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Like Velvet: history in black hairstyles in Arkansas 

How a kitchen cosmetologist built — and handed down — a 90-year legacy of black hair care.

click to enlarge THERE IS HISTORY IN HAIRSTYLES: Wigs made for the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center illustrate 'dos that have roots in Africa as well as early 20th century styles, like finger waves (center). - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • THERE IS HISTORY IN HAIRSTYLES: Wigs made for the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center illustrate 'dos that have roots in Africa as well as early 20th century styles, like finger waves (center).

"The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness." Proverbs 16:31

"This is history," Veronica Macon said.

It's late on a Saturday morning, and Macon, 31, is completing a client's roller set on the clinic floor of Velvatex College of Beauty Culture, a one-level red-brick building situated on a corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Little Rock. Like other smock-clad trainees in the room — shampooing the coily hair of a client at a sink or ushering a woman to a humming hooded dryer — Macon is earning hairdressing hours toward the cosmetology license she aims to attain this spring.

The history she speaks of is Velvatex's: The institution training Macon was the first of its kind to open in Arkansas for people of color. Thanks to the care and intention with which Velvatex changed hands across decades, a history of finger waves, goddess braids and black women's empowerment has been kept alive for 90 years.

Now, that story itself is being preserved and archived: In the fall of 2018, Velvatex donated a total of 105 artifacts to the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center's permanent collection, just a few months after partnering with the museum on the "Don't Touch My Crown" exhibition. With a name inspired from Proverbs 16:31, "Don't Touch My Crown" celebrated the history of African-American aesthetics through artwork and objects.

"For people to be able to see this collection, to know that we're committed to preserving this collection in perpetuity as part of our commitment to the public trust, I think, says a whole lot about black women and the ways in which their bodies and their stories matter," Christina Shutt, Mosaic Templars director, said.

"I find that our hair is really important to us, but it's not something that we often think about it in a historic model or historic sense, that there are women who came before us that did their hair and found agency through hair." Shutt said. "To be able to get this collection tells a really important part of African-American history, but specifically Arkansas history, and the school's long-standing tradition."

***

In the summer of 1929, M.E. Patterson founded the beauty college as a way to transfer her skills from the kitchen — the era's choice location for at-home hairdressing — to an educational setting. Inspired by her belief that black hair could emulate velvet, Patterson named the school Velvatex Beauty College.

At the time, Velvatex was the only approved school in the state for people of color, adding a more formal education to what some may have learned in their own kitchens. With Velvatex's training, students were not only learning cosmetology techniques, like applying chemical relaxers and hair cutting, but they were also studying the science behind the hair, skin and nails.

"You understand the structure of the hair, you understand what the hair grows from, you understand the basics of what is in a body when you study anatomy," said Velvatex CEO Barbara A. Douglas, who earned both a cosmetology and instructor's license from the school. Douglas said Velvatex has always been strict and demanded a high standard of professionalism. "You couldn't come in with a spot on your shoes," she said. "You had white uniforms, white shoes. Your blouse had to be three-quarters; it couldn't be down to your wrist. You couldn't wear short sleeves. Your top had to come down over your hips. You just had to look like a lady." When Douglas entered Velvatex in the late 1970s, Patterson's daughter, Ernestine Towns, was at the helm. Under Towns' tutelage, every Velvatex student passed Arkansas Board of Cosmetology exams for 12 consecutive years.

click to enlarge JEWELS FOR THE CROWN: Items from Velvatex donated to Mosaic Templars include combs, curlers and instruction books. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • JEWELS FOR THE CROWN: Items from Velvatex donated to Mosaic Templars include combs, curlers and instruction books.

Towns took ownership of the school from her mother in 1954, and that year the school adopted the name Velvatex College of Beauty Culture. For years, the school was located on State Street near Philander Smith College and was within walking distance from Ninth Street, the thriving African-American business district full of black-operated churches, grocery stores, restaurants, beauty shops, clubs and more. In the mid-'50s, Velvatex opened at its current location, adjacent to another historically black institution, Arkansas Baptist College. Douglas purchased Velvatex in 1994, and brought with her daughters Rachel Willis, chief operating officer and head instructor, and Roberta Douglas, director of financial operations.

For much of Towns' time with the school, examinations for white and black cosmetologists were segregated, Mattie Sue Woods, a Velvatex alumna and longtime instructor, said. Later, Woods would help end that segregation during her 20-year tenure with the state Board of Cosmetology. Still, Patterson's founding of Velvatex — and its continued operations — was less about addressing a segregated hairdressing landscape and was more a mission to empower black women through careers, Shutt said.

***

Even as trends in hair have shifted, Velvatex has kept up with it all — and its donated items to Mosaic Templars attest to that. Artifacts include a 1941 "Art of Shampooing" guide, an electrotherapy machine used to stimulate hair growth, a vintage manicurist table and pressing combs, metal comb-like tools heated to straighten hair without chemicals to achieve styles like roller sets, French braids and pin curls.

Some tools, like the pressing comb, have been supplanted by modern devices like the electric flat iron, but the styles executed with them still give a nod to the past. Just view any Velvatex-styled mannequin head in the museum's permanent collection for proof. The finger waves, for instance, recall a '20s-era style that could have been spotted along Ninth Street. Braided up-dos that have roots in African hair styling were created for the museum, to display both students' talents and the diversity of black hairstyles.  

"[Black hair] can go through so much," said Abraham Johnson, a Velvatex instructor trainee whose mannequin includes braids ornamented with wooden beads. "It can be natural, it can take chemicals, braiding. We can really do each and every category of something. I think it's so diverse. You got to know how to really work with it. You need a little love to work with black hair."

Johnson enjoys installing extensions or creating wigs for clients. "With extensions, you're trying to extend, you're trying to add a little something something, so you're trying to feel a little bossy," he said. "You want to have a little flip in your hair."

One of Macon's favorite aspects of her Velvatex education is learning about the African influences behind some of her favorite natural-hair stylings, particularly braiding, which has long been a cornerstone of black hairstyling and has been widely interpreted over time to create looks like goddess braids (a style of thick cornrows) and "lemonade braids" (a style of thinner cornrows named after a hairstyle sported in Beyonce's "Lemonade" visual album). "I love the experiments, to go back into time and look at the different hairstyles that they created back in the day and what we come up with in our time and age," Macon said.

The more popular styles requested today at the school include thermally straightened looks and various braiding styles. But, most all of the styles showcased in the Mosaic Templars collection cross generations and are still practiced on the institution's clients, many of whom are neighborhood locals who have been clients for years, B.A. Douglas said.

***

Today, to qualify for a cosmetology license, which can be obtained within a year, students must earn 1,500 hours studying sciences related to anatomy, the nervous system, fungi and other biological phenomena, along with training in sanitation, salesmanship and shop deportment, or professional conduct. Students also study makeup application and manicuring.

click to enlarge LIKE VELVET: The beauty school was named for the appearance of African-American hair. Here, Ebone Johnson is getting her hair done by Veronica Macon. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • LIKE VELVET: The beauty school was named for the appearance of African-American hair. Here, Ebone Johnson is getting her hair done by Veronica Macon.

Velvatex graduates about eight to nine students a year; some of the 15-20 who are enrolled annually may break from their training. While it isn't the largest beauty school around, Velvatex certainly prides itself in holding its own, instructor Woods said.

Woods, who received her cosmetology license in 1955 and instructor's license in 1966, has a relationship with Velvatex that is storied: She worked under both Patterson and Towns and credits much of her career journey — including the nearly 30 years spent instructing at Velvatex — to the legacy they created.

"I would think that they would say, 'I thank God for enabling us to make it such a beautiful place,' " Woods said from behind the instructor's desk of the school's classroom. "It doesn't have to be the biggest school. It's not the quality or the size; it's what you get out of it inside. I just think they would be very, very proud. In fact, I know they would — I knew them."

Both students and staff say Velvatex is not just an educational resource: It's family. Its meet-you-where-you-are approach differs slightly from how Towns ran the school, but is key for many of its nontraditional students today. "Some come in, and they're not sure. That's when I like coming in to instill in them that self-awareness, that independence that they feel they don't have," B.A. Douglas said.

Before she enrolled at Velvatex, Macon said, she lacked a career path. But in the two and a half years during which she's been at the college, the staff has been a constant source of encouragement as she works toward her career as a stylist. For these students, and others, spending a Saturday morning at the school to refine hairdressing or shop management skills isn't just carrying forward a tradition; it's finding one's place. 

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