Jheri Curl, Conk, Dreadlocks & Afro

Black Hair History
Madame C.J. Walker
Madame C.J. Walker

Moving from the nineteenth century: resourceful children of former slaves making African herbal scalp potions; steel combs heated on a stove; door-to-door personal sales and Black segregated business; into the twentieth century: educated sales agents; struggles for emancipation and integration; Black beauty, fashion and musical culture – and the expanding cosmetics industry; making and mass marketing of Black beauty products using chemistry, science and multi-media advertising that helped revolutionize Black self-image and pride


How Madame C.J. Walker Helped To Pioneer and Shape Black Hair Care

Madame C.J. Walker came from the cotton fields of the South. A daughter of former slaves, C.J. Walker owned and ran the largest Black-owned company in the United States.

The Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company made and distributed hair and beauty supplies for Black women. Included in the products were conditioners, growth stimulant, scalp aliment cures and an improved metal comb used to straighten curly hair. Walker saw so much success that she became the first female African American millionaire.

Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, Walker's parents were former slaves who became sharecroppers in Louisiana. Being poor, her parents died when Sarah was just seven years old. She and her older sister re-located to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Sarah married when she was fourteen and she had a daughter, Leila, in 1885. In 1887 Sarah's husband was killed and it was then that the young widow moved to St. Louis and found work as a washerwoman and a housekeeper. Soon after Sarah began to lose her hair-partly due to the method she was using to straighten her hair by dividing it into sections, wrapping string around the sections and twisting them-making her hair straighter when she combed it out later. Sarah could not find any product that saved her hair. She prayed for an answer and had a dream that a man appeared to her and told her what to mix to save her hair. Some of the remedy was only grown in Africa so she sent for it, mixed it and applied it to her scalp and in a few weeks her hair was growing back quickly. She shared the remedy with her friends and it helped them also. This is when Sarah decided to sell it. After much trial and error, she perfected her concoctions and sold them door to door in the Black community. Her product line expanded and she enjoyed success. Her re-designed steel comb with spaced teeth allowed Black women to straighten and press their hair easily. 

Sarah married Denver newspaperman Charles Joseph Walker in 1906 and although the marriage only lasted a few years, Sarah established The Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. Walker logged thousands of miles on the road selling her products along the way. While in Indianapolis in 1910, she was so very taken by the city that she moved her business there and built a new factory where she manufactured her products and set up a beauty school for training purposes.  The Walker empire quickly grew and she made sure to meet the leading Black leaders in the cities she visited while promoting her company and products. She knew full well that if these influential Blacks used her products that the rest of the population would follow.

Walker's revenues reached a half of a million dollars by 1917, with most of the success being built around her ever-expanding sales team, known as 'Walker agents'.  These women were dressed in long black skirts and white blouses and were a familiar sight in Black neighborhoods all across the United States as well as the Caribbean. Walker's employees considered themselves as being very fortunate.  Working for the C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was not only an honor, but it enabled many to become financially independent, purchase homes and pay for their children's education. 

Walker was a generous business woman, often donating large amounts of money to worthy causes and she encouraged her employees to do the same in their communities. She organized them into forming clubs for philanthropic purposes and even offered cash incentive prizes to the clubs who gave the most. 

Walker led an exciting and lavish lifestyle. She was a striking woman at six feet tall and big boned. She turned heads wherever she went. She wore the latest fashions, expensive jewelry, had an electric car and dined in the best restaurants. She built a quarter of a million dollar Georgian mansion in Irvington that was complete with a gold piano. 

In 1919 Walker died at age 52 of kidney failure. Her fast-paced lifestyle had finally taken its toll and she had ignored warnings from her doctors to take it easy and slow down the pace. She left behind a thriving company, a lot of property and a fortune worth more than $1 million.   Walker willed two thirds of her fortune to charity and educational institutes and the other third to her daughter who took over as company president. 


Garrett Morgan
Garrett Morgan


Garrett Morgan invents a chemical hair relaxer, 1909

Garrett Augustus Morgan is better known for his lifesaving inventions of a hooded gas mask and automatic traffic signals, but his first commercially successful invention was a chemical hair straightener.
Morgan was a successful businessman who owned a company selling and repairing sewing machines and tailoring clothes in Cleveland. Sewing machine needles often overheated due to friction at higher speed, scorching the materials being sewn. Morgan experimented with liquid polish applied to the needles that would reduce friction and allow sewing at higher speed. He discovered that the liquid also straightened the disheveled nap of the pony-fur cleaning cloth on which he had wiped his hands. He theorized that the fluid had actually straightened the hair fibers. In order to confirm his theory, he decided to apply some of the fluid to the hair of a neighbor's dog, an Airedale with wiry, woolly coat. The fluid straightened the dog's hair. Morgan then decided to try the fluid on himself. It worked. Morgan set up the G.A. Morgan Refining Company and marketed the product as G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Cream, a huge success.


The Evolution of Black Hair 

Blacks have been using their West African roots along with their own artistry to create styles and standards that are reflected in the unique Black culture. In the mid 1440s when African slaves were brought to the 'New World', they were confronted with their very first loss of identity. They were suddenly thrust into a beauty standard set by privileged people of fair skin-straight hair and thin features. This was quite the contrast to the African dark skin, curly hair and wider noses and mouths. Many slaves, simply to survive, had to quickly get used to the European style of beauty that surrounded them. Many slaves were forced to become beauticians and barbers for their white owners while others attempted to maintain their African roots by braiding their hair into patterns with the use of natural herbs they obtained from trees. Slave owners were also notorious for purposely dehumanizing the Black woman by referring to her hair as woolly. Black women were also depicted in newspaper and poster illustrations to make them look barbaric and ugly. The Black woman was focused upon because, due to her insecurities, she would pass these on to her children and down through the generations and if a whole group of people are insecure surely they are easy to control. 

Due to our multicultural heritage, one cannot pinpoint just one type of 'typical' African American hair. African American hair varies from fine to medium to coarse and it can be straight, wavy or tight. Color-wise it ranges anywhere from blonde to red to varying shades of browns to black. The hair of Blacks' is usually more coarse, has a tighter curl pattern and is more naturally delicate than the hair of Caucasians or of Asians. It is also more vulnerable to damage from harsh chemicals. 

African American hair has the same chemical keratin protein structure as other hair types. However, the difference is with the wave, curl, bonding pattern and cross section shape, as true Afro textured hair is elliptical in shape when looked at in cross section, this causes the the hair to curl in on itself, as it grows, causing the hair to be Afro textured in nature.  When slavery ended in the 1860s there were many Blacks who were very knowledgeable concerning European hair care. It was then that Blacks began to work in beauty and barber shops in their own communities and these establishments became more and more important in the economic and social structure within the Black communities. These businesses were not only a place Blacks could go to get their hair done, but also served as locations where Blacks could congregate and discuss the goings on in their community. Beauty and barber shops provided a unique social function and that remains so today. 

It is thought by many African Americans that Blacks were forced to imitate the European standards of beauty in order to be accepted by the white culture and especially by white slave owners as well as by employers. Generations of Black hairstyles reflect this in the history and evidence of how Blacks wore their hair. Black hair was straightened, combed and parted to mimic Western hairstyles. In response to this, the Black hair care market expanded quickly. There were many times in history however, that African Americans went back to their roots concerning hair styles. During the “Black is Beautiful” era of the turbulent 1960s, the afro debuted and widely became the hairstyle of choice. This movement was created to celebrate the beauty of Black people and it helped Black people gain self confidence as well as show the world that Black people were indeed beautiful. 

The Black is Beautiful movement went on throughout the 60s but with time the peaceful movement was changing and was being run by extremists. The afro became intertwined with violent acts. By the time the 70s rolled around the afro was just another hair style. It did not carry any special meaning as people from all over the world were wearing Afros until the point where the afro was being joked about in the media. People were no longer threatened by seeing an afro on a Black person. Dreadlocks and cornrows were still not in the mainstream and Black men and women were being fired from their jobs for wearing those hairstyles. On the contrary, if a white woman went to work wearing cornrows she would be complimented on how good they looked on her. Double standards began to emerge. When actress Bo Derek wore cornrows in the movie “10”, Black people were insulted which was interesting considering the fat that when Cicely Tyson proudly wore cornrows  in 1963 on national television the Blacks applauded her. In the 1980s and 90s the more traditional West African styles resurfaced as many people sported braids in traditional patterns. Beauty shops sprang up that specialized in West African traditional hairstyles. 
Toward the end of the last century relaxed hair was popular once again. The Jheri curl emerged.  It was widely used to create wet and loose curls for both sexes. Dreadlocks, twists, corkscrews, fades and other styles were worn that complimented the natural texture of Black hair. In spite of poor economic times, the Black-owned and run hair salons were doing a booming business in the cities. Even the African Americans who had moved into the white suburbs returned to the Black neighborhoods to have their hair treated and styled.
Today, Blacks are losing control over the Black hair care market as mergers and acquisitions are tearing down the old Black-owned structures. The turning point that received the most attention was when L'Oreal acquired Carson. What resulted was the two most successful Black-owned hair care companies were now under ownership of mega giant L'Oreal. It was widely known the large amount of money Blacks poured into hair care and it was only a matter of time until a takeover of this type occurred. 

History of Relaxing Black Hair 
In the late 1800s Madame C.J. Walker sold a steel comb that was originally heated up over an open fire. Using a hot comb did not come without dangers as an excessively hot comb can easily burn hair and also cause permanent damage.  Hot combing or pressing hair to straighten it was widely used until for nearly 100 years until it faded from popularity to make room for the chemical relaxers that were available. 

In the 1920s through the 1960s African American men wore the 'conk' hairstyle. This hairstyle was worn by men who had naturally kinky hair. Nearly every Black-owned and operated barbershop in the United States had at least one barber who specialized in conking hair. The name conk is derived from congolene.  Congolene is a gel-like substance that was made from potatoes, eggs and lye. Lye is very corrosive so it had to be washed  out quickly and hairdressers also had to wear protective gloves while applying congolene.  This chemical relaxer, which was sometimes nothing more than pure lye) was applied to the hair so it could be styled in certain ways. Conks sometimes were worn as large pompadours while others chose to just slick their straightened hair back. Conks took quite a long time and effort to maintain. Men were also required to repeatedly re-apply these relaxers to their hair in order to maintain the style as new hair grew. 

The conk was very popular among Black musicians in the beginning and the middle of the 20th century with the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, James Brown. The members of the Temptations and The Miracles all sported the style. When the Afro emerged in the 1960s during the 'Black Power' era, the conk fell out of popularity. Today, the Reverend Al Sharpton continues to sport a conk hairstyle. 

During the 1960s the world still did not view the Black woman with much respect. If a Black woman was seen out in public wearing her hair naturally, she was despised by the whites as well as by fellow  African Americans. The general consensus was that a Black woman simply could not find a husband unless she wore straight hair nor could she find work. Black women in newspapers, magazines and posters all were shown with straightened hair. The Black woman was told repeatedly that in order to be beautiful she had to straighten her hair. 

This near 'requirement' that Black women must straighten their hair if they wished to be happy and succeed in life of course has changed dramatically since then. Today Black women are wearing their hair any way they see fit to enhance their overall looks and to be stylish. 
S.B. Fuller
S.B. Fuller



Samuel “S.B.” Fuller, master salesman and founder of the S.B. Fuller Products Company, 1929
Throughout the 1930s Fuller established a line of household, hair care, perfume and beauty products and hired salespeople to market them door-to-door, primarily in Chicago's South Side Black community. By expanding his sales force and hiring college grads to meet the needs of the growing market for personal care products that included a Black identity, Fuller soon become one of the city's most prominent Black businessmen.
In 1947 Fuller secretly acquired Boyer International Laboratories, a manufacturer of cosmetics marketed primarily for Caucasian type skin and hair. However, quality beauty products are essentially colour blind, and through Fuller’s business-building and product development acumen Black customers soon made up 40% of the Boyer market. In an effort to avoid boycotts from whites who were loyal to Boyer’s products, Jean Nadal Cosmetics and H.A. Hair Arranger, the transaction remained secret for many years.
Business soared and by the early 1960s sales peaked at $10 million. Fuller now had a line of 300 products, some of them for the unique needs of Black hair curl relaxing and style management, and employed a racially integrated and college-educated sales force of 5,000. He sold the products in his department stores and from 85 sales branches in 38 states. The astute businessman decided to diversify his investment further and bought an interest in J. C. McBrady and Company and Patricia Stevens Cosmetics. He controlled or owned major shares in three large-circulation newspapers serving Black readership and was the first Black member of the National Association of Manufacturers.
Although his fortunes rose and fell throughout the tumultuous politics of desegregation and civil rights, Fuller’s courageous business model was an enduring framework of support for many Black entrepreneurs who followed.


George E. Johnson
George E. Johnson


George E.  Johnson, Soul Train and “Black is Beautiful”

George Johnson was a production chemist for S.B. Fuller in the early 1950s when he decided to strike out on his own, founding Johnson Products Company, making and selling a single product: a successful hair straightener for men called Ultra Wave. Despite competing with his former boss, when Johnson Products was burned out of its fledgling operation, Fuller enabled Johnson to use Fuller's facilities in the interim, to produce his hair care product line.
By 1957 Johnson had developed a new line called Ultra Sheen hair care products intended for use by salon professionals for African-American women.  Johnson told Essence magazine that the Black female consumer is no longer a marketing ‘afterthought’. Ultra Sheen soon became available in stores and Ultra Sheen no base crème relaxer followed. This was hugely successful for the company and a big breakthrough for Black women who now had versatility in hairstyling that had not existed before.
By 1971 JPC was listed on the American Stock Exchange, the first Black-owned company to trade on a major stock exchange. Johnson Products also became the sole Black advertiser to sponsor the nationally syndicated TV show, Soul Train.
In the mid-1970s, Johnson's expanding business occupied new headquarters covering 23 acres on Chicago's South Side. The Johnson Products Research Center boasted one of the country's largest laboratories devoted exclusively to hair care products for Blacks. Among the company's well-known products are Afro Sheen, Ultra Star, Classy Curl, Ultra Sheen Supreme, Soft Touch, Ultra Sheen's Precise, and Bantu product lines. With advertising campaigns that stressed “the best cosmetics to enhance the beauty, appearance, and image of African American women at any age."
As we have already mentioned, African American hair has the same keratin protein structure as other hair types but tends to be more vulnerable to damage from harsh chemicals. The difference is with the wave, curl and bonding pattern: the tighter the bond, the curlier the hair.  Hot pressing straightens hair temporarily; the hair will revert to curly when washed, or in humidity. Straightening chemicals usually alter the hair’s tight bonding pattern permanently.

Types of Hair Relaxers 
The process of relaxing hair with the use of chemicals is referred to as lanthionization. This method permanently straightens excessively curly hair. The first relaxers were available to the public in the 1940s and these were rather crude concoctions made up of either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide (lye), mixed with potato starch. The scalp was very irritated by the mixture. In spite of being irritating these relaxers permanently straightened hair and took care of the problem of reversion that resulted with hair pressing. 

The 1950s brought with it more advanced chemical formulas which mixed the sodium hydroxide with a cream base consisting of petrolatum, emulsifiers and fatty alcohols. Even though this was less irritating as the original chemical relaxers, it still was not all that pleasant. To counteract this, a 'base' of petrolatum was put on the scalp before the chemicals, which protected to scalp. This method quickly became popular because now people with very curly hair could wet-set their hair and style it as they pleased. This was a new revolution in Black hair care due to the wide array of styling options people now had but also due to the fact that even in the humid weather or after shampooing the hair would not revert back to its natural state. It was no longer necessary to use high temperatures to straighten or curl hair. The only thing that needed to be done after the initial treatment was to get regular touch-ups every two months or so. 

Hair relaxers continued to evolve since those times. In 1965, No Base Relaxers hit the market and these did not need to have a base applied to the scalp before treatment. Blow-Out Relaxers also were available that slightly relaxed the hair to make it easier to work with, but leaving a natural look. Texturizing Relaxers were similar to the Blow-Out Relaxers- they left waves in the hair instead of making the hair straight. No Lye Relaxers were used also that were made with a substance called guanidine hydroxide. The scalp was far less irritated and and the hair was straightened. A popular relaxer type is called a Conditioning Relaxer that had the option of either  Pre- and/or Post-Conditioners. These Conditioning Relaxers treated and repaired the shaft of the hair prior to, during and after the relaxation process. Today chemical relaxers are the main methods used by the majority of African American women.

Chemical hair straightening changes the basic structure of excessively curly hair so that it becomes straight. Many women do choose to straighten their hair at home but to prevent burns to the skin and scalp it is strongly recommended that people go to a professional to have the straightening done. 
Chemically straightened hair needs some extra special care to counteract the effects of the chemicals. Deep conditioning treatments need to be done once or twice a week. There are a number of products on the market that call themselves “natural relaxers”. The term relaxer in this case is a bit misleading, as natural relaxers simply are not going to transform kinky hair into bone straight hair in a 'all natural' manner. These natural relaxers are often made using herbal ingredients and they will gradually allow the natural curl pattern to relax, to a degree. The hair will thus become a bit less kinky, softer and a bit straighter. 


Reshaping or Perming African American Hair 
It is possible to reshape African American hair using a permanent, but there are a few risks involved. Black hair is prone to breakage due to its structural makeup. The hair fibers are tightly coiled and are  shorter and elliptically take up more space, thus making it much easier for the hair to tangle and breakable. Even with continuous moisturizing and applying oils to make the hair easier to manage, it is much easier to control hair that is straight and sleek. In order to obtain a sleek appearance, the actual molecular makeup of hair must be altered. In order to alter hair the protein must be manipulated. The protein in hair acts as a bonding agent and holds hair together. Because of the strength of alkali that is an ingredient found in many perms, the molecular protein can break down.  Many perms have the same pH balance as what is contained in a bottle of drain cleaner and these high PH balances cause the peptide bonds in the hair to become altered which destroys the protein and destroys the ability of the hair to hold itself together.  The result is hair that is dry, brittle and easily broken from the root.
Black hair is a hair type  that is textured so it can take quite a long period of time for a perm to set in, thus making the chemicals damaging to the hair. The scalp is also sensitive to perms as well. The good news is that many professional stylists that work with Black hair can use the correct combination of relaxers and chemical mixtures to prevent the hair from becoming overly damaged. It is not recommended for this reason to do a perm at home. A hair care professional is familiar with the chemical process and has a professional knowledge of how long the chemical should stay in, what products to use after the application and how to care for the hair once the process is completed. Hair care professionals also do a 'strand test' that gives them an indication of what strength to use depending on the state and health of the hair.

Evolution Of Styles: From Straight To Afro To Everything In Between And Back Again
The Conk and Pompadour: 1920-1960
The Conk

The Conk Hairstyle

The name ‘conk’ is derived from congolene, a gel-like substance made from potato starch, egg protein and corrosive lye. Congolene had to be applied with protective gloves, kept off the scalp and washed out quickly. The keratin proteins in the kinky hair were altered so that the strands relaxed and the hair could be styled in different ways from piled pompadour to hair parted and combed flat. From the 1920s through the 1960s nearly every Black-owned and operated barbershop in the United States had at least one barber who specialized in conking hair. Barbershops and salons also became more and more important in the economic and social structure within the Black communities, providing a unique social function that remains so today.
The conk was very popular among Black musicians in the beginning and the middle of the 20th century with the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and James Brown. The members of the Temptations and The Miracles all sported the style. When the Afro emerged in the 1960s during the 'Black Power' era, the conk fell out of popularity. Today, the Reverend Al Sharpton continues to sport a conk hairstyle.
The Afro and Black Power: 1965-1975
The Afro

The Afro Hairstyle

It was in the mid 60s that Negroes made the leap to being Black, if you ask people that were around then, prior to this leap, being called Black had negative aspects to the designation. During the “Black is Beautiful” era of the turbulent 1960s, the Afro debuted and widely became the hairstyle of choice, especially by young people restless for racial equality and acceptance that included Black identity as new political statement.  No longer willing to blend into the crowd, a new, younger generation of African Americans were saying, "how do you like me now", using hair as a public announcement of just where their state of mind was in rejecting traditional North American values of beauty. Straightening and flattening was rejected in favor of Afro-Picks and combs and "Blow-Out" products that released hair away from the scalp, into some pretty magnificent "naturals". You had Nina Simone playing in the background, while the sweet smell of Afro-Sheen wafted through urban American, ushering in revolution in how African Americans wanted the the rest of the world to perceive them, and a new found freedom on how they perceived themselves.
However, the Afro became associated, to a certain extent, with militant extremism and then lost favor over time as just another hair style, and then finally a hold-over hairstyle, worn by people that were trying to hold onto a time that had come, passed and made its mark, and had moved on. Today, the Afro is no longer a threatening political statement, but a retro look hairstyle, worn big and bushy or short and neatly groomed, closer to the scalp as a simple, low-maintenance, natural style worn by many busy people.
 The Jheri Curl

The Jheri Curl Hairstyle

Toward the end of the last century relaxed hair was popular once again. The Jheri curl emerged, which is a two part chemical process, the first part is using an ammonium thioglycolate based cream relaxer product to straighten the hair, then perm rods are placed in the hair and then the hair is formed to the pattern of these rods by a re-bonding liquid, commonly referred to as a neutralizer. It was widely used to create shiny, wet and loose curls for both sexes. Michael Jackson famously was wearing the Jheri curl style when his hair caught fire while filming a commercial when a pyro-technique stunt went wrong. People where looking for more versatility in styling, but the oily and wet look caused by the heavy moisturizing products needed to maintain the Jheri curl look, the way these products stained a person's collars and clothes, plus with the lengthy time needed to have one's hair styled in this manner, the Jheri curl hair style fell out of favor over time.
Dreadlocks, Braids and Cornrows

Dreadlocks Hairstyle

Where the Afro hair style had broader social and political unrest aspects to it, the choice of people to wear their hair in dreads, cornrows and braids had its roots in Afrocentrism, the wish of people to acknowledge where their ancestors came from and to say, I am quite happy being nappy, while also acknowledging their pride in being of African descent and using their hair as a way to display this pride in African culture. However, there were, and still are times, when Black men and women were sometimes being fired from their jobs, or not hired in the first place, for wearing natural African styles; the cornrows, beaded braids and dreadlocks, as mentioned. Ironically at times, women of other races, would be complimented being bold in their style choice for imitating Black hair fashion. When actress Bo Derek wore cornrows in the movie “10”, there were Black people who were offended by another hijacking of culture; when Cicely Tyson proudly wore cornrows in 1963, on national television, Blacks applauded her, as mentioned earlier.
In the 1980s and 90s the more traditional West African styles resurfaced as many people sported braids and beads in intricate patterns, as the Jheri curl faded off the scene and women were looking for more natural, Afrocentric solutions for their hair. Beauty shops sprang up that specialized in West African traditional hairstyles, staffed by skilled braiders, some coming right from Africa. These skilled salon artists became in great demand and specialized products were developed to nourish the scalp and clean hair gently without disturbing the corn rows or braids.
As we turned the century, into a new millenia, have come to have the greatest freedom, ever, to get to express who we are, as we feel, at any given point in our lives through our hair. You see it just walking down the street, Afros, cornrows, braids, twists, dreads, texturized, natural, relaxed, weaves, fades and yes, even the odd Jheri curl. The wonderful thing about this is that pretty much anything goes and there is nothing wrong in what's right for you, right now.