- Civic Beauty: Beauty Culturists and the Politics of African American Female Entrepreneurship, 1900–1965
In 1957, when Bernice Robinson, a 41-year-old Charleston beautician, was asked to become the first teacher for the Highlander Folk School's Citizen Education program in the South Carolina Sea Islands, she was surprised, for she had neither experience as a teacher, nor a college education. These facts did not present a problem for Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander School; his main concern was that the Sea Islanders would have a teacher they could trust and who would respect them. In fact, for Horton, Robinson's profession was an asset. In his autobiography, he explained the strategic importance of using beauticians as leaders in civil rights initiatives, declaring, "[W]e needed to build around black people who could stand up against white opposition, so black beauticians were very important."1
This example from my dissertation, "Civic Beauty: Beauty Culturists and Politics of African American Female Entrepreneurship, 1900-1965," is merely a glimpse into the issues and insights that come to the fore as a result of examining the role of beauty and business in black women's lives. My project goes beyond simply chronicling developments in the black beauty industry to illuminate the crucial role economics and entrepreneurship played in black women's political [End Page 583] activism and community building. I posit that the black beauty industry—in particular, beauticians and the institutions they built (namely, the beauty salons they owned and operated, and the beauty schools they established)—provides a fruitful site for exploring the social, political, and economic challenges experienced by black women throughout the twentieth century. To that end, the black beauty industry, often vilified as subjugating women more than legal inequalities, and denounced for peddling products that denied an authentic "blackness," I suggest, must be understood as providing one of the most important opportunities for black women to campaign for social change both within their communities and in the larger political arena.
Myles Horton's insight concerning the strategic importance of beauticians to African American political struggles was not simply apeculiarity of the Highlander Folk School's Citizenship Education program. Other leaders of the modern civil rights movement also acknowledged the importance of beauticians. From Martin Luther King, who in 1957 addressed a national body of black beauticians on the topic, "The Role of Beauticians in the Contemporary Struggle for Freedom," to Ella Baker, who encouraged the male leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to invite the head of the largest black beautician organization to become SCLC's first female staff member, civil rights leaders acknowledged the centrality of beauticians in political struggles.2 However, it was not only during the modern civil rights movement that black beauticians were seen as key political activists. Examining the earlier part of the twentieth century, I discovered that beauticians were at the forefront of the anticommunist campaigns of the 1950s, and in the 1940s were the major financial and physical supporters of Mary McLeod Bethune and her brand of broker politics. Furthermore, some of the most active women in Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association and in the black socialist movements of the 1930s were beauticians. And many of those most active in the club movement and, paradoxically, those most actively providing a critique to the elitism of the black female club movement were beauticians. In other words, beauticians were all over the historical record. Not only were they involved in these and other national and grassroots campaigns, but also they were usually represented in large numbers, serving as leaders, mobilizers, and major financial contributors. [End Page 584]
Although the presence of beauticians in these major political movements may be surprising on the surface, their extensive activism makes sense when viewed in light of their status within the African American community. As entrepreneurs with a high level of economic autonomy, they had the freedom to engage in some of the most volatile political movements of the twentieth century. During the time period covered in this study, the black beauty industry was one of the only industries in which all aspects were primarily in the control...