Making waves: Beauty salons and the black freedom struggle

By Jay Driskell
Portrait of Marjorie Stewart Joyner
Portrait of Marjorie Stewart Joyner
Born in 1896 in the tiny Appalachian hamlet of Monterey, Virginia, Marjorie Stewart grew up in extreme poverty. Of her 12 brothers and sisters, only three survived to adulthood. Seeking a better life, her parents left and moved to Dayton, Ohio, in 1904 where her father secured employment as a teacher. However, her parents soon divorced. After living with a series of different relatives, young Marjorie eventually joined her mother in Chicago in 1912. Though she attempted to pursue a formal education, her need to bring in wages to sustain the household prevented her from completing high school. Instead, while working as a waitress and a domestic servant, she learned the beauty trade, becoming in 1916 the first African American graduate of the A. B. Mollar Beauty School. That same year, she met and married Dr. Robert A. Joyner and opened a salon near the corner of State and Garfield in the heart of Chicago’s south side African American community. At just 20 years old, Marjorie Stewart Joyner had come a long way from the mountains of Virginia.  
Despite the role she would play in the development of 20th century black beauty culture, Joyner’s initial training had only taught her how to cut and style white women’s hair. After a disastrous attempt to apply the Mollar school’s techniques on her mother-in-law’s hair, Joyner paid $17.50 to enroll in Madam C. J. Walker’s beauty school in Chicago, where she learned how to style black women’s hair.
Photograph of sign for an authorized agent of the Madam C. J. Walker Company. Themetal sign is orange with black text. The text reads "Auhorized Agent...Mmr. C. J. Walker...System and Preparations."
Walker, who would soon become one of the first African American woman millionaires, must have seen her own life story reflected in her ambitious young student. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, Walker had been the first child in her family born into freedom. An orphan by the age of seven years, Walker had lived in relative poverty working as a domestic for years before entering the beauty trade and starting the Walker Company in 1906. Walker’s business expanded dramatically as black women left southern farms in the South for jobs in northern cities during World War I. They had money in their pockets and a keen desire to leave behind their former poverty and look like modern, professional black women. Walker and her competitors in the Apex and Poro Beauty Companies grew rich while building a national market for African American beauty culture.  
Portrait of Madam C. J. Walker
Within months of meeting Joyner, Walker recruited Joyner to serve as her national spokesperson and one of her chief advisers. After Walker’s death in 1919, Joyner built a network of over 200 beauty schools, where she oversaw the training of more than 15,000 stylists through the next half century. In 1928, in order to make the Marcel Wave (a hairstyle popularized by singer Josephine Baker) easier to create, Joyner invented and filed a patent for a permanent wave machine that became a standard fixture in salons across America.
Patent drawing for Marjorie Joyner's permanent wave machine, 1928
Shortly after joining the Walker Company, Joyner became close friends with Mary McLeod Bethune, a black clubwoman and civil rights activist. In 1932 Bethune became an early supporter of Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at a time when most African Americans remained staunch Republicans and loyal to the Party of Abraham Lincoln. Seeking ways to convince black voters to switch their party allegiance and support the Democrats’ New Deal, Bethune recruited Joyner to join the Democratic National Committee. From her position at the head of a network of thousands of beauticians, Joyner was able to wield considerable influence. This influence was magnified by her role as a founding member of Bethune’s National Council of Negro Women in 1935 and her establishment of the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association (UBSOTA) in 1945. Joyner became so skilled at transforming her professional networks into political ones that President Lyndon B. Johnson personally recruited her to help turn out black voters for his campaign in 1964.  
Marjorie Joyner’s friend and fellow advocate Mary McLeod Bethune was one of the most prominent civil rights leaders and educational reformers of the early 20th century.
Black beauticians did not just wield their collective power in the realm of electoral politics; they also played a key role in funding black institutions. According to historian Tiffany M. Gill, the ads placed in African American newspapers by the black beauticians helped keep these often financially tenuous enterprises from bankruptcy. The Walker Company’s advertising dollars helped provide the funds to sustain both Marcus Garvey’s nationalist Negro World and A. Philip Randolph’s socialist Messenger. As these two titans of the black intellectual tradition battled it out in the pages of their respective papers, it is good to remember that their words may never have found print without the support of thousands of black women stylists.  
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Other black community institutions also depended upon the black beauty industry. When the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was still segregated, Madam Walker donated the funds in 1914 to construct the Colored YMCA building in Indianapolis, Indiana, and gave freely to black colleges and universities across the nation. Joyner carried on this tradition, organizing her sisters in UBSOTA to continue to support black education. Over the course of 20th century, Joyner raised thousands of dollars for Bethune-Cookman College, founded by her friend Mary McLeod Bethune in 1904 as a college for black women. By 1982 Joyner was able to finance the construction of a new women’s dormitory. Christened Joyner Hall, it is the only campus building named for a beautician.  
Photograph of official ceremony. Mary McLeod Bethune, seated at desk, accepts a check from Marjorie Stewart Joyner. Both are surrounded by men and women dressed in formal attire.
Most fundamentally, beauticians played a central role in the civil rights movement. This was acknowledged by the civil rights activists who ran Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School, which ran several workshops that trained beauticians in civil disobedience and voter registration. In an appeal sent out to recruit beauticians, the organizers at Highlander reasoned that theirs was “one of the professions which offer to its members great freedom for leadership in community action.” As a result, the salon itself could become a “center of communication and influence” in the struggle for justice in the South. These arguments were repeated time and again by civil rights leaders from Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. With a source of income that came largely from the black community itself, black beauticians were financially autonomous and outside the control of white employers. Additionally, black beauty parlors were independent, black-controlled spaces free from the surveillance of white supremacists; the parlors provided shelter for civil rights organizing in an otherwise hostile environment. Finally, it was the profits from these shops that paid the rental on the buses that sent marchers to Washington, D.C., printed T-shirts and protest signs, supported movement leaders who lost their jobs and homes, and bailed protesters out of jail.  
Photograph of women at work in a beauty school. A permanent wave machine can be seen in the corner of the room.
Though employed in a profession seemingly distant from the front lines of the struggle, the black beauticians trained by Marjorie Stewart Joyner were anything but. These women ranked among the most important soldiers in the civil rights revolution. Their labor laid the foundation that made the civil rights movement possible.  
Marjorie Stewart Joyner’s story is one of two biographies featured in Black Main Street: Funding Civil Rights in Jim Crow America, a temporary display within the American Enterprise exhibition's "New Perspectives" case, on view from September 16, 2016, through March 8, 2017.
Jay Driskell is an historian of the urbanizing, segregating South. He is the author of Schooling Jim Crow: the Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics