"Madame Washington" as she was widely known, was a millionaire black businesswoman and founded the Apex News & Hair Company. She was born June 6, 1889 in Beckley, Virginia and died March 23, 1953 in Atlantic City. Washington attended Norfolk Mission College, and later studied at both Columbia University and Northwestern College. Her first job was as a dressmaker, but her mother's health led her to seek out Atlantic City as a new home - in the early 20th century, the ocean air was publicized as being very beneficial to the sick.
In 1913 she started a hairdressing business in Atlantic City, and later expanded the business, teaching students and developing beauty products. After an employee referred to Washington as "Madame" out of respect, she adopted the title in her professional career. In 1920, noting the lack of beauty products for African Americans, she founded the Apex News & Hair Company. Apex maintained a lab and school in Atlantic City, as well as an office in New York City. Eventually her beauty colleges were located in twelve states and there were 35,000 agents all over the world. After Washington's death, her daughter, Joan Cross Washington, led the company until it was sold.
Madame Washington has been called one of the most important business executives in the black community. She was honored at the 1939 New York World's Fair as one of the "Most Distinguished Businesswomen". She was also an active member of the Atlantic City Board of Trade.
She was also dedicated to her local community. Madame Washington founded a nursing home - Apex Rest - for the elderly in Atlantic City, and, after encountering discrimination at the local golf course, she established her own for people of all races to enjoy a round of golf. Many also told stories of Washington either buying carloads of coal and leaving them out on the streets for the needy to take, or flying planes over the city which dropped coupons for coal. During the Great Depression, access to this resource was invaluable for surviving, especially in the winter months.
Her charity also extended to adopting a young cousin in unfortunate circumstances as her daughter. This daughter, Joan Washington Hayes, later became the president of the Apex company after Madame Washington's death. Although she suffered a stroke in 1947 which left her paralyzed, Madame Washington continued to provide for Atlantic City's black community, founding an African-American Easter Parade after her efforts to dress two local girls in the best fineries still found them ignored by white judges at the Boardwalk parade. Even as a millionaire, Madame Washington never turned her back on her community.
Resources in the Atlantic City Free Public Library Atlantic City Heritage Collections:
Atlantic City Board of Trade. Board of Trade: Annual Directory. Atlantic City, NJ: The Board, various years.
Richlyn F. Goddard. Three Months to Hurry and Nine Months to Worry: resort life for African Americans in Atlantic City, NJ 1850-1940.Ph.D. dissertation. Washington, DC: Howard University, 2001.
Local History Subject File - Black Businesses
Local History Biography File - Sarah Spencer Washington
Apex Country Club Photograph Collection (H038)
Sarah Spencer Washington Exhibit Materials (HEx001)