Black-Owned Beauty Shops Groom Political Activism

In her new book, Beauty Shop Politics, Professor Tiffany Gill looks at African-American women who owned beauty shops during decades before the civil rights movement. She speaks with host Michel Martin about how salons — then and now — have become centers for economic opportunity and political awareness.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, it's been a good year for African-inspired fashion. In just a minute, we'll check in with Pulitzer Prize-winning style writer, Robin Givhan and boutique owner Dolapo Shobanjo to find out why African motifs and textiles were such a hit on the runways in 2011. And we'll try to find out where this trend could be heading next.

But first, where's the one place in your neighborhood where people talk openly about all those topics you're not supposed to talk about? Issues like sex and money and faith and family.

For generations of black women, that place has been the beauty shop. Now, a new book highlights the role that these salons and the women who run them have played, not just in the personal lives of African-Americans, but in their political lives. The book is called "Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry." The author is Tiffany Gill. She's an associate professor of history, African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and she joins us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

TIFFANY GILL: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: How did you become interested in this topic? Isn't it a way of kind of hiding in plain sight?

GILL: It is one of those hiding in plain sight topics. When I was in graduate school, I was very interested in African-Americans' political lives and so that took me to looking at African-American women during the 1950s and '60s and the Civil Rights Movement.

And while I was doing that research, I began to notice that many of the women who were key leaders had a very curious occupation in common. They were beauticians.

MARTIN: Well, you know, honestly, you have some fascinating nuggets in your book. You write, for example, that really up until the 1820s, you know, black men were prominent in the beauty industry until it became not acceptable for black men to start dressing white women's hair. So then, kind of, black women took over. Tell us a little bit more about that.

GILL: Absolutely. Sure. I mean, we see that it's around 1820 where there began to be sort of growing discourses about how African-American men were seen as dangerous, should not share spaces with white women, and so African-American women sort of transitioned very nationally to that. So we see African-American women in slavery caring for the beauty needs of those that they were forced to work for.

But also we see that, particularly in urban areas like New Orleans, that some of these enslaved women were able to actually hire themselves out and make some money in the process. So the beauty industry does provide opportunities for African-American women to earn a living.

MARTIN: So tell us, how did they become important to the Civil Rights Movement in the '50s and '60s? I'm sure, you know, most people know a little bit about it - are used to the idea of the church as a place where people organized. What's your argument about how beauty shops were a place where people organized?

GILL: Well, in order to talk about the Civil Rights Movement, I think it's important to go back and look at the early part of the 20th century with people like Madam C.J. Walker, who became one of the first kind of beauty entrepreneurs; became someone who, you know, pulled herself up, was a washerwoman and started a business with $1.50 to her pocket. She was a single mom. She was widowed. And sort of created this industry that provided opportunities for women like herself.

And so at the heart of her business was an attempt to merge politics and entrepreneurship. And so, by the time we get to the 1950s and 1960s, there was actually things written into the beauty college curricula that talked about how to engage your clients in conversations that have to do with a political nature, for example.

So when we get to the 1950s and 1960s, we see African-American women really poised and in a unique position in their communities. They had been well-respected. They have a very strong sort of organizational structure within their communities and they saw that their positions - they saw that their actual sights of being in control of beauty salons, which unlike the black church, is not just a black institutional space, but also a female-dominated space.

And so it was a place where African-American women gathered almost exclusively and were able to really kind of cultivate leadership from within their ranks.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with historian Tiffany Gill. We're talking about her new book, "Beauty Shop Politics," where she describes how beauty shops were a place of activism for African-American women.

So what exactly did beauticians do in the service of the movement or to support the movement?

GILL: Um-huh. For example, there's a woman named Bernice Robinson in South Carolina who opened up her salon, and it was called by an observer at the time a place for all kinds of subversive activity. And she would literally be washing someone's hair, put someone under the drier, be walking someone through the long kind of elaborate voter registration hurdles that black people had to go through and while someone was under the drier she would go and run someone down to the courthouse, try to get them to register to vote, and then come back.

And then she actually took it to a more formal level where she would actually organize other beauticians in the area and tell them that, yes, within your space, as women come in, we can do citizenship education classes. We can help prepare people to vote. We can help prepare African-Americans to engage in civic activity and so...

MARTIN: Interesting.

GILL: And so they balanced there an entrepreneurship with their politics.

MARTIN: And so you write that one of the reasons that these beauty shops were effective is that these were institutions which were owned and operated by people within the African-American community. They were not dependent upon white patronage, so they had some independence.

But these were also places where women had their own money. And I'm wondering whether this ever led to tension between them and a lot of the men who were the dominant voices for the most part...

GILL: Yes. I mean...

MARTIN: ...in the Civil Rights Movement.

GILL: Sure. I mean, I think the tensions that I saw actually happened for beauticians on more of their kind of interpersonal levels that often - the fact that they were able to sort of make money and be economically dependent often caused them tension within their own families and their own households and their own marriages.

And I still there still was this sense that, you know, a bunch of black women gathering and getting their hair done. I mean, how powerful could that be? How subversive could that be? And I think that was an impression both within African-American communities and also outside of it. And that's really where I think a lot of the power of these institutions came from, the fact that they were seen as frivolous.

MARTIN: Well, what about now? I mean, you've taken us through a fascinating journey through, you know, as you said, dating back to the colonial period where, you know, hair got intertwined with politics. You know, what about now? Do you think that beauty shops still play the same kind of role?

GILL: Yeah. I think when I started this research, I actually expected to see that not much political activity was happening today, but what's interesting to me is that African-American women still do rely on beauticians as kind of their confidantes and beauty shops as spaces where they can talk about things that may not be safe to talk about in other areas.

For example, I found in San Diego, there's this very robust research as well as community activism happening, where beauty shops are being engaged in health activism. So everything from empowering beauticians to talk with their clients about HIV/AIDS, about mammograms - because they found that that was a space where African-American were willing to take care of their bodies, willing to talk about their bodies.

So it's still there. It functions differently, but certainly the health activism, as well as domestic violence prevention, is something that's happening very much in beauty shops today.

MARTIN: Tiffany Gill is an associate professor of history, African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of "Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry," and she joined us from Austin, Texas.

Professor Gill, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GILL: Thanks for having me. It was great.

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