In Celebration of Black History Month A Look Back at the Black Hair Story

Michelle Breyer February 12th, 2009
African hair style
Whether its activist Angela Davis’s Afro or hip-hop diva Lil’ Kim’s “weave of the week,” black hair has long had the power to set trends and reflect societal attitudes.
Since February is Black History Month — a time to remember important people and events that shaped the lives of African Americans – we thought it was an ideal time to explore how hairstyles have been interwoven into that history. It is a story that continues to evolve. Here is a look back at some of the key events and people who shaped the black hairstory.
This style, from Africa in the 1950s, might have originated on the west coast of Africa centuries earlier.
1444: Europeans trade on the west coast of Africa with people wearing elaborate hairstyles, including locks, plaits and twists.
1619: First slaves brought to Jamestown; African language, culture and grooming tradition begin to disappear.
1700s: Calling black hair “wool,” many whites dehumanize slaves. The more elaborate African hairstyles cannot be retained.
1800s: Without the combs and herbal treatments used in Africa, slaves rely on bacon grease, butter and kerosene as hair conditioners and cleaners. Lighter-skinned, straight-haired slaves command higher prices at auction than darker, more kinky-haired ones. Internalizing color consciousness, blacks promote the idea that blacks with dark skin and kinky hair are less attractive and worth less.Madame C.J. Walker
1865: Slavery ends, but whites look upon black women who style their hair like white women as well-adjusted. “Good” hair becomes a prerequisite for entering certain schools, churches, social groups and business networks.
1880: Metal hot combs, invented in 1845 by the French, are readily available in the United States. The comb is heated and used to press and temporarily straighten kinky hair.

1900s: Madame C.J. Walker (Pictured to the Right) develops a range of hair-care products for black hair. She popularizes the press-and-curl style. Some criticize her for encouraging black women to look white.
1910: Walker is featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the first American female self-made millionaire.
1920s: Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist, urges followers to embrace their natural hair and reclaim an African aesthetic.
1954: George E. Johnson launches the Johnson Products Empire with Ultra Wave Hair Culture, a “permanent” hair straightener for men that can be applied at home. A women’s chemical straightener follows.
Cicely Tyson
Cicely Tyson
1962: Actress Cicely Tyson wears cornrows on the television drama “East Side/West Side.”
1966: Model Pat Evans defies both black and white standards of beauty and shaves her head.
Diahann Carroll
Diahann Carroll1968: Actress Diahann Carroll is the first black woman to star in a television network series, “Julia.” She is a darker version of the all-American girl with straightened, curled hair.
1970: Angela Davis becomes an icon of Black Power with her large afro.
1971: Melba Tolliver is fired from the ABC affiliate in New York for wearing an afro while covering Tricia Nixon’s wedding.
1977: The Jheri curl explodes on the black hair scene. Billed as a curly perm for blacks, the ultra-moist hairstyle lasts through the 1980s.
1979: Braids and beads cross the color line when Bo Derek appears with cornrows in the movie “10.”
Grace Jones
Grace Jones
1980: Model-actress Grace Jones sports her trademark flat-top fade.
1988: Spike Lee exposes the good hair/bad hair light-skinned/dark-skinned schism in black American in his movie “School Daze.”
1990: “Sisters love the weave,” “Essence” magazine declares. A variety of natural styles and locks also become more accepted.
1997: Singer Erykah Badu poses on the cover of her debut album “Baduizm” with her head wrapped, ushering in an eclectic brand of Afrocentrism.
1998: Carson Inc., creator of Dark & Lovely and Magic Shave for black men, acquires the black-owned beauty company Johnson Products of Chicago in 1998. L’Oreal purchases Carson two years later and merges it with Soft Sheen.
1999: “People” magazine names lock-topped Grammy award-winning artist Lauryn Hill one of its 50 Most Beautiful People.
2001: Rapper Lil’ Kim wears a platinum blonde weave, while singer Macy Gray sports a new-school afro. Some black women perm, some press, and others go with natural twists, braids and locks.
Amari Diaw
(Amari Diaw Pictured to the Right)
2003: New Bedford, Mass. Dance teacher Amy Fernandes’ refuses to allow 4-year-old Amari Diaw to participate in her ballet dance recital along with the other children in her class who have been practicing for the exciting event because she requires the girls to pull back their hair into a bun. Amari’s mom put Amari’s very curly hair into cornrows and pulled it back into a bun. Fernandes, however, insisted that the braids be removed and that Amari’s hair be pulled back straight into a bun.
2006: Baltimore Police Department’s new, more rigid professional appearance standards prohibit such hairstyles as cornrows, dreadlocks and twists. These natural hairstyles are deemed to be “extreme” and a “fad” by the department.
2007: MSNBC Radio Host Don Imus loses his job when he calls the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team “some nappy-headed hos.”
2006: Black hair-care is a billion-dollar industry.
2008: “The New Yorker”(shown below) draws heat when a cover photo portrays Michelle Obama with an Afro and an AK 47 machine gun and and Barack Obama in a turban doing the fist bump. Many felt the cartoon reinforces negative stereotypes about both Muslims and natural hair.
2009: Comic Chris Rock unveils “Good Hair” at the Sundance Film Festival, exploring the way black hairstyles impact the activities, pocketbooks, sexual relationships, and self-esteem of black people.
The New Yorker


  1. Love this hair history timeline.

  2. I love this. It still makes me angry that our history as african americans is the way it is, but we have overcome everything they've thrown at us. I will continue to wear my own hair, support only Black-owned natural hair businesses, and celebrate my history throughout the year. I LOVE BEING BLACK

    (tapping fingers as I wait for Michelle Obama to finally rock her natural hair texture)

  3. This is a fantastic timeline. I feel an incredible sense of pride that I allow my hair to do what it was meant to do.

  4. Going nature was the best thing I've have done. I love my nature have.

  5. I truly love this. Our hair history. Thanks for sharing.

  6. "HAIR' so bold and beautiful, remember the Broadway play "HAIR"

  7. I saw there was no mention of Garrett A. Morgan. Any particular reason?

  8. 'WTF?!' at that dance teacher's audacity! I did ballet when I was 6, and they too had a bun requirement. What did my mum do? Have my hair neatly pulled back into an afro-puff. THAT was my bun, and my teacher had no problem with that.

    Why should that child have had her hair straightened to dance? Is there any word on how/if the issue was resolved?

  9. It is a shame that we let others determine what is beautiful and how we as a people should wear our hair. If one more African-American sister tells me that I need to get a perm or grow my hair out, I might forget that I respect others unconditionally!!!! Love You all!!! Be who you are no matter what!!!!!!

    Posting Anonymously because I don't have any of these accounts....