Abstract: "This Industry is not Typical, but Exceptional:" African American Beauticians and Beauty Shop Culture in the Depression Era

Tiffany Gill


"The largest and most profitable profession indulged in by Negro women in Harlem is the beauty shop," declared Works Progress Administration interviewer Vivian Morris in 1939. This Depression Era observation illuminates the sustained power of the black beauty culture industry even as the nation was in the midst of financial turmoil. This paper is a part of my forthcoming dissertation, "Civic Beauty: Beauty Culturists and Politics of African American Female Entrepreneurship, 1900-1965." My project's primary goal, beyond simply chronicling developments in the black beauty industry, is to illuminate the crucial role economics and entrepreneurship played in black women's political activism and community building. I posit that the black beauty industry—in particular, beauticians and the institutions they built—provide one of the most fruitful sites to explore the social, political, and economic challenges experienced by black women throughout the twentieth century. In this discussion, I will place black beauty culturists (hairdressers, salon owners, and product manufacturers) at the forefront of the social, political, and economic shifts that came about as a result of the Great Depression. The way that black beauty culturists responded to the changes in their industry at this pivotal moment laid the foundation for the formal political activism black women engaged in the modern civil rights movement. Greatly informed by recent historiography on the history of women and business in the twentieth century, as well as by the growing literature on African American entrepreneurship, I will seek to understand how black beauty culturists made claims to citizenship based on their understanding of the relationship between economics and political activism. My primary goal is to restore economics as an important variable in understanding black women's civic activism and community building. To that end, the black beauty industry, often vilified as subjugating women more than legal inequalities, and denounced for peddling products that denied an authentic "blackness," I suggest, must be understood as providing one of the most important opportunities for black women to agitate for social change both within their communities and in the larger political arena.