The Trailblazers of Black Beauty

The Trailblazers of Black Beauty

It’s February! And yes, it’s Black History Month, but don’t just spend the next 28 days reposting fun facts about African-Americans on your Instagram story. Take the time to actually understand the strength, tenacity, and history of African-Americans. Many Black Americans grew up with their parents telling them, “ You have to work twice as hard, to be just as good. ” For centuries, it has been drilled into the minds of Black people to work even harder, because to be “accepted” you have to prove yourself.

Black people, especially Black women, have always been the blueprint in America, specifically when it comes down to the beauty industry. According to Essence Magazine: “In 2018 the Black hair care industry raked in an estimated $2.51 billion, as Black consumers have progressively made the switch from general products to those that specifically cater to them.” The Black buying power in the beauty world is pretty astronomical, but we must salute the pioneers of beauty and health that created the recipes and routines that changed the beauty industry forever.


Madam CJ Walker(1867- 1919)  

She was the blueprint for all beauticians, born Sarah Breedloove, on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana, Madam C.J. Walker became the first female self-made millionaire in America (fun fact: It’s recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records) . She was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist. It is mentioned on that she “invented a line of African American hair products after suffering from a scalp ailment that resulted in her own hair loss. She promoted her products by travelling around the country giving lecture demonstrations and eventually established Madam C.J. Walker Laboratories to manufacture cosmetics and train sales beauticians. Her business acumen led her to be one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire. She was also known for her philanthropic endeavors, including a donation toward the construction of an Indianapolis YMCA in 1913”.

Without her there would be no Carol’s Daughter, Mixed Chicks, or any other Black-owned haircare companies. She was the first and definitely not the last.


Madame N.A. Franklin (1892- 1934) 

Just like Madam C.J. Walker, Madame N.A. Franklin also had her own growing beauty empire. Born Nobia A. Franklin, in DeWitt County, Texas, she was a beautician and entrepreneur. According to the Texas State Historical Association “ Sometime in the 1910’s, she moved from her rural community to nearby San Antonio, Texas. Eventually Franklin opened a thriving salon in her home. The young woman not only styled hair but also developed cosmetics for her growing clientele. Franklin sold self-manufactured hair tonics, creams, oils, bleaching agents, straightening combs, shampoos, powders, rouges, and lipsticks.” In the early 1920’s she migrated to Chicago with her daughter to expand her business and for better opportunity.”

“In 1927 the pair formed the N. A. Franklin Association of Beauty Culture to institutionalize her product line among nascent sales agents. The association not only trained women in hair styling and management techniques but inspired salespeople to inculcate good morals, respect, frugality, timeliness, and Christian uplift. The pair especially encouraged the sales representatives to establish salons and sell her products. To no avail, Franklin’s designs never reached the success of her predecessors and contemporaries. For one, Chicago had its share of black hair consultants and enterprises, including those entrepreneurs who succeeded in these initiatives.” Franklin chose not to patent her products which was a challenge to gather national support, but she still made a name for herself during a time when Black beauty needed to be seen.


Theodore K. Lawless. MD (1892- 1971) 

Black health/skincare has never been easy to manage because not all products and medicines are made for melanin skin, that’s why we must acknowledge Theodore K Lawless. He was born in Thibodaux, Louisiana, and soon after moved to New Orleans. Black Past states that,“ Lawless attended Straight University (now Dillard University) and transferred to Talladega College in Alabama where he graduated with an A.B. in 1914. He completed his MD in 1919 and MS in 1920, from the University of Kansas School of Medicine and Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, respectively.

Dr. Lawless continued graduate studies at Columbia Medical School and Harvard Medical School before receiving further training in Europe. He studied abroad in Paris, France, Vienna, Austria and Freiburg, Germany, mastering dermatology programs and working in European hospitals before ultimately returning to Chicago in 1924.” When he returned to the United States, he opened his own private dermatology practice in Chicago which was widely recognized by the Black community.

Lawless wasn’t just a dermatologist, he was philanthropist. He gave so much of his time to his community that he saw nearly 100 patients daily with common and rare skin conditions. While maintaining his own practice, he was also a professor of syphilology and dermatology at his alma mater, Northwestern University, from 1924 to 1940. Lawless became the first Black member of Chicago’s Board of Health and was awarded the NAACP’s highest honor, the Moorland-Spingarn medal.


Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner(1912-2006)  

Imagine changing the entire industry of women’s hygiene, but never getting recognition because you are Black. Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner was born in Monroe, North Carolina into a family of innovative thinkers. According to Lemelson- MIT, “ As a young child, Kenner was always coming up with creative solutions to problems. At the precocious age of six, she attempted to invent a self-oiling door hinge. Other childhood inventions included putting a sponge at the tip of an umbrella to soak up rainwater, and a portable ashtray to attach to a cigarette pack. In 1924, the Davidson family moved to Washington, D.C. and Kenner graduated from Dunbar High School in 1931. She enrolled at Howard University, but subsequently dropped out due to financial constraints. To make ends meet, she held various jobs, and became a federal employee during World War II. After the war, Kenner became a professional florist, while simultaneously inventing in her free time. In 1951, Kenner married James “Jabbo” Kenner and the couple fostered five children, eventually adopting one son.

Kenner’s first patent came in 1957 for the sanitary belt, which was used to hold sanitary napkins in place. This was before adhesive maxi pads and tampons were invented. Although Kenner had invented the sanitary belt years before, she could not afford to file for a patent, and she experienced racism in her quest to obtain a patent. “One day I was contacted by a company that expressed an interest in marketing my idea. I was so jubilant … I saw houses, cars and everything about to come my way,” Kenner remarked in Laura F. Jeffrey’s book, Amazing American Inventors of the 20th Century. “Sorry to say, when they found out I was black, their interest dropped.” Kenner never received any accolades or recognition for her inventions before her death in 2006, but she definitely should have.

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