New York City 2016
When growing up my mother and her mother would always speak of "The Madame" in reverent tones. There was evidence of her legacy all around me as a child. There were some of her antiques, jewelry, furs, photos and her stately oil portrait that was prominently displayed in the den. My adoptive grandmother was the entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist Sara Spencer Washington one of America's first female black millionaires. My mother was adopted by her as a child so as to become the heiress to her company, Apex.
Sara Spencer Washington started Apex as a door-to-door hair care line in 1920s Atlantic City New Jersey. Over a period of 30 years it had grown into an East Coast based chain of beauty schools, a cosmetics line, a publishing company, an inn and even a golf course! No small feat for a black woman during the depression in Atlantic City. Apex had hundreds of employees, 4,500 sales agents and yearly gave thousands of black women a trade and the opportunity to become self sufficient by owning their own salons. A few offices were even established in Cuba and South Africa.
In the 1950's after The Madame died my mother the debutante, became the face of Apex. However due to increased competition the business had dissolved by the 1960's and the family left Atlantic City for Baltimore Maryland. Our fortunes had changed and Apex was rarely spoken of at home. We four children knew this was a topic Mom was uncomfortable discussing.
When my mother's health took a turn for the worst in the late 1990's I found a cache of Apex ephemera in her basement and was amazed. There were boxes of old photographs, newspaper clippings and a leather bound presentation copy of the "Apex News " monthly magazine for 1937. I realized what an important story the Apex business was. As a filmmaker I knew that my first documentary was in order but I was too late. My mother's painful passing took with it her first hand knowledge of the Apex empire.
Yet I was determined. It took a while but I tracked down elderly Apex graduates, salesmen, clients, models and Atlantic City historians. It is their interviews and my treasure trove of photographs that make "The Sara Spencer Washington Story" a true labor of love.
Royston Scott, October, 2016