Black haircare pioneer Willie Lee Morrow dies at 82

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Willie Lee Morrow, a barber-turned-entrepreneur who helped popularize tools like Afro pick and styles, including the one dubbed the Jheri curl for more than half a century as an innovator in black hair care , died June 22 at his home in San Diego. He was 82 years old.

The cause was pneumonia, said his daughter, Cheryl Morrow.

Mr. Morrow began his career at the age of 12 or 13 as a “stump barber”, with a tree stump as a barber’s chair, in the small Alabama town where his parents worked as sharecroppers. .

Seeking greater economic opportunity, he moved in 1959 to San Diego, where he established himself as a go-to stylist in the African-American community and ultimately one of the most black business leaders. most prominent in the city as the founder of a barbershop. empire in the provision of care.

The tools and products he developed, including the combs used to create the afro hairstyle popular in the 1960s and 1970s and a range of creams formulated to produce the looser curls that later became fashionable, made making him one of the most influential figures in the history of how dark hair is cared for and viewed in society.

“Since there is racism, since there is discrimination against black bodies, there is also discrimination against black hair”, Tameka Ellingtonco-curator of the exhibition “Textures: the history and art of black hair” on view at Kent State University in Ohio, said in an interview. “His work was a way to be able to uplift the black community.”

Ellington and other scholars have placed Mr. Morrow in a historic line of African-American hair-care entrepreneurs, including Madame CJ Walker, the first black woman millionaire in the United States, whose life at the turn of the 20th century was dramatized in the 2020 Netflix series. “Self made.” Mr. Morrow saw his job not just as a job, he told the Nashville Tennessean in 1985, but more like a “calling”.

“With hair, the individual demonstrates his social significance, his philosophical and cultural heritage,” he wrote in “400 years without a comb”, a 1973 book which was one of many volumes he published on the history and practice of black hairdressing. “Hair is the fundamental and natural symbol of what people are or want to be everywhere and the socio-cultural significance of hairstyle should not be underestimated.”

For generations, many black people seeking acceptance in white society felt the pressure to straighten their hair to conform to white notions of beauty, a time-consuming and expensive process that often damaged hair and scalp. The early years of Mr. Morrow’s career coincided with the rise in popularity of the Afro, a hairstyle that featured natural texture and became a symbol of black pride.

At the time, there were few styling tools suitable for the Afro. “You know what people would use?” Mr. Morrow once tells the San Diego reader. “Angel Cake Cutters. After an acquaintance traveled to Africa in 1962 and brought back a hand-carved African hair comb, Mr Morrow began making similar models which at the time were selling 12,000 units a week . Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, writing in the book “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America”, described Mr. Morrow as “the man who first mass-produced the plastic Afro choice ” in the USA. .

In 1966, Mr. Morrow published the manual “The Principles of Cutting and Styling Negro Hair”. He was then hired by the US Army for a program to train 6,000 barbers and 1,100 beauticians in black hair care. In 1971, the New York Times reported that he had traveled 60,000 miles across the United States, Europe and Asia for the project.

“The entire program is a boon to the nearly one million black service members and their dependents,” said journalist Lacy Banks. wrote in Ebony magazine in 1970. “Wherever Morrow went, black people flocked to ask for haircuts, afro combs, hair sprays, perms and conditions. They all had problems and were desperate for help.

Mr Morrow described the ‘natural Afro’ look as a ‘cultural badge’. But he also sought to give black people choices in hairstyles, and as early as 1966 began experimenting with what the authors of “Hair Story” described as “a chemical process for curling frizzy hair.” He originally called his line of products Tomorrow Curl, but found greater success when he rebranded it in 1977 as California Curl, according to the book.

Its products were initially marketed only to stylists – not the public – but caught the eye of other hair care manufacturers as they gained popularity. Jheri Redding, a white entrepreneur and founder of Redken, Jhirmack and Nexxus, produced a modified product that gave rise to the term “Jheri curl” – “the popular or lay term for all curled perms, just as Xerox is to copy machines,” the “Hair Story” authors wrote.

“I don’t feel any animosity because my idea was copied and exploited by the same companies that refused to do the research and development of a much-needed product,” they quoted. “Instead, I’m glad I was able to introduce a process that has been universally accepted.”

In an interview, Thrapps described Mr Morrow as an “underrated hero”.

Willie Lee Morrow was born in Eutaw, Alabama on October 9, 1939. According to his account, he did not do well in school, but recognized from an early age that academic success was not the only way to success.

“Where I’m from, you were a misfit if you didn’t do well in school or go to college to become a teacher or a preacher,” he said. said Ebony in 1970. “So I felt like I always had to work a lot harder on other things to get some recognition.”

The San Diego Reader reported that Mr. Morrow’s father had saved enough as a sharecropper, with a side operation in contraband whiskey, to pay for his son to attend barber school in San Diego. After opening his own boutiques, Mr. Morrow cultivated a devoted clientele while growing his hair supply business.

In addition to the California Curl line of products, Mr. Morrow has been credited with creating combs and hair dryer attachments designed for the care of black hair. For years he ran a radio station and newspaper, the San Diego Monitor, which catered to African American audiences. He has been credited with using some of the profits from his businesses to help fund the civil rights movement.

Mr. Morrow was divorced from his first wife, Helen. Their son, Todd Morrow, predeceased him.

Survivors include his wife of more than five decades, the former Gloria Lacy of San Diego; two daughters from his second marriage, Cheryl Morrow and Angela Morrow, both of San Diego; and several sisters and brothers.

Over the years, Mr. Morrow has amassed an extensive collection of artifacts related to the history of black hair care, including barber chairs, combs, clippers, other styling tools and product containers.

“He was one of the first to publicly proclaim that black hair is a cultural contribution to American history,” observed Byrd, co-author of “Hair Story,” as well as a “way in which black people came together and formed traditions”. and the rituals and the language and all those things that really define what a culture is. He was one of the first to proclaim it publicly.

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