Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry

Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry

by Tiffany M. Gill
Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry

Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry

by Tiffany M. Gill



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Looking through the lens of black business history, Beauty Shop Politics shows how black beauticians in the Jim Crow era parlayed their economic independence and access to a public community space into platforms for activism. Tiffany M. Gill argues that the beauty industry played a crucial role in the creation of the modern black female identity and that the seemingly frivolous space of a beauty salon actually has stimulated social, political, and economic change.

From the founding of the National Negro Business League in 1900 and onward, African Americans have embraced the entrepreneurial spirit by starting their own businesses, but black women's forays into the business world were overshadowed by those of black men. With a broad scope that encompasses the role of gossip in salons, ethnic beauty products, and the social meanings of African American hair textures, Gill shows how African American beauty entrepreneurs built and sustained a vibrant culture of activism in beauty salons and schools. Enhanced by lucid portrayals of black beauticians and drawing on archival research and oral histories, Beauty Shop Politics conveys the everyday operations and rich culture of black beauty salons as well as their role in building community.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252095542
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 01/29/2010
Series: Women, Gender, and Sexuality in American History
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 491,943
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Tiffany M. Gill is an associate professor of Black Studies and history at the University of Delaware.

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Beauty Shop Politics

African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry



Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09554-2


Beauty Pioneers

Racial Uplift and Gender in the Creation of a Black Business Community

During his travels throughout the country in the late nineteenth century, Booker T. Washington, prominent race leader and founder of Tuskegee Institute, noticed an interesting phenomenon. Just one generation removed from the shackles of enslavement and battling for their ever diminishing citizenship rights, African American men and women throughout the nation were embracing the industrial age by owning and operating successful business ventures. While their small-scale enterprises in no way rivaled those of industrial capitalists such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, who symbolized American business in this age, Washington recognized that African American entrepreneurs had great potential to inspire wealth accumulation within their communities. Washington wanted to organize these "leading and most successful colored men and women in the country who were engaged in business" under his tutelage to link their efforts to his accomodationist and sometimes controversial ideas concerning racial uplift. To that end, in August 1900 he gathered more than three hundred business men and women in Boston, Massachusetts, to establish the National Negro Business League (NNBL).

Washington, however, was not the first or the only black leader who desired to unite and organize the black business community at the turn of the twentieth century. Just one year earlier, the venerable W. E. B. Du Bois, often depicted as Washington's rival in all matters pertaining to black leadership and political rights, also called for African Americans to engage in business enterprises. As correspondence secretary of the Fourth Conference for the Study of the Negro Problems at Atlanta University in 1899, Du Bois was instrumental in choosing the theme of the conference, "The Negro in Business." After conducting a survey to "find in each locality the number and kind of Negro business men," Du Bois gathered some of the eras finest race men and women to chronicle the state of entrepreneurial progress since Reconstruction and posit avenues for future growth. Only a few women spoke at Washington and Du Bois's gatherings, and women's entrepreneurial efforts and accomplishments were marginalized.

At the time African American male leaders such as Du Bois and Washington explored the meaning of entrepreneurship to the uplift of the race, two black women, Sarah Breedlove and Annie Malone, were struggling for their economic survival. By 1900, Breedlove, who would later become Madam C. J. Walker, was widowed by her first husband, estranged from her second husband, and raising her fifteen-year-old daughter on a washerwoman's meager earnings in St. Louis. Annie Malone was faring slightly better and living in the all-black town of Lovejoy, Illinois, where "in a rear room in a small frame building" she began to manufacture a preparation to stimulate and promote hair growth. It would take Walker, Malone, and the industry they pioneered to move women into the center of the discourse on race and entrepreneurship in the early twentieth century.

Highlighting a major development in early-twentieth-century black life — the rise of a viable black business community — this chapter explores the links between business development and the formation of black womanhood during the early twentieth century. This period, marked by racial violence and disenfranchisement, gave birth to an ideology of racial uplift that had among its victories the "Golden Age of Black Business," an era of unprecedented growth of black business enterprises and the celebration of entrepreneurship as a promising venue for middle-class black men to rise above the economic ravages of segregation. This golden age was marked not only by the expansion of the black business community but also by a connection between entrepreneurship and racial uplift that marginalized black women. Ironically, black businesswomen, particularly those in the beauty industry, not only created and sustained a viable industry based on the female centered venture of beauty culture but also exploited the connections made in this period between business and identity to legitimate themselves and their industry.

* * *

While the early twentieth century witnessed an intensification of rhetoric and action that sought to bolster black men's business acumen, African American women's engagement in business enterprises dates back to their enslavement. During the colonial and antebellum periods, black women's business activities primarily involved retail and vending enterprises that usually did not garner much by way of profit but allowed black women to control independent enterprises in gender-specific occupations. Black slave and free women often operated in food production, sold goods in open-air markets, worked in dressmaking, and in urban areas hired themselves out as domestic servants and laundresses. While slave and free women appear in the historical record in the colonial and antebellum marketplace engaging in trade and commerce, both legal and extralegal restrictions were used to limit such economic activities. Ordinances in Charleston, South Carolina, for example, restricted blacks from buying, selling, or trading goods without a special ticket or pass. Similarly, in New Orleans, slaves were required to wear special badges and limits were placed on the amount of money they were allowed to earn in any one day. Black women in the marketplaces were often singled out in cities like Charleston and publicly vilified as loose and disorderly in an attempt to delegitimatize their activities. Still, despite legal and social restrictions placed against their participation, black women actively pursued opportunities to have some semblance of economic autonomy through entrepreneurial enterprises.

Ironically, while black women in the colonial and antebellum eras were actively involved in many business ventures, they were slow to get involved in the hair-care industry, an enterprise they would come to dominate in the twentieth century. In the colonial era, white English barbers, wigmakers, and hairdressers cornered the market until after the Seven Years' War, when the enterprise was opened up to the French, who quickly earned the status of being masterful in the hair business. Few blacks participated in this industry at the time, but one Pierre Toussaint, a slave brought to New York from Santo Domingo in 1787, became so successful that he was described as the "most fashionable coiffeur in the city." Toussaint used the money he earned primping New York City's elite families to purchase his freedom and the freedom of other slaves. He eventually became one of the first African American philanthropists, giving much of his money to the then-segregated Catholic Church. Others followed in Toussaint's footsteps and from the late eighteenth century until the 1820s, free black men, primarily from the French West Indies, served wealthy white men and women as wigmakers and hairdressers. However, by the 1820s, as a discourse surrounding black men as sexual predators began to emerge, black men were no longer desirable as hairdressers for white women, particularly in the South.

Just as free black men were being pushed away from dressing white women's hair in the antebellum era, many found an alternative niche in the hair-care industry as barbers. Beginning in the 1820s, they owned and operated elite barbershops for a white clientele. These astute businessmen built upon the role of blacks as personal servants to market their services. The wealth these men accumulated in northern and southern cities allowed them to purchase their family and friends out of slavery as well as make contributions to black churches and other institutions.

In the antebellum period, black women began to enter the hairdressing profession in larger numbers. While slave women had been responsible for caring for white people's personal needs (including hair care) from the beginning of the institution of slavery, the antebellum period saw the emergence of successful black female hairdressers, women who turned hairdressing from a servant's obligation to a business enterprise. Free black women in the North, like their barbering counterparts, served a wealthy white clientele exclusively. For example, the Remond sisters, Celia Remond Babcock, Maritcha Remond, and Caroline Remond Putnam, established not only the largest hairdressing business in Boston, the Ladies Hair Work Salon, but also a wig factory and mail-order hair tonic distribution center. Eliza Potter's autobiography, A Hairdresser's Experience in the High Life, describes her activities as a black beautician in service to whites, primarily in Cincinnati, as well as her travels abroad. Published in the 1850s, Potter's work is a departure from the more overtly abolitionist tomes written by her contemporaries and is less an autobiography than a critique of the frivolous lifestyles of her elite white clientele. Still, Potter's recounting of economic and social autonomy demonstrates that even in the antebellum era, hairdressing was a lucrative profession. Black women in the South were also able to earn successful livings as hairdressers. In fact, in her autobiography, Potter describes traveling to New Orleans to train slave women as hairdressers. Marie Laveau, daughter of the famed voodoo queen of the same name (and a voodoo queen in her own right), worked as a hairdresser in New Orleans after the mysterious death of her husband in 1820. Known to be so effective at earning the trust of her wealthy white clients, according to her biographer, Laveau had a virtual monopoly on the profession with the exception of some competition from local slave women.

The end of the brutalizing institution of slavery changed not only the legal designation of African Americans but also their relationship to the economy. Newly freed blacks understood that the power to control their economic destiny was an important way to express their freedom. While blacks primarily sought fair and equitable pay for their labor, many continued to expand the parameters of the business infrastructure they built during the antebellum era. While much has been written about politics in the years following emancipation, economic independence, thrift, and free enterprise were also a large part of the new radical republican ideal. The creation of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company (more commonly known as the Freedmen's Bank) in March 1865 was, in many ways, the culmination of this economic aspect of freedom. Although a short-lived financial institution that failed during the economic depression of 1873, the bank spurred similar ventures by freedpeople in Virginia, Washington, D.C., Alabama, and North Carolina. These early financial institutions encouraged blacks to start their own businesses and to patronize black merchants.

By the end of the Reconstruction period, black Americans were facing unprecedented changes in their lives. The rise of Jim Crow segregation and the concomitant challenges of racial violence and political disenfranchisement, along with the influx of large immigrant populations into U.S. cities, the quest for empire, industrial growth, and other modern developments, brought about new dilemmas that called for new tactics. Increased violence and hostility toward African Americans led the black community to look internally to create and sustain politically and economically independent families and communities, leading to an expanded role for black women who politicized their roles as mothers and educators and a heightened importance given to a nationalistic economic agenda. In fact, viewed in light of the new ways that politics was defined by blacks, particularly those of the elite and aspiring classes in the age of racial uplift, building up economically viable businesses supported and sustained by black communities constituted a bulwark against black political disenfranchisement. Business and economic empowerment was viewed by black leaders of the day to be one of the more effective challenges to white supremacy and the ravages of second-class citizenship.

In an August 1900 speech, pioneering African American attorney D. Augustus Straker argued that the failures of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow had produced a "crisis of manhood and womanhood development" that could only be remedied by blacks having a "wider engagement in commercial and industrious business and less to do with politics." Black elites united around an ideology of racial uplift to address the crisis Straker outlines but publicly and privately clamored over how to best put the tenets of "self-help, racial solidarity, temperance, thrift, chastity, social purity, patriarchal authority, and the accumulation of wealth" into practice. Nowhere are these battles better articulated than in a discussion of women's roles in the early years of the black business movement. The participation of black women in Du Bois's "Negro in Business Conference" and the early years of the NNBL illuminate the complexities surrounding the gendered rhetoric of economics and entrepreneurship within the racial uplift ethos. While black women at this time were active in uplift politics and often vociferous in their critique of black men's ability to lead the race, their comments and interventions at the initial conventions and gatherings of the black business movement supported entrepreneurship primarily as a masculine ideal.

Du Bois's 1899 Atlanta University conference included women's voices, albeit in a limited way. Three women spoke at the General Mother's Meeting, with the theme "What shall our children do for a living?" while two other women, Rosa Bass of Atlanta, who "spoke of the wisdom of colored grocers and hucksters," and Hattie G. Escridge, who submitted a paper titled "The Need of Negro Merchants," addressed the entire conference. All the women discussed the need for the black man to "help the race as well as himself" by owning a business enterprise, however, none of them discussed the role of women in the black business community. Instead, they focused on the roles of women as consumers and nurturers of the next generation of young male entrepreneurs. In fact, of all the conference papers collected in Du Bois's study, only one directly addressed the role of women in the black business community. In his discussion of the "Negro Business Men of Columbia, S.C.," H. E. Lindsay observed that with the exception of Matilda Evans, a local physician, the "women of our race ... are standing aside and allowing the men to monopolize all the professions." This was a surprising statement since black women were boldly at the forefront of so many other contemporary racial uplift activities.

Among the resolutions adopted by the Atlanta University conference was a call for blacks to create an economic infrastructure through an "organization in every town and hamlet where colored people dwell ... [of] Negro Business Men's Leagues." Ironically, just one year later, it was Booker T. Washington and not Du Bois who brought this dream to fruition when he formed the National Negro Business League.


Excerpted from Beauty Shop Politics by TIFFANY M. GILL. Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, ix,
Introduction: Finding Politics in Unexpected Places: The Matrix of Beauty, Business, and Activism, 1,
1. Beauty Pioneers: Racial Uplift and Gender in the Creation of a Black Business Community, 7,
2. "Link Up with Us": Black Beauty Culture, Racial Politics, and the Complexities of Modern Black Womanhood, 32,
3. "This Industry Is not Typical, but Exceptional": Redefining Entrepreneurship and Activism in the 1930s and 1940s, 61,
4. "We Could Turn the Whole World Over": The International Presence of African American Beauticians in the Postwar Era, 82,
5. "Black Beauticians Were Very Important": Southern Beauty Activists and the Modern Black Freedom Struggle, 98,
6. "Among the Things that Used to Be": Beauticians, Health Activism, and the Politics of Dignity in the Post-Civil Rights Era, 121,
Notes, 137,
Bibliography, 169,
Index, 187,

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