From the South’s pageant queens to the importance of beauty parlors to African American communities, it is easy to see the ways beauty is enmeshed in southern culture. But as Blain Roberts shows in Pageants, Parlors, & Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South, the pursuit of beauty in the South was linked to the tumultuous racial divides of the region, where the Jim Crow-era cosmetics industry found its footing selling the idea of makeup that emphasized whiteness, and where, in the 1950s and 1960s, black-owned beauty shops served as crucial sites of resistance for civil rights activists. By showing how battles over beauty came to a head during the civil rights movement, Roberts sheds new light on the tactics southerners used to resist and achieve desegregation.
In the following excerpt (pp. 57-59), Roberts explores the importance of the customs and the conversations in black beauty shops in the Depression-era South.
During the Depression, black workers at the American Tobacco Company and Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company frequented a barbershop/beauty salon in the black business district of Durham, North Carolina. Years later, Julia Lucas, who ran the beauty salon part of the operation, recalled why the establishment was so popular. The grooming services were important, of course, but that was not all. “We didn’t have that many private places, other than churches, that we could discuss . . . anything that concerned black people’s advancement,” Lucas observed. Factory workers spoke their minds in the shop, she said, because “they felt secure.” They discussed unionization and criticized the city’s black leadership, which tended to oppose decisive action on controversial projects. After NAACP headquarters decided to fight for a salary raise for black teachers in North Carolina, for example, Durham NAACP officials proceeded slowly. Most of Lucas’s customers, however, wanted action: “They’d come in . . . and say ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s do it.’” Lucas understood well the function the beauty salon and the barbershop played in the lives of Durham’s working-class blacks. “A place,” she concluded, “does make a difference in how you express and when you feel free to express something that you know is controversial.”
Lucas captures the civic significance of the work that went on inside beauty shops, which beauticians and patrons alike termed “beauty culture,” or the grooming of hair. Rooted in assumptions and structural realities unique to black communities, this work, and the spaces where it occurred, occupied a conspicuous place in southern black neighborhoods and economies. As did white southern women’s encounter with beauty products, black women’s participation in the modern world of beauty afforded tools for constructing visions of self and community. For the first half of the twentieth century, white women turned to cosmetics to fashion an exclusionary, racialized femininity. Sometimes, black women found their own consumer choices conditioned by this same ideal. The conviction that “whiter” features were more attractive than “black” ones gave rise, for example, to commercially prepared hair straighteners and skin bleaches. The availability of these controversial products, as well as of cosmetics that elicited anxieties about female morality, meant that the pursuit of beauty was fraught with contention in the black community. The historical record reveals these tensions, exposing the emotional and especially physical cost black women bore as they pursued beauty with the aid of modern beauty products. But as Lucas’s memory indicates, black women also found themselves heirs to a beauty tradition with different ideological underpinnings and, at times, quite different uses. Black beauticians who plied their trade in the early- to mid-twentieth-century South helped their clients construct a femininity that blunted the harsher edges of Jim Crow. What was at stake for many black women was the respectability that well-groomed hair conferred, a status that was particularly significant for poorer black women, whose financial and occupational position made fighting negative stereotypes difficult. Through the expanding market of consumer goods and services, southern black women wrested a small degree of power from an antagonistic audience by presenting themselves in ways intended to demand respect. The beautifying process itself was also significant, providing overworked black women opportunities for relaxation and pampering.
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-  Julia Lucas, interview by Leslie Brown, transcript, 21 September 1995, Behind the Veil: Documenting African-American Life in the Jim Crow South Records, Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina (BTV). ↩
-  On class, the NAACP, and the teachers’ salary controversy in Durham, see Brown, Upbuilding Black Durham, 312–22. ↩
-  Julia Lucas, interview by Leslie Brown, transcript, 21 September 1995, BTV. ↩