It was a usual day at the salon for Isis Brantley, an expert African Hair braider in Dallas, Texas, when cops showed up at her door. The mother of five is well known for her expertise in the art of braiding hair the African way. No heat or chemicals were used during her sessions; just pure creativity and talent. She had a huge clientele, including Erykah Badu, and had taught about a hundred others the art as well.
What would become known as the “new civil rights movement” began in 1997 when the group of undercover cops barged into Brantley’s store.
“As soon as I opened up the shop, wow, the red tape was wrapped around my hands,” she said.
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“Seven cops came in, in front of my clients, and arrested me and took me to jail like a common criminal. The crime was braiding without a cosmetology license.”
Before she had the chance to fully investigate what this would mean for her, she was arrested. She was later released and had to pay a mandatory $600 fine for the offense.
Apparently, Brantley and other African hair braiders were required to work with state licensing. This at the time seemed like a fallacy, but it was true. African hair braiders and some other occupations needed to meet licensing requirements before they could serve the public.
In the 1950s, about five percent of all workers, roughly about 70 occupations, needed to meet licensing requirements. As of 2008, the numbers have shot up to encompass about 29 percent of all occupations across states which now include over 800 occupations.
Meanwhile, licensing requirements have been proven to “raise the price of goods and services, restrict employment opportunities, and make it more difficult for workers to take their skills across state lines.”
In 2007 when the state of Texas began regulating hair braiders, “natural hair braiders were lumped with barbers and cosmetology practitioners, requiring natural hair braiders to attend cosmetology school and complete a 35-hour course on hair braiding. This meant coming up with tuition and spending 2,250 hours in barber school and passing four exams,” according to a report.
Brantley and the others in her field were now required to close their shops and spend time and money they cannot afford to spare to “get right with the state” or outrightly find another job.
Meanwhile, the degree being acquired from these cosmetology schools did not teach any African hair braiding styles like cornrows, micro braids, and Senegalese twists which do not need the use of chemicals and heat to braid or maintain.
After ten years of advocacy by Brantley, in 2007, the Texas Legislature passed a law that finally freed braiders from having to work only under state licensing. However, Texas instituted a 35-hour instruction requirement for hair braiders.
This new law came about when Brantley thought her legal battle with the state was over since she did not need a license to work. She however needed to meet another requirement to enable her to teach her students.
Brantley has been running her shop, Institute of Ancestral Braiding, for about twenty years in South Beckley in Dallas.
Under the new law, however, Brantley’s classes could not be used to satisfy Texas’s 35-hour instruction requirement for hair braiders.
So, to continue to teach her students, the law required her to have a formal structure with at least “10 chairs that reclined back and a sink behind every work station before being allowed to teach hair braiding for a living.”
In 2013, Brantley joined forces with The Institute for Justice, a national civil rights law firm, to sue the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.
After almost two years, a federal court ruled in their favor. In January 2015, it ruled barber school requirements as unconstitutional in relation to hair braiding schools.
The fight did not end there; the new pair wanted to completely deregulate the practice of hair braiding in Texas.
Finally, they got both the Texas House and Texas Senate to unanimously deregulate hair braiding with the passage of HB 2717.
Monumentally, the bill was signed on June 10, 2015, into a law that fully deregulates the practice of natural hair braiding in Texas.
Brantley fought so hard to see her passion ‘freed’ from regulations that were not needed and only prohibited her and others from feeding their families at the end of the day.
“This lawsuit ‘win’ means economic liberty for my community,” Brantley said. “This is our new civil rights movement.”
“That’s the American dream that I want to be a part of,” Brantley added. “Cut the red tape. Help people learn this art and go to work.”