Know These Names: African American Women Pioneers in Beauty + Beyond
We all love the fact that we get to work behind the chair everyday, bringing clients from all backgrounds and walks of life the same feeling of joy and self-admiration with our artistry.
It’s important to know the hair entrepreneurs that have paved the way for the industry we all get to enjoy today. And in celebration of Black History Month, we thought a great tribute would be to pull together some of the most influential African American hair artists, activists and notables and highlight their contributions to beauty and beyond.
One of our beloved holistic hair stylists said it best:
“I was inspired by have the freedom as an African American to choose what type of business I would like to run. The fact that my predecessors and ancestors fought for me to have the freedom to choose is enough inspiration in itself.” – Bishlam Bullock at Salon B Style Lab (@salonbsanrafael)
The OG Millionare: Annie Malone
Annie Turnbo Malone reached millionaire status by the end of World War 1, one of the first black women to do so. Malone was an entrepreneur that created her own hair care line that catered towards the African American woman. She wanted to find an alternative to the typical butter, bacon grease and heavy oils that were used during the 1900’s to straighten natural hair.
A talented and innovative chemist at heart, Malone made a hair straightening formula that wasn’t so harsh on the hair and scalp and wouldn’t hurt the hair follicles. She called it Wonderful Hair Grower. Contrary to popular belief, Malone invented the formula and process to straighten kinky hair.
Image Source: Annie Turnbo Malone / Wikimedia Commons
In addition, Malone founded Poro College, one of the pioneering cosmetology schools that focused on scalp health. Her school provided many African Americans the opportunity to learn and begin a successful career in the industry and helped to popularize the idea of cosmetology school.
In fact, the more famous household name, Madam CJ Walker, was an employee of Malone’s at her hair salon in St. Louis. Many say that Walker’s fame and popularity are because of Malone.
Business Woman Extraordinaire: Madam CJ Walker
Madam CJ Walker, originally Sarah Breedlove, worked her way from the plantation-born girl to one of the world’s most celebrated figures with sheer brilliance and determination.
Walker got her start in hair because she was losing her own due to dandruff and psoriasis of the scalp. In fact, she was a client of none other than Annie Malone! Under Malone’s regimen and using The Wonderful Hair Grower, Madam Walker began to see steady improvement until her hair reached past her shoulders.
Image Source: Smithsonian
After success selling as an agent under her Malone, Walker moved to Denver to step out on her own. She started manufacturing and selling her version of a hair straightener modeled after Malone’s which she called Madam CJ Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.
In just 12 years, Walker had stunning success. She shared her success, creating many jobs and ways out of poverty for African Americans. For example, Walker hired sales agents to sell her product, called “Walker Agents” and founded hair-culture programs at many colleges to educate on African American hair care.
She is also one of the first African Americans to become a millionaire. With what seemed like insurmountable odds, we can only wish to possess a fraction of the determination, courage and smarts of the lady who popularized hair care meant for African Americans and hair culture.
The Activist: Angela Davis
If you’ve heard of Angela Davis, it’s probably in relation to her history-making hairstyle, the Afro. Davis was one of the first to proudly sport the the style in the 1960’s.
During that time, it was not only a hairstyle or fashion statement: it was a symbol of Black Power and the Civil Rights Movement.
Although she made a powerful statement with her Afro, her influence extends far past a look. Davis championed the cause of Black Prisoners in the 60’s and 70’s and is still passionate about criminal justice reform today. She was vocal in her support of the Soledad Brothers and was imprisoned in 70’s after an escape attempt to free the four men on charges of kidnapping, murder and conspiracy although she was not present at the escape attempt. She was acquitted of all charges.
Davis was widely associated with the Black Panthers. Although a known supporter as she has taught many classes and educational material on the subject, it is not confirmed that she was ever a standing member.
On being remembered for a hairdo rather than her committed life to politics, Davis says, “It is humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion.” (The Baltimore Sun)
Image Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Multi-Platinum With Many Voices: Lauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill is a record breaker. Put her album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” on for a group of 40-something year olds and they’ll be transported back to some time in their life. She is truly the voice of a generation.
Hill started out as a rapper, popularized during her time with the group The Fugees. She went on to produce her solo album. And by 1998, all anyone was doing was listening to her sing.
Image Source: medium.com
Not only did she have an iconic, soulful voice, but she really made people feel as though she understood what they were going through. Whether it be heartbreak or life’s many frustrations, Hill made many feel seen by using the sole power of her voice.
Perhaps one of the best and most notable effects of her music was the way it reached across demographics. Young, old, white, black, politicians and college students alike—it unified everyone, made everyone’s foot tap, sparked sing-alongs and unleashed dance no matter your age, race, gender or occupation.
Hill won five Grammy’s in 1998 including Album of the Year, plus Best New Artist. She’s the first woman to win five or more awards in a single night. With a voice that’s able to remind us we’re more alike than we are different, we couldn’t be happier she’s started performing again. She’s currently on tour for the 20th Anniversary of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
The Quadruple Threat: Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker was a singer, dancer, actor and activist! What a full life.
During her early years, she was best known for her slicked down pixie cut. She began dancing on the streets when an African American Theater troupe discovered her. They were enumerated by her dancing expertise and signature look. Baker spent much time traveling and performing with them and eventually her success led her to Paris.
She not only performed in Paris, but helped fight the Nazi regime when Germany invaded Paris during World War ll. It is said she would pass on secrets or conversation she heard when performing in front of German officials (in invisible ink on music sheets, of course!). She was later awarded The Medal of the Resistance by the French Government for all of her resistance efforts.
In 1936, she tried returning to the United States to perform, but was not received. Americans were cruel and unperceptive to such a powerful, strong and popular African American woman. She returned to Europe to continue performing, but returned the the US in the 50’s and 60’s to help fight racism and aid the Civil Rights movement.
Image Source: The Official Site of Josephine Baker
Baker refused to perform to segregated audiences, which more often than not forced night club owners to integrate her shows. She wrote many articles to be published on the subject and spoke at events and rallies. In fact, she did the March on Washington by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s side. Her opposition was later recognized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).