This fur-clad entrepreneur catered to a wealthy black clientele with her own golf course and spa (Apex Rest), and used her influence and wealth to break through racial bans at local institutions like the Easter Parade and Capt. Starn's Restaurant, all of which made Sara Spencer Washington a singular figure in Atlantic City and beyond, for decades.
But while well known to many of Atlantic City's older black residents, Washington is far from a household name in the annals of either Atlantic City or black history. And so it has fallen to her descendant Royston Scott, a filmmaker and bartender in New York whose mother was adopted by Washington, her aunt, and was designated the heir of the million-dollar business, to revive that legacy.
Scott's documentary short, The Sara Spencer Washington Story, will debut at Rutgers University's New Jersey Film Festival at 7 p.m. Saturday in Voorhees Hall.
The film, created with cinematographer and editor Jacob Burckhardt, with whom Scott had collaborated on comedic shorts, will also have showings at the Hollywood Black Film Festival this month and the San Diego Black Film Festival in April.
In Atlantic City today, Scott says, "there are a few vestiges of her legacy, but not much."
The corner where her drugstore and salon were located, Arctic and Indiana Avenues, holds no sign of it. The factory on Baltic Avenue is now a branch of the local community college.
But at the places where Scott found people who remembered her, like St. Augustine's Church at 1709 Arctic Ave., the memories were profound.
"The women said, 'We all used her products and we loved her products,' " Scott recalled from his home in New York. "The one woman I interviewed, Etta Nelson Francisco, said: 'She did so much for black. She taught you to be a lady.'
"That shows you how much of an impression she had upon women," Scott said. "She did so much for women, but also for the black community. When she started in the late '20s, slavery had been over about 50 years. The black community was coming to terms with what was still in their immediate past. The fact that she instilled a sense of pride in the black community was really, really important."
In a city where notions of beauty were becoming a commodity in the form of the Miss America pageant, Washington built her fortune.
With products like scalp cream and Glossitina and Lustoria hair oils, she impressed upon young black women that they could be as pretty as white women, Scott said. In the film, two salesmen talk about the skin bleaches and pomades that were marketed to black women.
"I have these two sales agents saying a lot of black women wanted to look white," Scott said. "That was kind of what people aspired to: 'The lighter you are, the more beautiful you are considered' stereotype. Nowadays, I think it's horrible. But I understand it in the context of the society."
Scott, 54, grew up hearing about Washington from his mother, Joan Cross Washington, who, he said, had grown up in the lap of luxury, chauffeured in limousines, featured in magazines like Ebony, the face of "how wealthy black America lives." His sisters played dress-up in Madame Washington's furs.
But he said his mother didn't like to talk about the business itself, because her ex-husband had been heavily involved in it. The business, by its end worth $1 million, was eventually sold to a company called Pretty Hands & Feet, and had "pretty much run its course" by the late 1950s, as other companies went into the lucrative black hair-care market.
After his mother's death in 1986, Scott found boxes of Apex mementos, including leather-bound books of the Apex News, a monthly magazine Washington published through her company. "My mom had set them aside for me," he said. "I basically broke down in tears when I found this scrapbook. It was a way of her letting me know of our family legacy."
He came across images of "scores and scores of graduates," pages of every graduating class from across the country and beyond. Apex ran schools in Philadelphia and 12 other cities across America, as well as in Cuba and South Africa.
"I was awed," he said. "The fact that she changed so many people's lives for the better, financially and spiritually."
The historian and judge Nelson Johnson, who wrote Boardwalk Empire about the made-famous-by-HBO Nucky Johnson and also the less-well-known Northside, estimated that Apex door-to-door saleswomen totaled in the tens of thousands and that Washington's direct employees numbered about 500. Johnson said his interest in Washington was instantly piqued.
"Who was this lady back in the '30s and '40s, and she was a millionaire in Atlantic City — and she was black?" he said.
For many years, Washington ran an alternative to the city's Boardwalk Easter Parade for residents and businesses on the Northside. But it was her Apex company that had the first black-owned business float in the Boardwalk parade itself.
Washington also purchased the Brigantine Hotel and opened up prime beachfront property to black people. She ran a farm to bring produce to her drugstore/restaurant.
As for Capt. Starn's, the famous inlet seafood restaurant, Washington was at the center of legal action that led it to end a racial ban. Scott has the front-page headline from the 1945 Atlantic City Telegram ("Independent, Militant, Impartial"): "Madam Washington Kills Race Ban at Starns Restaurant."
Scott said she also used a more creative tactic to pressure Starn's: She rented out the entire restaurant and showed up. When golf courses would not accept black people, she built her own, the nine-hole Pomona Golf Course, still in existence. Her Apex Rest hostelry at Indiana and Ontario Avenues advertised tennis courts and luxurious accommodations.
This civil rights activism takes her legacy beyond the business world, Scott says. Washington died in 1953 at age 63.
"In the 1930s, she got this started," he said. "She was giving black people a voice. She was rubbing shoulders with wealthy white society and showing them, exposing them, to black culture and how the other half lives. Sara Spencer Washington was part of this great transition in black culture where black people were coming into their own."