How these Black stylists are empowering people through hair

Andrew M. Santos

Lanasha Morgan’s hands methodically worked a crochet hook Thursday as she looped strands of hair into a cap atop Teresa Roach’s head, creating a cascade of black curls shielding her client’s natural hair from the ravages of cold, dry winter air.

“Right now, it’s wintertime so she’s protecting her hair,” Morgan told The Hawk Eye Thursday as she swept trimmings from the floor of Nae’s Boss Chix Beauty Salon. “Come summertime, she’s going to be wearing her own hair because the sun is out and you need the sun to hit your crown.”

Through protective hair styles and regular maintenance, Morgan has helped to grow Roach’s hair significantly over the past three or four years since Roach first became a client, It first began at another salon before Roach followed her to Nae’s, which Morgan opened in late August 2020 at the corner of Central Avenue and South Street.

The landscape of hair salons has changed in Burlington since her childhood, Roach said.

“There wasn’t really anybody back then,” Roach said, referring to a lack of salons with knowledge of how to do the hair of Black customers.

Instead, Roach remembers choir girls from her church sitting outside her home while her mother braided their hair and a woman by the name of Mabel Marsh, who ran a salon part-time from her home.

It was a time when ethnic hair was largely ignored by cosmetology schools, pushing Black men and women to turn to family members and friends or seek so-called kitchen stylists, with knowledge the result of generations of tradition within their families and communities.

The evolution of Burlington’s salon landscape

The absence of universal education on Black hair styling has lingered well into the 21st century.

“I have a few friends who actually went to cosmetology school and that’s just something they do actually lack in that setting is learning biracial cultural hair differences,” said Keneesha Brown, owner of Queens4Less, located within People’s Choice Barber and Beauty at 1200 S. Central Ave.

Morgan found this to be true, though not everywhere.

In 2002, she attended Capri College in Davenport for year, where she perfected her braiding to the point she can do an entire head of hair in two hours. The she transferred to the now-shuttered Dayton’s School of Hair Design in Burlington to be near family. The difference between the two schools was notable, she said.

“The teachers (in Burlington) didn’t want to teach us anything but Caucasian hair and perms and sprays and shampoo styles,” Morgan said. “It was a big change for me coming from there where I had a Black instructor and then coming here and I am the Black instructor. I just wasn’t getting paid for it.”

She and her cousin, Candace Lewis, found themselves intervening in lessons, instructing their peers of the importance of barrier cream and teaching that relaxers should be applied from root to tip to avoid over-processing that could result in breakage.

“I was teaching everybody how to do relaxers,” Morgan said. “I was teaching people how to basically relax and straighten out Black hair while I was there, because they had a teacher who would teach us, but she really didn’t know herself. We had plenty of people who said they were going to come and teach us Black hair, but they never came.”

‘She taught me everything I knew’

Aside from what she learned at Capri, Morgan’s knowledge of hair care, braiding and other styling was imparted on her starting at a young age by women in her family and their friends.

“I grew up going to my sister’s best friend who did my hair all my life — Latisha McCampbell,” Morgan said. “She taught me everything I knew as far as braiding and trying to keep your scalp healthy while you’re having braids in your hair. She basically taught me all of that, and that was just by watching.”

From her grandmother, the late Fannie Odessa-Campbell, Morgan learned to care for her hair as one does a flower or plant, making sure it gets plenty of nutrients, moisture and sunlight.

In her salon is a set of rollers passed down to her from her great aunt, the late Mary Baker, the first Black woman to serve on the Burlington City Council who also did hair in earlier years and encouraged Morgan to carve out her own path in life.

More: ‘She cared enough to try to make a difference’: Remembering Burlington pioneer Mary Baker

And it was while her mother, Julie White, was attending beauty school that Morgan would spend her after-school hours doing roller sets on mannequin heads. Her mother, who died of COVID-19 in Sept. 5, 2020, just one week after Morgan opened her own salon, would go on to pursue a career in nursing, but Morgan’s passion remained with hair.

“She always wanted me to do hair because she knew I was good at it,” Morgan said of her mother. “It’s kind of a tribute to her that I’m in here.”

How Brandstad’s braiding bill paved the way for a new generation of stylists

Much like Morgan, Brown largely learned to braid hair at her childhood home in Chicago, practicing on her sister’s hair and vice versa.

“It’s kind of a family tradition,” Brown said. “We’ve all really started at a young age, lessening the cost on hair. Being in poverty, you can’t really spend much money on hair or get your hair done as often, so we kind of learned in the house just practicing on each other, doing friends’ hair.”

It wasn’t until last year, however, that Brown began doing hair professionally.

She obtained a natural braiding certification from the Iowa Department of Public Health allowing her to style — but not cut or color — hair for pay without a cosmetology license.

Until 2015, when then-Gov. Terry Brandstad signed into law what is widely known as the hair-braiding bill, braiding hair for pay without a cosmetology license — which requires the completion of a 2,100 program and costs up to $22,000 — was considered a serious misdemeanor in Iowa punishable by up to a year in jail.

“They still have girls who do hair at home, but now they make it easy for them to do that because you can braid now and not have to have a license,” Morgan said.

The law was a victory for braiders that, coupled with popular culture and social media, helped to better normalize Black hairstyles.

“Now they’re kind of making it more normalized for us, kind of opening that door and letting the stylists know this is normal as well,” Brown said.

Morgan and Brown said they now have nearly as many white clients as Black clients wanting braids and dreadlocks as the hairstyles require little daily maintenance and have become more widely used across cultures.

‘It’s going to be a game-changer’: New law will make it easier to become a barber

David “Punch” Hampton still remembers doing his first haircut. He was a kid and a friend offered up his hair for Hampton to practice on.

“It was like patches and uneven,” he said with a laugh. “I shaved it off. That’s how you fix that problem.”

Over the years, Hampton drastically improved his barber abilities, cutting hair for friends at home, but it wasn’t until a couple years ago that he decided to make a career out of it. A good chunk of money and 2,100 hours later, he completed the barber licensure program at the American Hair Academy in Mount Pleasant.

Just before Hampton completed his program, the Iowa Legislature passed a bill allowing people to achieve licensure through apprenticeships with barbers with at least three years of experience, so long as they pass a test.

“They don’t have to pay and they get paid,” said John Fenton, who opened People’s Choice in 2009. “It’s going to be a game changer for Burlington especially. The barber industry is dying.”

Fenton submitted his final paperwork for his shop to take on apprentices early Thursday to the U.S. Department of Labor, and he already has three apprentices lined up.

“It’s cool for the people just starting out,” Hampton said, his face fixed in a dead-pan before breaking into laughter.

There are only two barbershops in Burlington, and the bell on the front door of People’s Choice rings constantly with clients, many of whom have been regularly coming to the barbershop since they were in diapers.

Fenton is especially excited about the opportunities the change will provide for teens in his neighborhood, some of whom he has already taught how to cut.

“A kid might be talented in doing hair, but he might not have the drive to go to college,” Fenton said. “He just wants to come straight to the barbershop. Before, I couldn’t do that. It’s a $5,000 fine for me. But now, I can train him and he might teach me. He might show me some tricks.

“So this kid who couldn’t do it before, didn’t have the energy to go to school because there’s no housing assistance, now he can stay in his hometown and get paid while he’s doing it.”

Those barbers will show what they can do as Fenton, Hampton, Brown, Nick Nelson and Willie Bruner will be giving free haircuts to Iowa Wesleyan University students from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday at the Mount Pleasant campus.

The free haircuts are nothing new for People’s Choice, who hold them annually before the start of the new school year. The haircuts at IW are being offered at the request of Dwayne Frazier, IW Vice President of academic affairs, to honor Black History Month and offer fresh cuts for international students who have yet to find a good barber.

Fenton said between 90 and 120 people are expected to turn out for cuts and braids. The most he personally has done in a day is 27.

‘We’re not trying to water ourselves down’: The embrace of natural hair and wigs

The wall dividing People’s Choice and Queens4Less nearly runs the length of the barbershop and stops short of reaching the ceiling so the women getting braids from Brown can holler back and forth with the men getting cuts at People’s Choice.

“That is kind of like my feminine area,” Brown said, explaining she painted the walls pink just ahead of her one-year anniversary at the shop. “It kind of separates me from the males coming in and out.”

The wall, Brown explained, serves the purpose of helping her clients feel more comfortable.

“Everybody doesn’t like their hair being exposed,” Brown said. “Some people might be coming out of depression and they might not have combed their hair for weeks, months or years.

“Some people just aren’t comfortable letting everybody see their hair or their natural state, because I was one of those people, so that kind of gives us that privacy, just to give them that comfortability knowing that nobody else will see what we’re doing over here.”

Brown, who also is a college student and has another job at Carvana, learned to embrace her natural hair as a teenager when she moved to West Burlington from Chicago. Seeking a way to express the major life transition, she shaved half her head and worked the other half into different styles, going to People’s Choice on a regular basis.

The other girls at the predominantly white West Burlington High School could swoop their long hair into a bun, something that would have required Brown to straighten her hair and “strip it down to basically nothing.”

“At that point, I felt like I wasn’t normal because I was the one fighting to fit in every single day,” Brown said. “When you’re surrounded by people who don’t look like you, you feel out of place already.”

But it was admiration expressed by these same classmates that made her appreciate the beauty of her natural hair.

“They definitely made sure that once I got in there that I never felt that way again,” she said. “Every time I walked into the school, they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I love your hair.’ It was just having someone appreciate who you were and boosting that self esteem that you didn’t know you had.”

Brown recently shaved her head and is glad she did, hoping it will help other women of color embrace their natural locks.

“I’m going through the natural state and growing it back and just kind of feeling out my culture and knowing what’s going on because I wasn’t comfortable wearing it because I was one of those people who wasn’t comfortable wearing it because I wasn’t pushed to,” she said.

Morgan attributes the self-consciousness surrounding natural hair that gave rise to the use of damaging chemicals like relaxers to 1960s-era scrutiny by employers and a desire to fit in.

“Relaxers were a way for women to feel like they fit in where they were working at, their environment,” she said. “People didn’t look at them like, ‘Oh my God, their hair’s so nappy. It’s so out of place.'” It literally made you feel like, ‘I can fit in with these people and they’re not going to look at me like what did she do to her hair? Why’d she come in here with an afro?'”

Morgan has seen the use of relaxers fade in recent years, replaced by natural products geared toward hair health and women gradually feeling more comfortable wearing their hair in their natural state.

“Women now are basically trying to step into themselves,” Morgan said. “We’re not trying to water ourselves down to fit in in the situation. We are who we are. Our beauty is everything, so that’s what it’s always been like for Black women with our hair.

“We’ve always praised our hair, so us having a relaxer was us trying to fit in, but going natural, that was you. That’s your hair. That’s your natural-grown hair that came out of your scalp.”

Morgan’s clients come from all walks of life, but the ones she enjoys most are children brought to her salon by foster parents.

“I have foster parents who bring in six or seven kids at once and I do them all in one day, and they all have different textures of hair. Nobody’s hair is the same,” she said. “They all have different textures of hair. Tighter curl, loose curl, straight.”

She enjoys helping those children find their own styles that help them to appreciate the beauty of their hair. It also gives her the opportunity to educate foster parents on how to care for different-textured hair while helping it to grow.

“It’s all about the time that you take,” she said. “You’ve got to take time with Black hair. It’s never an easy thing getting your hair done when you’re Black.”

It’s in part because of this that Morgan has upward of 40 wigs at home that have helped her to grow her dreads below her shoulders and save time getting ready in the mornings.

“Women nowadays work two and three jobs. The future is female,” Morgan said, explaining her sister, Shaunda Campbell, helped to raise her in a household of strong women. “We’re wearing two and three hats, and we have to look the part. We can be bosses. We can do whatever we want. We are capable of everything.”

And that’s how she wants her clients — men and women alike — to feel when they leave her salon.

Brown and Morgan believe that today’s hair trends will encourage more women, as well as young girls, to gain confidence, regardless of their hairstyle.

“Your hair symbolizes power to me because our hair grows out big. It grows out, it doesn’t grow down. You appreciate it and embrace it,” Brown said. “To anybody struggling or having a problem with being OK with their natural hair, it is OK and we are beautiful.”

This article originally appeared on The Hawk Eye: How Black stylists have shaped Burlington’s salon landscape

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