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OP-ED: Celebrating our Crowns: The History of Black Hair

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

By: Reagan Williams

(Source: Pexels)

In 2007, I stood at the back of my Nana’s house where her salon, Bradwell’s Beauty was located and reflected on all the Saturday memories created in that place. Shortly after, I was emptying out her salon for it to be sold. I recalled the hours I waited to get my hair washed, cornrowed, relaxed and trimmed, a little bit too much. Or, the times she would forget and leave me under the dryer to start someone else’s hair. I remember sitting in awe watching her in the middle of a conversation as she began barbering Black men’s hair with ease. For the longest time, her salon was the only place where Black people could get their hair done where we lived. Bradwell’s Beauty Salon dated back to the 1950s in a small city in northwestern Pennsylvania. Reflectively, I ponder about all the things she accomplished that contributed to my own black hair history and others.

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Dept. of Public Instruction, (Bernice Bradwell's Business License)

Have you ever stopped to think about the cultural history behind Black hair? This includes the meaning, the evolution and business behind how Black women and men have styled their hair from slavery to today. Globally, Black hair culture and hairstyles have represented beauty standards, social status and were used as messages to escape slavery. Specifically, Black hairstyles are a guide for inspiration, associated with political movement(s) or known for religious purposes ranging from dreadlocks, afros, braids, wigs, weave, relaxed styles, cornrows and bantu knots.

Locally, the Black Hair movement started with Bernice Bradwell (my grandmother) along with other entrepreneurial women who shaped the cultural history of Black hair. These pioneering women were active in their communities and created a sense of racial identity and pride, despite segregation. For instance, my grandmother helped establish the first local NAACP chapter in Pennsylvania, was a Girl Scout Troop Leader, President of the Eastern Stars, and was heavily involved in the church and the community. She took pride in her community by volunteering her time to help people and modeled how to build your business outside of the home, successfully. Similar to my Nana, innovative women before her like Madame C.J. Walker and Annie Malone represented success, zeal, grit and “dreaming a lot with a little for your own fortune” to kick start the Black hair revolution.

One of the pioneers who galvanized the Black Hair movement was Madame C.J. Walker. Madame C. J. Walker, a former laundress, became the first self-made millionaire. She revolutionized the Black hair care market and was a national influencer of Black hair. Black hair does reflect African American history and culture. Madame C. J. Walker was committed to making black hair look more beautiful, while glorifying womanhood. Her business model allowed Black women to work in her factory in Indianapolis, sell her products and develop a business model that is comparable to Avon today with over 20,000 agents in 1910. Additionally, Madame C. J. Walker was a philanthropist who supported education and social service to uplift Black people. She donated to churches, black colleges, elder care homes and a Black chapter of the YMCA. The indelible mark she left on business is undeniable, but not as famous as her willingness to serve humanity through philanthropy regardless of her status in life. Meanwhile, Madame C.J. Walker’s success can be credited to her mentor, Annie Malone who paved the way for her.

Did you know Annie Malone inspired Madame C. J. Walker’s products and not the other way around? Malone became a millionaire by the end of World War I, but her contributions are often overshadowed in history by Madame C.J. Walker’s achievements. For many years, historians had difficulty piecing together Malone’s legacy and history. She is known for her commitment to Black Hair care and the Black community, while bettering the economic state of Black women. In 1917, Malone built Poro College which was located in St. Louis. This venue housed her business office, manufacturing operation, training center, social gatherings, religious and civic functions. Malone’s establishment of Poro College became a place for Black people to socialize, dine, work, live, get medical services and locations for people to run their businesses. Malone and Walker created opportunities for Black women and men by revolutionizing the hair industry. Both entrepreneurs laid the educational, business and philanthropic groundwork to influence Black people and “making black beautiful,” before the cultural movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Black hair is revolutionary. Allure’s, “100 Years of Black Hair Chronicles showcases the evolution of Black hairstyles starting in the 1920’s through the 2000’s. Throughout each decade, it looks at the popularized hairstyles such as short flapper cuts, waves and wigs followed by the reemergence of the natural hair movement in the 2000’s. Frankly, Black hairstyles for women and men aren’t just about style; it still encompasses people’s interpretations on social status and how people are perceived in society today, even in the workplace. Our Black hair culture influences laws and how discrimination is interpreted pertaining to how people can wear their hair in the workforce. In September 2016, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it’s nondiscriminatory to ban locs in the workplace.

(Source: Pexels)

However, did you know dreadlocks dated as far back as 2500 B.C.? In fact, the Hindu God Shiva wore dreadlocks or “jaTaa” according to Bert Ashe’s book, Twisted:My Dreadlocks Chronicles. Historically, dreadlocks appeared in just about every civilization according to Atlanta-based natural hair stylist, Chimere Faulk. Mostly, people associated dreadlocks through mainstream culture with the influence of Bob Marley in the 1970s, Whoopi Goldberg popularizing the style during the 1980s to authors Toni Morrison and Alice Walker synonymous with black culture to present-day filmmaker and director, Ava DuVernay.

It’s important to recognize the history of Black hair and learn more about the issues that are tied to it: race, social status, and equity which influences our social and political landscape today.

“This brother here, myself, all of us were born with our hair like this, and we just wear it like this.

-Kathleen Cleaver, Black Power Movement Leader/Law Professor

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