African American Hair: A History
The first hair relaxer was invented by accident in 1905 by Garret Augustus Morgan, Sr., who was born in 1877 in Paris, Kentucky. A son of former slaves, Morgan founded the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company in 1913. He also created the curved-tooth pressing comb in 1910, which we will hear about later. Before creating hair relaxers, he invented many objects we use for public safety such as three-position traffic signals. He also invented safety hoods and smoke protectors, which were used by firefighters of the day. The idea for hair relaxers came from working on sewing machines in his workshop. He found that chemicals used to repair sewing machines relaxed the curls of kinky hair.
Woof! His first live test subject was an Airedale dog, a breed that had naturally curly hair. The dog’s hair successfully uncurled. The same results occurred when he tested the chemicals on his own head. In hindsight this was probably not a good idea, but everybody was mad about having that straight wash and go hair.
African American hair care was to go on to establish some of the first African American female millionaires in history. Around the same time as Morgan (1896-1900), another child of former slaves, Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone (1869 –1957), started playing around with chemicals. She went on to become an American businesswoman, inventor and philanthropist. In the first three decades of the 20th century, she founded and developed a large and prominent commercial and educational enterprise centered on cosmetics for black women. Her father fought for Kentucky on the side of the Union in the Civil War, her mother escaped from Kentucky to Illinois. While attending high school, Turnbo took particular interest in chemistry. She grew so fascinated with hair and hair care that she often practiced hairdressing with her sister. With expertise in both chemistry and hair care she developed her own hair care products. At the time, many women used goose fat, heavy oils, soap, even bacon grease to straighten their curls. These harsh treatments damaged both scalp and hair. Oh, the things we go through to be beautiful.
While experimenting with hair and different hair care products, Annie developed and manufactured her own line of non-damaging hair straighteners, special oils, and hair-stimulant products for black women. She named her new product “Wonderful Hair Grower.” Her products and sales began to revolutionize hair care methods for all African Americans. In 1902, Turnbo moved to a thriving St. Louis, home of the nation’s fourth-largest African American population , where she and three hired assistants sold her hair care products from door-to-door. Her marketing strategy was to give away free treatments to attract more customers. Due to the high demand for her product in St. Louis, Turnbo opened her first shop in 1902. She also launched a wide advertising campaign in the black press, held news conferences, toured many southern states, and recruited many women whom she trained to sell her products. One of her selling agents, Sarah Breedlove Davis, became known as Madam C. J. Walker. Walker eventually built her own business empire using a similar model.
In 1910, Malone, built a large building that she named Poro College, which took up an entire city block. Malone’s product line was called Poro, a combination of the married names of, herself, Annie Pope, and her sister Laura Roberts. The campus was located in St. Louis’s upper-middle-class black neighborhood and served as a gathering place for the city’s African Americans who were denied access to other entertainment and hospitality venues. The complex, which was valued at more than one million dollars, included classrooms, beauty shops, laboratories, a five hundred seat auditorium, conference rooms, a gentlemen’s smoking parlor, cafeteria, dining halls, ice cream parlor, bakery, emergency hospital, a theater, gymnasium, chapel, roof garden, general office, shipping department, a manufacturing plant, laundry, seam-stress shop, dormitories, and guests rooms. The College’s curriculum addressed the whole student. Students were coached on personal style for work. They were taught proper comportment from walking, talking, and style of dress designed to maintain a solid sophisticated persona. Poro College employed nearly two hundred people in St. Louis. Through its school and franchise businesses, the college created jobs for almost seventy-five thousand women in North and South America, Africa and the Philippines. Malone also owned an entire city block in Chicago. When Turnbo married for the third time in 1914, she was worth well over a million dollars. By the 1920s Annie Turnbo Malone had become a multi-millionaire. While extremely wealthy Malone lived modestly, giving thousands of dollars to the local black YMCA and the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, DC. She also donated money to the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home, where she served as president on the board of directors from 1919 to 1943. With her help, in 1922 Malone bought a facility which was renamed Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center in her honor and is still in operation today. It is located on Annie Malone Drive.
The next step on our hair journey takes us to Sarah Breedlove (1867 – 1919), most commonly known as Madam C. J. Walker. Breedlove was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and a political and social activist. She was born to former slaves in Delta, Louisiana, not far from where I was born. Her third marriage was to Charles J. Walker. The “Madam” was adopted from women pioneers of the French beauty industry. As was common among black women of her era, Walker experienced severe dandruff and other scalp ailments, including baldness due to skin disorders and the application of harsh products such as lye that were included in soaps to cleanse hair and wash clothes. She learned about hair care from her brothers who were barbers in Saint Louis. Around the time of the World’s Fair at St. Louis in 1904 she became a commission agent selling products for Annie Turnbo Malone. Unlike Malone she was a flamboyant marketing genius with a different focus. For many years she was touted as the first female self-made millionaire in America. She has also been credited as being the pioneer of the African American hair care business when in fact it was Annie Malone. The fact that Anne Malone who has been all but forgotten attests Walker’s marketing prowess. Walker founded the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing company and by 1915 she was one of the wealthiest women in the country and one of the most successful African-American business owners ever. In other words, she was the first Oprah. Like Oprah, Sarah knew who, when and where to connect. She moved to New York and became involved in political affairs. She delivered lectures on political, economic, and social issues at conventions sponsored by powerful black institutions. Her friends and associates included Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and W. E. B. Du Bois. During World War I Walker advocated for the establishment of a training camp for black army officers. In 1917 she helped to organize the Silent Protest Parade on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. The public demonstration drew more than eight thousand African Americans to protest a riot in East Saint Louis that killed thirty-nine African Americans. Walker made her fortune by developing and marketing a line of beauty and hair products for black women. Walker was also known for her philanthropy and activism. She made financial donations to numerous organizations and became a patron of the arts. Villa Lewaro, Walker’s lavish estate in Irvington on the Hudson River in New York, served as a social gathering place for the African American community.
I found it interesting that both these women where orphans. Both women were married and divorced several times. This seemed to be a theme among highly successful business women in the 1920’s. This was the time for great growth for all women. They were independent thinkers and innovators.
Even though Annie Malone, Madam Walker and others did a lot for the black hair care community, black women still lived with the stereotype associated with long straight hair. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that black people began to embrace their natural hair. It started with the Afro. The Afro or ‘fro was also known as the “natural.” When you have 4c hair, the hairstyle is created by braiding the wet and freshly washed hair and allowing it to dry. Oil and creams are rubbed into the hair while braiding, this keeps the hair soft and pliable. Sometimes the oils are scented with natural flowers and herbs. After it dries the hair is picked out away from the scalp allowing it to extend out from the head in a large rounded shape much like a cloud or ball. Particularly popular in the African-American community of the late 1960s, the hairstyle was often shaped and maintained with the assistance of a wide-toothed comb known as an Afro pick. Thus you saw people with Afro picks sticking out of back pockets, or if they wanted to be really cool, sticking out of the afro towards the back of the head.
“I had a Jerry curl once,” Evelyn said.
“Ha! Yes, I remember the Jerry Curl,” I laughed.
The Jheri curl was a permed hairstyle that was common and popular among African American, Black Canadian, and Black British, especially during the 1980s and 90s. It was invented bay hairdresser by the name of Jheri Redding. A hair stylist is sometimes known as a hair dresser in African American hair speak. The Jheri curl, gave the wearer a glossy, loosely curled wet look. It was often misspelled as Jerry Curl as I just did earlier.
“We got it because it would loosen up our hair, you know, make it more manageable,” she said.
“Yes, I remember. It was all about how much activator you used,” I said.
“I would wear hats and everything. My friends would ask me about my hats all the time,” Evelyn said.
Hats. That’s a whole other subject. Again, another interview, another time.
“After that I cut it all off, it was shorter than it is now,” she said.
“It’s pretty short now. Did you shave it?” I asked.
Her hair was a tightly curled afro of about a quarter inch. It was all white and made a stunning contrast against her dark chocolate skin.
“I went to the barbershop with my husband one day and told them to cut it all off. I have been wearing this short style ever since. I love it. It was so convenient,” she said.
I thought that was awesome.
“Matter of fact half my friends went and cut theirs after I cut mine,” she chuckled.
“You’re a trend setter,” I said.
My cousin Bari was a trend setter too. One of my earliest memories of her was her long flowing locks. This style makes a statement. Bob Marley’s first album with the Wailers was called Natty Dreads. Natty Dreadlocks combines the term natty (as in “natural”) and a style of dreadlocks which have formed naturally without cutting, combing or brushing. Contrary to popular belief dreadlocks they are carefully maintained and require an almost ritualistic commitment. In fact many people of all cultures, regard the growth and maintenance dreadlocks as a spiritual journey. The locks are washed, conditioned and scented. Those of us who have worn locks understand the commitment. People of all nationalities are beginning to wear dreadlocks. They are a statement of their independence, empowerment, and freedom. People who wear dread locks are called Dread-heads.
Brit is a dread-head and sports a thick head full of locks that fall just around her ears. She has smooth brown skin and talks with a super sophisticated accent.
“How long have you been locking your hair?” I asked.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve locked my hair. This time it’s been for about ten months.The first time I wore locks was for about four years,” she said.
What made you decide to lock your hair? I asked
“As soon as I turned 18, I decided to cut the perm out of my hair. I wore a short afro. It was very short. It was a fade,” she said.
“Wow. What type of natural styles did you wear? Did you ever do cornrows or braids?” I asked.
“I tried braids. A friend of mine wanted to practice doing them. It took too long and I didn’t like it. She pulled my hair so tight and it hurt,” Brit said.
“Why did you decide to cut your hair was soon as you 18?” I asked.
“I hated getting my hair done. I hated being in the shop all day. I hated the perms,” she said.
“I hated being in the shop too. It took way too long. That’s why they call it Hair Day,” I chuckled.
“My dad hated my hair when I stopped getting perm. He said it looked like slave hair,” Brit said.
“That’s interesting. What ethnic background is your dad?” I asked.
Brit’s dad was born in the 1950’s. This was the second time in so many days, that the dad, who was black, didn’t like it when their daughters cut their hair and wore it naturally.
“Oh, he’s like me, he has about the same coloring as I have,” Brit said.
Brit has beautiful skin, milk chocolate in color and flawless. I’ve learned to recognize hair types now that I have been looking. Brit probably has type 4A. Her eyebrows are fine, straight and jet black. The edges at her hair line have a slight “s” shaped bend and are very shiny. Loose spiral shaped little curls hang at the nap of her neck.
“How about your mother?” I asked
“My mother loved it. She loves everything I do with my hair,” Brit said.
Brit was born and raised in North Carolina. Her parents are now divorced. Each has a mixed race child by a new partner.
“My Dad always dated white women, I think. I remember him telling me that he would have gotten into a lot of trouble when he was young if people knew he was doing that. He had to be secretive about it. That was in the 1970’s,” she said.
When I look at Brit, I’m reminded of myself. I miss being a dread-head.
Dreadlocks are my favorite style for natural hair. It was one of my first natural hair styles. I discovered locks quite by accident on my hair journey. I had been washing and twisting my hair into little twists which took a long time to do. I, like many others, didn’t like to get my hair done. I too had sat between my mother’s legs to get my hair pressed. I too was tender headed. Twice a month, an entire Saturday was spent in the beauty salon and I was sick of it, so I started twisting up my hair after washing. I wanted to be able to go out in the the rain and not worry about a hundred dollar hairdo. Due to my busy schedule, I had failed to untwist after washing it for a several weeks and it started to lock. I didn’t know my hair would do that all by itself. After about a year, I had a head full of thick long flowing locks that curled on the ends. It was so easy and carefree. I felt liberated. Lavender scented flowing locks became my signature style. For over ten years my locks hung loosely down my back. They were a part of who I was at the time. I was very proud of my long flowing hair, which stretched about two and a half feet down my back. I took care of my hair in ritualistic fashion and became very attached to my locks. However, after so long, they started to get heavy, especially when they were washed. There was too much tension on my hair and I had to make the hard decision of transitioning. I wore several transitioning styles. Finally, I made the hard decision and did a big chop.
My hair journey at this point has placed me in a short curly wash and go. It’s been about a year and a half since my big chop and my hair has finally recovered from being locked up for over almost ten years. Now I think of my hair like a plant that has been pruned and is growing a whole new fresh set of leaves. The follicles are like the root system, the shafts are the stems and leaves. My current routine, takes about 10 minutes. First I steam my hair in the shower getting it nice and moist. This leaves it soft and curly. Then I apply One’n Only Argan Oil to seal in the moisture. After that I apply a good dose of Canto Shea Butter for Natural Hair moisturizing curl activator cream as I lightly finger detangle it by gently separating the strands and rubbing it between my two hands like I’m rolling pasta. It is important to massage the scalp to stimulate the hair follicles. So I always massage my scalp. I don’t comb it, but sometimes I brush it back off my face and tie a wave cap, aka do-rag, around it so that it waves. I do a light dusting with barber scissors. Et viola! The result is a short curly ‘fro and I’m ready to go. The only other maintenance that I have to do on my hair is to co-wash it with As I Am Coconut Co-wash, after which I apply a healthy dose of Shea Moisture Jamaican Black Caster Oil Strengthen, Grow & Restore Leave-in Conditioner.
My partner misses my long locks.
“That’s one of the things I found most attractive by you. I loved the fact that you had long dread locks down to your butt,” he said.
“Oh well, you’ll get used to it,” I said.
And he is. He actually complemented me on my little curly afro the other day.
“I like your hair like that,” he said.
He, like many men that I know, doesn’t like short hair. When I was contemplating cutting my locks, I considered this, as many women do. Even with all this independence, there is still the slightest thought that men will like us better if we had long flowing hair. It doesn’t matter whether it is naturally straight, or a weave, or a wig, as long as it’s long and flowing. I am determined to have freedom around my hair in whatever style I choose. My partner will have to like me for who I am, not how long my hair is. As Imani said, “I have a really cute face so it doesn’t matter what I do. I’m always gonna look good.”