Black Hair Power: A Discussion of the Role of Black Hairdressers in Nineteenth-Century California

Black respectability of the 1860s compelled Black men and women of the time to behave and dress in order to force white society to acknowledge their humanity. Blacks believed that to uplift themselves they must value themselves beyond their use to whites. The respectability politics of the day focused on the uplift of Blackness.  John Meachum, who published Address to All Colored Citizens of the United States, declared, "If you do not respect yourself others will not respect you." As historian Erica Ball argues,  "Meachum urged his readers to fashion themselves into respectable men and women through education, temperance, industry, and morality.”[1] Respectable men and women of the time were those who were capable of participating in and profiting from the capitalist society, accumulating the image of wealth. Capitalism is ultimately a white system, one that Blacks of the time wished to fully engage in though it rejected them. Whiteness rejected all images of Blackness hence the emergence of an antebellum white visual culture of mocking the ideals of Black uplift. The image of whiteness had to be established in order to keep Blacks from being seen as legitimate persons and citizens. Hairdressers served as the bridge between Black citizens and respectability as their work was to manage what whites had represented as an animalistic characteristic. Black women hairdressers, in this sense, were determiners of humanity, for their work produced visible indicators of wealth (the ability to pay for their work) and personhood in the rejection of unruly hair.

Black hair possessed the ability to determine personhood, a political power that has yet to cease completely. In the 1806 Virginia court case Hudgins v. Wright, a family’s freedom was determined based on their physical closeness to whiteness.  The judge in the case claimed, “Nature has stampt upon the African and his descendants two characteristic marks, besides the difference of complexion, which often remain visible long after the characteristic distinction of colour either disappears or becomes doubtful; a flat nose and woolly head of hair. The latter of these disappears the last of all…”[2]  The women of this family were freed because of their straight hair.  This case set the precedent for the power of hair--at least white-looking hair. Blackness was defined by more than melanin in this case where hair was determined to be the ultimate deciding factor. Hair was and is an important signifier of access to a citizen's life in the United States. For the Black community, the maintaining of Black hair was a priority for the politics of respectability because middle-class Blacks were attempting to establish their humanity. Black hair has been referred to as sheep fleece or "wool," a clearly dehumanizing phrase.  Historically, Black Americans had to combat such descriptions in order to move forward. As the Black Studies scholar Ingrid Banks states, “Hair matters in black communities…What is deemed desirable is measured against white standards of beauty, which include long and straight hair (usually blonde), that is, hair that is not kinky or nappy.”[3] 

The Elevator: Hair Ads

Elevator, January 3, 1863. California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, <>.

The 1865 California Colored Convention illustrated the stark power of Black hair in the nineteenth century. In an attempt to gauge and monitor Black wealth in California, the convention produced census data including the occupations of Blacks in the different counties. Black wealth provided a way for the Black residents of California to prove economic autonomy, a political power that legitimized their claim to suffrage following the Civil War. El Dorado County serves as a prime example of the presence of hairdressing as an important economic activity among Black Californians. With a population of 350 Black men, women, and children, there were 25 Black hairdressers.[4] Black women hairdressers served an important role in the Black communities because they were independent entrepreneurs who must have served both Black and white customers to thrive. The number of Black hairdressers present is remarkable because it signifies a robust business which saw a lot of traffic from other Black women in the county. Black hair in one of the oldest and the third most populous California counties for the time period was relevant in everyday life. It can be inferred that these Black women customers, much like the Black women on the East coast, turned to respectability politics to demand their humanity in the supposed new frontier. While there were more economic opportunities due to the small California population, Blacks were still denied their rights to the same extent as those on the East coast. The 1865 conventions recognized the economic contribution of Black women to the building of Black wealth.  The listing of these businesses in convention records legitimized their participation in Black activism that otherwise would not have occured as women were not delegates to the convention.

Black newspapers ran ads for different products and space to rent for the hairdressers to have a store front. The Pacific Appeal ran ads listing salon and hair cutting chairs for sale as well as different brushes, perfumes, scissors/shears, etc. One edition has three ads geared towards hairdressers and barbers which show that their business also supported many other businesses in California.[5] Hairdressers were in fact economic powerhouses as different businesses used ads to woo hairdressers into supporting them. The Elevator also ran ads targeting the hairdressers’ customers with different dandruff products and hair dye.[6] The appearance of hair was a powerful cultural force, hence the multiple rejuvenating products geared towards Black people, the main audience of the Elevator. Both The Pacific Appeal and the Elevator were outlets for hairdressers to expand and maintain the connection between Black hair and respectability. Hairdressers like the ones in California paved the way for women like Madam C.J. Walker, the first Black woman millionaire whose empire was built on hair and trying to "humanize" it, moving away from the wool comparison, which at the time meant straightening it.



[1] Ball, Erica. To Live an Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Black Middle Class (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012).

[2] Ian Haney-Lopez, "The Social Construction of Race: Some Observations on Illusion, Fabrication, and Choice," Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 29 (1994): 1-62.

[3] Ingrid Banks, Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women's Consciousness (New York: New York University Press, 2000).

[4] California State Colored Convention, “Proceedings of the California State Convention of Colored Citizens, Held in Sacramento on the 25th, 26th, 27th, and 28th of October,",

[5] Pacific Appeal, January 3, 1863.

[6] Elevator, December 18, 1868. 


Written by Rosa Pleasant. Taught by Sharla Fett, History 213, Occidental College, Spring 2016

The Pacific Appeal: Hairdresser Ads

Pacific Appeal, December 18, 1868. California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, <>.