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Portraits in Black history

Beauty endures

In the 1950s, a high school cosmetology class was a stepping stone to greater things. Styles may change, but traditions do not.

By SHARON TUBBS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 26, 2002

In the 1950s, a high school cosmetology class was a stepping stone to greater things. Styles may change, but traditions do not.

Johnnye Mai Watson started out doing shampoos at a family friend's salon. One day, she said, a voice told her cosmetology would make room for her to go to college. Accepting it as God's guidance, she saved her earnings from 25-cent to $2 hairdos and soon started her education at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.

The way she did hair was like artwork. She would grip those irons and make the curls neat and tight. You'd almost hate for her to comb the curls out because they formed a nice pattern, like a rose sitting on your head. "Lady J" they called her.

She had grown up watching women do hair -- her aunt was a beautician, too. Black women are making strides in various professions today, it's true. But 50 years ago, doing hair and teaching school were near the top of opportunities in a narrow career field offered to them. Many styled from their homes with clients bending over kitchen sinks for a wash. They went to beauty school and wore soft-soled shoes and dresses that looked like nurses' uniforms. Watson could only afford one uniform in beauty school. So she would hand wash it, wring it dry in a towel and iron it stiff each night.

When Hillsborough County opened Howard W. Blake High School on Spruce Street in the 1950s, the principal asked Watson to lead the cosmetology program. She did. And she became known for encouraging black women to move out of the kitchen and set up their own shops. Watson stayed at Blake about 15 years until desegregation led to the school's closing in 1971.

In 1997, a new performing arts magnet school opened along the Hillsborough River near downtown. The district named it after the old Blake High. A cosmetology program came under the liberal arts division.

Today, the Blake cosmetology scene in many ways is similar to Watson's days. (Her name is Watson-Williams now. She is retired and lives less than 10 minutes from the new school.) Although there are some boys in the class and the instructor is white, the majority of about 120 students in the program are black and female. Some have mothers and grandmothers, cousins and aunts in the field.

Johnnie Tolbert, 16: "My grandma did hair. My mom did hair. Basically, everybody did hair in my family."

Same goes for Shignona Porter, another 10th-grader, an honors student and a hairstylist's daughter.

Roberto Barreiro is following in his mother's footsteps, too. "I've been around hair all my life."

Watson-Williams would be proud -- they want to be entrepreneurs. Some want to go into other fields, like nursing or pediatrics, but own a beauty shop on the side.

Still, the reality is that desegregation in beauty shops never happened the way it did in the schools. Most white people still go to white hairdressers and the same for black people.

But let Jo Ann Daves tell it and you'd think integration is slowly making its way to the salon, and that even hair has a firm place in the discussion on race relations. Daves is the cosmetology instructor at Blake now. She says this: The more interracial relationships and people of mixed ethnicities you have, the more variations you get in hair texture.

"There is no true 'black hair,' or true 'Hispanic hair,' " she says. A black person's hair can be naturally curly, kinky, wavy or straight. Hispanic clients might need the same "relaxer" treatment to straighten their hair as African-Americans. And people are realizing that hair products can cross racial lines.

Daves keeps a container of "palm aid" handy. Back in the day, some black people called it grease and used it on their scalps. Daves now dabs it on her blond bangs, like a gel to give them a spiky look.

These are the kinds of things she has to teach her students. Sure, they will use the techniques they learned from family tradition, she said. But they will need some of her insight, as well. "There are so many multicultural things right now," she said. Hair these days is different than it used to be.

About the series

The photographs in this series were made in the middle of the last century by the Burgert Brothers commercial photography studio in Tampa, which operated until 1963. The Burgerts were white, but their photographs provide a varied record of African-American life during the days of segregation.

These articles travel with the Burgert photos from the days of Jim Crow until now, looking in on figures in black life and the imprints they made on our community.

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