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Beauty and the Business: Professor explores political, social legacy of African American women beauticians, salon owners

When Louis Martin, deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee in the 1960s, wanted to attract black voters he called the beauty shop, and it wasn’t to get a haircut. Martin knew that beauty salon operators were essential in getting political materials distributed and the community excited about a candidate.

It was actually Marjorie Stewart Joyner, a Chicago beautician, whose local success inspired Martin to go national with his political outreach efforts. Like many of her colleagues, she helped create a space where black women could begin to excel in business, exercise their political muscle and have some fun.

Tiffany Gill in Minnie's Beauty Salon

Tiffany Gill researches African American women beauticians, hair salon owners and beauty product manufacturers throughout the early 20th century to the present.

Tiffany Gill, an assistant professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin, researches African American women beauticians, hair salon owners and beauty product manufacturers throughout the early 20th century to the present. Her dissertation, titled “Civic Beauty: Beauty Culturists and the Politics of African-American Female Entrepreneurship, 1900-1965,” was awarded the Herman E. Krooss Prize for best dissertation in business history at the Business History Conference’s (BHC) annual meeting held in Le Creusot, France at the Académie François Bourdon. The BHC is the largest professional organization of business historians in the world.

While conducting her research, Gill anticipated finding the gossip, funny stories and social aspects of the beauty business, but her research uncovered a much deeper story.

“When I first started my research, I didn’t think it was going to go very far,” Gill said. “But then I found beauticians were popping up everywhere, in the most surprising places, so I began to plot the dots to figure out what the larger story was.”

Gill discovered stories of black women gaining economic independence and political power, as well as providing a social outlet to the community.

“The whole idea of wanting to be respected as business women was a challenge they all faced when getting started in the industry and it continued throughout most of the 20th century,” Gill said. “They struggled with people not taking them seriously and not taking their business seriously.

Marjorie Stewart Joyner and Mayor Harold Washington

Entrepreneur and activist Marjorie Stewart Joyner and City of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, 1984. In 1983, Washington made history when he was elected Chicago’s first African American mayor.

Photo: Chicago Public Library, Harsh Research Collection,
Marjorie Stewart Joyner Papers, 062.

“However, early on, some were able to establish themselves as independent business women,” she added. “Because their clients and distributors were African American women as well, it provided them with economic autonomy, and thus a freedom to get involved in things that other African American women at the time could not.” 

During the civil rights movement, the beauty salon was a safe haven for those women wanting to join the NAACP and other organizations supportive to black rights. For example, some women fearing retribution from their employers would have their mail sent to the local beauty salon in order to protect their privacy and therefore their livelihood.

Women like Sarah Breedlove, who later became known as Madam C.J. Walker, paved the way not only for black women entrepreneurs, but for women of all races. She got her start in 1905 when she developed a conditioning treatment for straightening hair. Through hard work and determination she would turn the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company into a beauty empire.

“She never actually became a millionaire, although she is often remembered as such,” Gill said. “Her net worth was closer to a half million at the time of her death in 1919. Still she was certainly one of the richest black women of her day.”

Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker

Marjorie Stewart Joyner, a former employee of Madam Walker, invented a permanent wave machine, which curled women’s hair for a relatively long period of time. However, Joyner never profited directly from her invention, because it was the assigned property of the Walker Company.

It is Joyner’s political and social activism that caught Gill’s attention. Joyner lived to be 98 years old, and throughout the years her basement filled with personal papers and memory books. Her family donated her archive to the Chicago Public Library.

“She had a connection with all of the major political figures of her day,” Gill said. “She was photographed with everyone from John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Jessie Jackson and Nelson Rockefeller. I found it very interesting to think of her as a beautician and why she would be connected to all these people.

“I had a good time going through the pictures and tracing back her political legacy,” she added. “She had a great impact on the black community in Chicago, but little is known about her anywhere else. She was an independent business woman who wanted to use her salon as a community space for African Americans.”

In the 1940s, Joyner opened up her salons and beauty school to the United Service Organizations’ (USO) black men who were not allowed to partake in any of the USO-sponsored social activities due to segregation.

“They didn’t have any kind of military places where they could hang out and have fun,” Gill said. “Joyner really had a keen sense of understanding that she had an institution and wanted to open it up to the community.”

Advertisement showing images of cold cream and hair and complexion products

Advertisement from a 1920 New York Age reads: “If you want beauty of complexion and loveliness of hair, try Mme. C.J. Walker’s world renowned toilet preparations.”

Image: Library of Congress,
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

In other civil rights activities, Gill discovered stories of beauticians having one client under the hair dryer while taking another down to the voters’ registration drive. Some beauticians would even host meetings in their beauty salons to educate people on how to vote and to inform them about different political happenings.

While black beauticians made economic and political strides, their salons also became a right of passage for many young women, as well as providing them with a space for social interaction.  And for the black women of the early 20th century, the salon may have provided them with their first experience of feeling truly pampered and beautiful.

“The fun thing about this topic is that almost every woman has had an experience at the beauty shop,” Gill said. “It is very much a part of a young woman’s socialization. I think particularly for a certain generation of women that came of age before the civil rights movement, it was one of the main places where they were socialized into what it meant to be a woman. How to act, how to operate with boys, how to carry themselves.

“It was also a place where people shared gossip,” she added. “Many young women grew up listening to the chatter at the beauty shop.

“I want to add to the stories of these women’s lives and make a contribution so they won’t be forgotten,” Gill said. “The kind of research I like to do gives importance to people that have been overlooked. I think there are so many more stories to tell in terms of the history of African American women. There’s a lot of great work out there, but there is still much to be done. I hope this work continues to raise questions about the relationship between gender, race and identity.”

Gill plans to expand her research internationally to include South America and the Caribbean. She also plans on conducting her own oral histories at the next national convention of beauticians.

Michelle Bryant

Photo of Professor Gill: Marsha Miller

Special thanks to Minnie’s Beauty Salon
1104 East 12th Street

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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