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This month’s History Matters, produced in collaboration with the Delaware Historical Society, was inspired by University of Delaware Black Studies professor Tiffany Gill’s book – “Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry.”
Dr. Gill explores how self-employed African American beauticians played an often-underground role in the Civil Rights movement. For example – having NAACP pamphlets and other similar mail sent secretly to their under-the-radar storefronts.
Gill’s primary focus is on beauty shops in the South, but we wondered if shops locally played a similar role.
To find out, Delaware Public Media’s Megan Pauly spoke with Wilmington residents and local historians about their recollections of – and research into – Delaware’s beauty shop industry.
“Hair is the thing,” said Florence Collins-Hardy, who grew up on Wilmington’s East Side. “You sit down – even in the darkest or the poorest parts of Africa or other countries, somebody or a child or a young adult or a teenager is sitting down and getting their hair done.”
She says the frequent routine of having her hair straightened by Mrs. Burton – whose hair salon was above Mr. Burton’s pool hall – was quite special, and was a big part of the city’s African-American culture.
“It gives you that place – that place of belonging – that place of security – that place where you can talk about anything and somebody is standing there doing your hair and listening to what you have to say,” Collins-Hardy said. “Whether they agree or disagree – doesn’t matter. The fact is when you’re in that chair – you’re the center of attention.”
Wilmington’s Bishop Aretha Morton also grew up on the East Side – where her mother Lorraine worked as a hairdresser.
But before that, she did domestic work for white families.
“Some of the folk that she worked for back in the day they weren’t too kind,” Morton said. “So I think that was really what pushed her to want to be her own boss.”
Morton remembers one incident at a home where her mother Lorraine was working that really pushed her to pursue a more independent career as a beautician.
“It had the big plantation posts and whoever it was – the woman wanted her to get on the ladder and scrub the posts down,” Morton said. “And of course, she said as soon as the woman told her that’s what she wanted her to do, she got the bucket and the rag and she set it off to the side, she went inside and got her coat, put it on and came out and caught the bus. She just flatly refused to do it.”
Lorraine went on to attend Mrs. Dora S. Lee’s beauty school on East 10th street, eventually joining other beauty school graduates all dressed in white during graduation at the Walnut Street YMCA before going on to open her own shop.
Lorraine became one of many African American small business owners in Wilmington at that time – making her own schedule and only serving other African Americans.
Morton says her mother would often work from 7 a.m. – 9 p.m. without a break.
“She would put a curl in, and the curl would be tight,” Morton said. “Which meant if she did that like that, the person would supposedly come back in two weeks. But because the hair was done so tight and so perfect, they’d come by and say…rain, I’m not coming this week, I’m coming next week –because see, my hair’s lasted. And then she’d laugh and say, well next time I’m not going to put that curl in as tight as I did before…but she loved her job.”
Retired University of Delaware Black Studies Professor Jim Newton says there was an emergence of an elite African American middle class in Delaware – after what’s known as the Great Migration.
Millions of African Americans fled the South in the late 1800s – after widespread lynchings.
“Blacks decided that enough was enough, packed their bags and came north,” Norton said.
That included physician Samuel G. Elbert, who helped found the National Negro Business League with Booker T. Washington.
He was among the many progressive blacks to settle in Wilmington.
“The upper emergent black middle class took on a life of its own…clubs and sororities and social orders…all that begin to take place,” Newton said.
Elbert and other like him set up shop – and worked hard to develop the area for blacks.
“The doctors owned the drugstore, they owned the only black theater – they owned,” Newton said.
It was also the era of the “Walker system” – a beauty system similar to Avon created by Madam C.J. Walker, an African-American entrepreneur, philanthropist and political activist.
“The Walker system had to have pomades and gels, and she created all that,” Newton said. “In jars, got to comb and part it and do all that..the straight look.”
Walker enlisted agents to help sell the hair projects going door-to-door, and in 1917 hosted the first national convention of her Walker “beauty culturists” in Philadelphia.
Though local businesses were very much segregated across the country – there was a very different attitude between whites and blacks in the south and the north.
“The racism up here and the racism down south – different,” Collins-Hardy said. “Racism down south was blatant. We didn’t have as much of the fear of being bugged or looked at because the NAACP and other groups were out there – and it was OK.”
And that applied to the beauty shops, too.
“We had more people and more things – we had a different population, so the beauty shop industry and the politics wasn’t necessarily – it didn’t have to be as underground because we had more people of status,” said Collins-Hardy.
But that doesn’t mean beauty shops in Wilmington weren’t used for political organizing like they were in the South.
“There was a lot of…for lack of a better word, there was a lot of political stuff going on, it really was,” Morton said. “My mom used the shop and the house from time to time for the polls. And they even- they even, this is a funny, but when they wanted people to vote a certain way, they did have pints of alcohol.”
She said those pints of alcohol would be served at the door of her mom’s beauty shop – Lorraine’s Beauty Shop.
Morton says she never thought of her mother as being a part of history until hearing Dr. Gill’s talk about beauty shop politics – but says there’s a little of that still happening today.
“And it’s almost like it is now, we sit around and talk about who we’re going to vote for, whether they’re going to be right or wrong for the community,” Morton said. “And the community back in the day, there were so many desires that we had in our African American population – naturally – they say they were going to do the best they could to serve the community in the best way they could, and they did.”
But – she says some things have changed. For example: the flexibility to change careers on a whim – which wouldn’t have been so easy in the early 1900s. Morton says her granddaughter went to beauty school, and then changed her mind.
“She said grand-mom – I don’t want to do no hair,” Morton said. “I said, girl you have got to be kidding. She said no, and she doesn’t – she doesn’t.”
Although Morton says most of what she calls the “old school” beauty shops like her mom’s are no longer in existence, she says there are a few “old-timers” around, and still doing hair.
And even though Morton says her mom Lorraine was often too busy with clients to do her hair, she still has her mother’s curling iron.