When the realms of hair and history collide, the first name usually mentioned is Madam C.J. Walker. While in many ways she was a pioneer in her own right, the history of our hair is as rich and diverse as it is beautiful. As Black History Month draws to a close (not really though, this thing is all day every day), I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take some time out and capture the essence of a few enterprising people and brands in the natural hair world. This list is by no means comprehensive and complete, please feel free to mention more pioneers in the comments!
Annie Turnbo Malone (1869–1957)
Born in 1869 to former slaves, Illinois-born Malone was truly a pioneer in black haircare. She had a particular affinity for hairdressing and chemistry, and by the age of 20 had developed her own shampoos and scalp treatments to grow and straighten black hair. By 1902 she had become a successful haircare entrepreneur, traveling and doing demonstrations showcasing her products. By 1906 she had trademarked her brand as Poro Products, and had a dedicated client base throughout the US, Africa, South America, and the Caribean. In 1918, Malone built a four-story, million dollar factory and beauty school complex in St. Loius which employed over 175 people, including one protege Sarah Breedlove, who would later become known as Madam C.J. Walker. Malone would go on to become one of the nation’s wealthiest black women, a leading entrepreneur in cosmetics, and generous philanthropist. Her Poro brand grew internationally by 1926, with outlets in North and South America, Africa, and the Phillipines, and over 70,000 employees. At the height of her empire, Malone was worth over $14 million — a considerable amount of wealth, even by today’s standards.
Art Dyson (1936 — 2004)
Although he didn’t set out to become a black hair pioneer, Art Dyson has left an indelible print on the industry. After spending 14 years as a mechanic in the Air Force and with Lockheed International in Ontario, Dyson decided to switch careers and enroll in beauty college in Ontario in 1969. As a part of his cosmetology education, Dyson realized that in more than 1,600 hours of classroom instruction, only one hour had been devoted to hair cutting styles and techniques for black hair. After graduation, Dyson went on to work for Seligman & Latz, which owned salons in department stores nationwide, including the salon inside of May Co. in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. It was at this particular salon that Dyson developed the thermal blow-drying technique, which consisted of attaching a nozzle to a dryer and blowing the hair straight. Prior to this technique, hair was set on curlers underneath a hooded dryer. While working at May Co. salon, Dyson developed training programs for styling black hair. By 1975, Dyson had fully cultivated a vision involving a national chain of salons and training facilities that catered specifically to black hair care needs. This idea came to fruition with him at the helm of Seligman & Latz-owned chain, Soul Scissors. Dyson was the first president and chief executive of Soul Scissors, which expanded from Oakland to D.C. and grew to include 55 salons across the country.
Since 1978, Anu Prestonia has been a force to reckon with in the realm of natural hair. Prestonia has loved doing hair, particularly braiding and natural hairstyles since childhood. In 1989, she opened the award-winning, famed natural hair salon Khamit Kinks in NYC. Prestonia has a number of accomplishments and accolades under her belt, as well as magazine features, and an endless roster of loyal celebrity and high profile clients including Oprah and Stevie Wonder. She is also famous for coining the terms of many of the popular natural hair styles we see today, including Senegalese Twists (Prestonia literally flew to Senegal to learn the techniques), Trini Braids, Goddess Braids, and many more. Growing alongside Prestonia is her recently launched natural hair product brand, Anu Essentials. Inspired by the transformative power of nature and botanicals, Prestonia and her Essentials line seek to provide ingredient-conscious support and solutions to meet client needs for quality hair care.
In the early 1990’s, Lisa Price worked on the set of the hit sitcom, The Cosby Show. In her free time, she would experiment with homemade beauty and perfume concoctions, and shared them with friends and family. When production wrapped in 1992, Price devoted more time to her kitchen mixes, creating products such as Love Butter, Hair Milk, and Black Vanilla Hair Smoothie. She would sell her products at flea markets in Brooklyn, but eventually ended up running a storefront out of her living room as word of mouth spread. In 1994, Price officially established her brand as Carol’s Daughter. Her loyal customer base exponentially grew, and went on to include celebrities such as Jada Pinkett-Smith, Erykah Badu, and Rosie Perez. Price and her Carol’s Daughter brand burst onto the scene at a time when hair and skin products that catered specifically to women of color were not given much consideration, and her multi-million dollar empire is a testament to her pioneering spirit. To date, the Carol’s Daughter brand has 9 stores nationwide, more than 80 employees, and does millions of dollars in sales each year. Regardless of how you feel about her products, it is undeniable that Lisa Price has helped pave the way for natural hair products in the mainstream arena.
Most naturals know Chris-Tia Donaldson by her increasingly popular line of hair products, tgin. Personally, I am a huuuuuuuge fan of the Moist Collection. But were you aware of her best-selling book, published in 2008? Essence Magazine dubbed it “The Natural Hair Bible”, as it contains over 200 pages of research-backed information about how to care for, grow, maintain, and purchase products for natural hair — from transition and trims to the big chop and beyond. Donaldson went natural in 2002, after entertaining a vicious cycle of growth and breakage that left her hair at chin length no matter what products she used. Upon graduating from Harvard Law School, Donaldson wore a wig for over two years at her first law firm to conceal her natural hair and assimilate into what she believed was the acceptable image of a Black woman in corporate America. After nearly being let go at her first job, Donaldson made a firm decision to embrace her true and natural self, as a corporate lawyer, author, and entrepreneur. Donaldson’s book, Thank God I’m Natural: The Ultimate Guide to Caring for and Maintaining Natural Hair is in its fourth printing, and her Thank God It’s Natural (tgin) product line launched in 2012.
After struggling with growing and maintaining her own hair from childhood, Chicoro embarked on a self-help journey to better understand and care for her natural hair. A rather embarrassing moment in college where two inches of her hair literally snapped off in her hand, Chicoro decided to do her own research about growing long, healthy hair instead of relying on the abundance of misinformation that existed. From her own research, trial and error, Chicoro authored the best-selling book and seminal work in the natural hair community, Grow It: How to Grow Afro-Textured Hair to Maximum Lengths in the Shortest Time. This book and her many methods within it have been adopted and re-shared by everyone from Jc of The Natural Haven to Curly Nikki.
I promise, this is not a shameless plug. Although Black Girl with Long Hair did not come into existence until 2008, Leila Noelliste is inarguably one of the most influential pioneers in the area where new media and natural hair intersect. When Noelliste decided to go natural in 2006, she had a difficult time finding resources, information, and inspiration that would support her on her natural hair journey. Although there were a few blogs, the Long Hair Care Forum, and Fotki, the void was clearly evident. Nowhere online was there a consolidated source of relevant and useful information and community around natural hair. A year and a half later, Noelliste launched Black Girl with Long Hair, the premier website dedicated to supporting the ever-growing community of Black women who are embracing their natural hair, beauty and style. BGLH has millions readers every month, and is the top blog in the natural hair niche. Noelliste is founder and editor-in-chief, with a staff of five writers (including yours truly), and an editor.
Rochelle “BlackOnyx” Graham
Most of you may know Rochelle Graham by her increasingly popular, soon to be sold at Target product line, Alikay Naturals. Before the brand blossomed, and her Be Fabulous Salon opened, Graham was a pioneer on YouTube that helped transform how we take in and share information about natural hair. Beginning to video document her journey in 2008 under the name BlackOnyx77, Graham shared her natural hair journey, along with tips, reviews, and other resources. Today, her channel is still very much alive with tutorials, Q&A’s with subscribers, Alikay Product how-to’s, and more. Although there are tons of mane mavens on YouTube today, there is no doubt that Graham helped pave the way for natural hair vloggers everywhere.