Black hair magic!
The world of Black hair is complex, and it is as much political as it is beautiful. The hair itself is an extension of our identity as Black people and not only do we invest heavily into it, but we also fiercely protect it. Black hair care is not only a billion-dollar industry, but Black hair rights are also protected by legislation.
“Don’t touch my hair” is not only an ode sung by our favorite alternative girl, Solange, it is also a rallying cry, a cultural understanding, and a reminder of the magic and sacredness that is our crown. Nowadays, there are a bevy of Black-owned products, technology, etc. in support of Black hair, but that wasn’t always the case. In homage to the foremothers, here are 5 Black women who changed the hair industry forever:
Annie Turnbo Malone
Born on a farm near Illinois, Annie Turnbo Malone was the tenth of eleven children, orphaned as a child and raised by her older sister, Avari Beauty reports. She took to doing hair at a young age, practicing on her siblings. In high school, she found a passion for chemistry, which would ultimately lead to her creating her own hair products. Noting a lack of effective hair products for Black women, Malone created her own, launching a line which featured a straightening cream, oils and a hair stimulant.
She eventually moved to Illinois to begin selling her products door to door, opening her first store in 1902. Inspired by the impact her product was having on others and eager to share her knowledge, in 1917 she founded Poro College, a cosmetology school for African-American women. The college created nearly thousands of jobs and pioneered the way for Black beauty education. Malone became a multi-millionaire and one of the first major Black women philanthropists, donating money regularly to the Howard University College of Medicine and the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home, where she served on the board of directors for 24 years.
Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker is hailed as the first self-made millionaire, getting a passion for hair care from her brothers, who all worked as barbers. Walker knew firsthand the damage that bad products could cause on the hair, gaining key knowledge of the business while working as a sales agent for Annie Turnbo Malone. Inspired, Walker used what she learned to create her own hair products, The Walker System. She sold door to door and trained employees, teaching them how to demo the products and show customers how to safely and effectively take care of their hair. Walker expanded her company, getting The Walker System products in retailers across the country.
She taught other Black women to do the same, emphasizing budgeting and entrepreneurial skills. In 1917, she created the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C.J. Walker Agents. That summer she held her first annual conference, which attracted 200 attendees and was believed to be one of the very first national convenings of women entrepreneurs. A century after first making history, Walker’s great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, partnered with Walmart to launch a new affordable hair care line in Walker’s honor, Madam by Madam C.J. Walker.
“[Madam Walker] represents this arc of a life to overcome obstacles. She was mentored by other Black women. When she finally had the chance and was in a position, she opened doors for other Black women. She was a washerwoman until she was 38. But then she invented this formula for hair care products and realized that she was addressing a need that other women had. As she traveled around selling the products, she saw that those women were really happy to have hair-care products, but what they needed was education and economic independence. She made that as much a part of her mission as the products themselves,” Bundles explained.
Sara Spencer Washington
Sara Spencer Washington first began developing beauty products while studying advanced chemistry at Columbia University. She eventually launched her beauty empire, the Apex News and Hair Company, delivering products that included pressing oils, pomades, hot combs, perfumes, lipsticks, and beauty creams. Considered one of the most successful businesswomen of her time, Apex boasted eleven beauty schools across the United States as well as schools abroad. She employed an estimated 45,000 agents across the country and 500 in-store employees.
Washington eventually expanded her imprint, founding Apex Publishing, Apex Laboratories, Apex Drug Company and the Apex Beauty Colleges. In 1939, she was honored as one of the “Most Distinguished Businesswomen” at New York’s World Fair, making history as one of the nation’s first Black millionaires. She gave back to her community through various endowments and a 20-acre farmland that served as a campsite for Black youth. In the 1980s, the Apex College of Beauty in Philadelphia became one of America’s oldest and most successful Black beauty institutions.
In 1954, Joan and her husband George Johnson, started what would become the world’s largest Black-owned business, Johnson Products. The two started the company with a $250 investment on the South Side of Chicago, and the hair care company dominated the market for decades with famous trademark products like “Afro Sheen.” Johnson Products sales eventually grew from about $4 million in 1967 to $40 million in 1976.
As a result of the couple's joint efforts, in 1971, Johnson Products became the first Black-owned company to be traded on the American Stock Exchange.
Lisa Price is the founder of Carol’s Daughter, a company she started in 1993 in her Brooklyn kitchen. She started off selling her products at local markets, opening her first brick and mortar store in 1999. In 2000, she made history as one of the first natural hair care lines to sell their products directly to consumers online. Just two years later, she was featured on the Oprah Winfrey show, gaining international fame.
Carol’s Daughter offers a line of natural hair products for textured hair, ranging from healthy hair butters to coconut-infused conditioners. Price continued expanding the brand, launching a line of body and skin care products as well. In 2014, the company landed a deal with Target, being featured in their stores. In 2016, the company was acquired by L’Oreal, expanding to 30,000 stores nationwide. Today, Price is considered a pioneer in the natural hair care world and Carol’s Daughter and Price’s story is featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Because of our foremothers, we can!
5 Black women who changed the hair industry forever. Photo Courtesy of Lisa Price/Carol’s Daughter