Sarah Spencer Washington was born June 6, 1889 in Beckley, Virginia. She studied at Norfolk Mission College and Columbia University. When her mother fell ill, they moved to Atlantic City to live closer to the ocean where she would become a hairdresser. In 1913, Sarah started a hairdressing business in a small one-room beauty shop. She began to experiment with ingredients and later was granted a patent for a new system of straightening the hair of black women.
In 1919 she founded Apex News and Hair Company. Sarah worked in the beauty salon during the day and in the evenings sold her cosmetics throughout the city. The Apex Beauty Products Company encompassed a variety of products, from pressing oils, hot combs and pomades for hair to perfumes, beauty creams, and lipsticks. By the mid-1930s the Apex Beauty Products Company was the largest New Jersey black-owned business and one of the nation’s leading black manufacturing companies. In addition to the cosmetics company, she owned Apex Publishing Company, which published Apex News for beauticians and sales agents, Apex Laboratories, Apex Drug Company and Apex Beauty College. There were 11 beauty schools in the US and franchised schools overseas.
She continued her support of African American communities by running a nursing home called Apex Rest, giving away carloads of coal during the Great Depression, awarding scholarships to black students all over the country, and donating to a number of charities.
Apex Beauty Systems made Sarah Spencer one of the first African American millionaires. She was awarded a medallion at the 1939 World’s Fair as one of the “Most Distinguished Businesswomen” in the country.