A History Of Black Hair In America

Photo: Dezo Hoffmann/Rex USA
As February is Black History Month, I wanted to do something to celebrate such a rich, beautiful heritage, but also something a bit daring and bold. I don't think anything could encompass all those descriptors as much as a timeline on the varied history of black hair in America. Like a great tree, much about the conditions for our survival and ability to thrive can be seen through our roots.
Black hair has its beginnings in incredibly tough circumstances. Taken to foreign lands and forced to submit to European standards of beauty, we've had incredible strain placed upon our hair to look and behave a certain way. The varied styles that have evolved have seen a return of more natural textures with a nod to the versatility that the choice is ours now and ours alone. But some struggles with this topic still remain.
Creating this slideshow, I wanted to highlight how much the black beauty regimen has evolved. Although not every single item or influencer to exist is featured, it's my greatest intent to show as much historical significance as possible and to be respectful to the facts and the groundbreaking pioneers that have made their mark on our hair story. As for our future, much has yet to be revealed, but my hope is that this journey through black hair and our culture will leave you with a little more understanding around the complexity around our choice of styles.
Black is, indeed, beautiful. As a proud African-American woman, I invite you to come along, to see how gorgeous we are, and how much history we have in our hair.
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Photo: Courtesy of LiveAuctions.com.
As slaves are brought over to help colonize America in the 1700s, the non-European texture of their native hair is referred to as "wool." While their native culture is systematically erased, smoother textures of Caucasian and mixed-heritage hair textures are seen as more favorable. The phrase "good hair" makes its way into the lexicon and the cultural stigma continues, even after slavery ends in 1865.

Hot combs, also known as "pressing combs," are created by the French in 1845 and arrive in America in 1880. The combs are heated on stoves and gas heaters and used to temporarily straighten and smooth black hair, .
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Photo: Everett Collection/Rex USA
In the 1900s, Madame C.J. Walker develops a line of hair-care products for African-American hair texture. She revolutionizes the press-and-curl style, and in 1910, The Guinness Book of World Records lists her as the first female American self-made millionaire.
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Photo: Courtesy of Biography.com.
Garrett A. Morgan, a sewing machine repairman in Kentucky, figured out how to create a relaxer from a solution used to reduce needle friction on wool in 1909. He founds the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company, which creates the first chemical relaxers. George E. Johnson would follow in 1954, founding the Johnson Products Empire, which introduces the first permanent hair straightener for men, the Ultra Wave Hair Culture. The female version of the relaxer soon follows, and sales skyrocket with the promise of straighter, more Caucasian-like hair texture.
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Photo: Dezo Hoffmann/Rex USA
The 1960s Motown culture brings black music to the forefront of American culture. Many women copy the hairstyles of singers such as The Supremes by using relaxers and donning wigs.
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Photo: Courtesy of Westbound Records.
In 1966, things begin to change, as model Pat Evans defies convention and redefines black beauty by choosing to shave her head.
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Photo: AF Archive/Alamy
in 1968, Diahann Carroll breaks ground with her role in "Julia," becoming the first black woman to star in her own series on episodic television. Many women of color copy her smooth, relaxed hairstyle with curls for the workplace.
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Photo: Courtesy of Johnson Publications.
Actress Cicely Tyson makes a statement by wearing cornrows in the 1962 television drama, East Side/West Side. She makes further history by appearing in the style on the cover of JETmagazine in 1973.
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Photo: Courtesy of Conde Nast Publications.
In 1974, another landmark magazine cover drops: Beverly Johnson becomes the first black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue, sporting long, smoother textured hair.
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Photo: Everett Collection/Rex USA
Political activist Angela Davis embodies the Black Power movement of the 1970s, letting her own Z-curl texture grow into an Afro. Many other celebrities show support for the movement, including 70s actress Pam Grier.
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Photo: Everett Collection/Rex USA
1977: We see the creation and explosion of the jheri curl, a style that promises defined curls without kink, as modeled here on soul singer Donna Summer. Sales of the perm, activator, and moisturizer skyrocket through the 1980s and make their mark on popular culture, including a nod in Eddie Murphy's 1988 comedy, Coming to America.
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Photo: Warner Brothers/Everett/Rex USA
In 1979, Caucasian actress Bo Derek wears cornrows in the movie 10. Many other white women copy the style.
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Photo: Andrew Csillag/Rex USA
In 1980, model/actress/singer Grace Jones skyrockets in popularity with her flat-top fade haircut and gorgeous natural beauty.
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Photo: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy
Spike Lee releases the movie School Daze in 1988, a commentary on the struggle within the black community with skin tone bias (lighter vs. darker complexions) and differing hair textures. The concept of "good hair," or Caucasian-textured hair, makes it way to the cinema.
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Photo: SNAP/Rex USA
In 1992, Halle Berry makes her major cinematic break in Eddie Murphy's Boomerang, sporting a short, smooth hairstyle. Many women of varying ethnicities copy her look.
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Photo: Everett Collection/Rex USA
Following the success of The Cosby Show and A Different World, Living Single, a sitcom featuring four women of African-American descent with a variety of hairstyles, textures and skin tones, premieres in 1993. The show is an instant hit and runs for five seasons on Fox.
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Photo: AF Archive/Alamy
Janet Jackson, known for her many hair transformations, sports long box braids as part of her role in 1993's Poetic Justice, opposite rapper Tupac Shakur.
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Photo: Charles Sykes/Rex USA
In the mid-1990s, singer/actress Aaliyah becomes world famous. The rise in permanent hair straightening and hair weaves to get longer, Caucasian-textured hair increases.
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Photo: Courtesy of Time Inc.
The late 1990s also sees rapper/singer Lauryn Hill on the cover of Time in locks. She's also listed as one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People in 1999.
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Photo: Courtesy of Carol's Daughter.
In 1997, Lisa Price founds Carol's Daughter, a hair-care line created in her Brooklyn apartment specifically for the unique needs of black hair, especially natural, untampered textures. The natural movement gains ground once again.
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Photo: Courtesy of Universal Music.
Also in 1997, Erykah Badu releases her album, "Baduizm," displaying her wrapped hair on the cover. Afrocentrism takes rise in the national dialogue.
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Photo: Courtesy of Atlantic Records.
Rapper Lil' Kim sports a blonde weave on the cover of her eponymous 2000 album. The diverse offering of styles open to women of color grows ever wider.
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Photo: Matt Baron/Rex USA
The singers of Destiny's Child spark hair and fashion frenzies across the world with their varying lengths, textures and styles in the early 2000's.
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Photo: Matt Baron/BEImages
Tracee Ellis Ross shows her natural curls as Joan on UPN's Girlfriends from 2000 to 2008, inspiring many women with curlier textures to embrace their own natural hair. Chris Rock's 2009 documentary Good Hair comes to the forefront of the national dialogue, revealing much about the culture of black women and their hair.
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Photo: Peter Brooker/Rex USA
In 2012, actress Viola Davis looks absolutely stunning on the Oscars red carpet, igniting controversy about her decision to go with her natural hair texture for the big event.
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Photo: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/Corbis
Today, one of the greatest influences continues to be Beyoncé, a known hair chameleon shows a variety of styles, lengths and textures (seen most recently here at the Grammy Awards). What will she do next? We'll stay tuned to find out.
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