At Curly & Wild, to celebrate Black History Month we wanted to give an honourable mention to 6 black hair pioneers who made waves in the black hair industry. Their stories and the way they achieve success amongst racism, discrimination and hardship is incredible. They overcame obstacles, broke down barriers and created products that we still use today.
Annie Turnbo Malone was born in Metropolis, Illinois, 1869. She understood the importance that black women placed on their hair and how its health had a positive effect on their self-esteem and lives. This inspired her to develop her own product line which allowed her to grow her company to enormous success. One product she created was the Wonderful Hair Grower which was extremely popular. She was also responsible for the earliest commercial hair straighteners.
Malone founded the Poro College Company, a cosmetics school, which became a training centre for caring and styling black hair. She recruited people who gained commission from their recruits' sales, like a pyramid scheme. Her agents of women and men would sell her products for nourishing the hair and scalp which was called the Poro system. She became one of the wealthiest African American women and with her wealth she donated money to philanthropic causes. Unfortunately, due to a hard divorce settlement and the great depression the company was broken up and never returned to its former glory.
Madame C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker also known as Sarah Breedlove was born in Delta, Louisiana in 1867 on the same plantation where her parents were slaves. She was married at the age of 14 and had a daughter called A’Lelia. Walker was a formidable woman and a self-made black millionaire who amassed her fortune from her range of hair care products. Her products included tonics, hair pomades and hair straighteners which she claimed promoted healthy hair growth and coined her process the Walker system. She employed women called “beauty culturalists” to promote her products far and wide.
"I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them!"
MADAM C.J. WALKER
Walker’s success does not come without some controversy as she was a former employee of Annie Malone as a sales agent. She created a similar product to Annie’s “Wonderful Hair Grower” with different ingredients and quickly rose to success due to her superior marketing skills.
To find out more about these amazing female entrepreneurs check out the Netflix production Self Made.
Dyke and Dryden
Perhaps less known but no more less influential was Dyke and Dryden the pioneers of the British black hair industry. They were the founders of one of Britain’s biggest black-owned companies which was founded by three men, Lincoln "Len" Dyke, Dudley Dryden and Tony Wade. During the 70s and 80s, they sold a range of products including hair sheens, weaves, cosmetics, relaxers and curl activators.
They established the first black hair shop in Tottenham and opened another in Birmingham as well as a travel agency providing flights to the Caribbean and Africa. They also commercialised the iconic hand holding afro combs and sold their products to the US, Africa and Europe with the help of their agents. In addition, they established the annual afro hair and beauty expo which launched in 1983.
Due to the influx of non-black competitors entering the black hair industry to make quick cash, the company struggled to keep up. In the 90s, Drake and Dryden was eventually sold to an American competitor. Unfortunately, at the time no one in the black community had the money to acquire a multi-million pound business.
Watch the video to find out more about their story.
Finally, we could not end this feature without mentioning Christine Jenkins, the inventor of sew-in weaves.
Christina was born in Zillplatt, Louisiana, 1920. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in science and became a hairdresser. While working for a wig manufacturer she began researching methods for ways to secure wigs to the hair and scalp. At the time, black women were using hair grips and pins to secure wigs to their hair. Jenkins invented a device called the weaving frame which allowed women to stitch weaves to their natural hair. This was revolutionary as it gave black women more freedom and flexibility.
Jenkins patented this technique and travelled around the world teaching other cosmetologists how to use her method. The principle of this technique is still used today by hairstylists around the world.
These are just four people who helped shape black hair history over two centuries, and their stories are fascinating. There are many black hair pioneers who we could write about and there’s no doubt more are to come. To keep the legacy alive, we should continue to support black entrepreneurs in the black hair industry. This way we will continue to preserve an important part of our history and encourage economic empowerment through our beautiful hair.
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