History July 19, 2022 at 05:00 pm

The historic career of Willie L. Morrow, pioneer of the Jheri curl hairstyle

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor July 19, 2022 at 05:00 pm

July 19, 2022 at 05:00 pm | History

Willie Lee Morrow, a pioneer in hair care for Blacks. Photo: The Washington Post

Willie Lee Morrow, who became a hairstylist, chemist, entrepreneur, author, and inventor, did not do so well in school growing up in Eutaw, Ala., where he was born on October 9, 1939. But he knew that he could still make it so he worked harder at other things including learning basic barbering. 

Around age 12 or 13, he was being called a “stump barber” as he used a tree stump as his barber chair in a community in Alabama. His parents worked as sharecroppers but they saved enough money to pay for Morrow to attend barber school in San Diego. Soon, the African-American community there started going to Morrow to have their hair cut and styled.

Eventually, Morrow built a hair-care supply empire, developing tools and products such as combs used to create the Afro hairstyle that came into vogue in the 1960s and 1970s, according to a report by The Washington Post. Morrow also produced a brand of creams formulated to produce the looser curls that became popular later, the report added.

At the time he started making waves as a Black haircare pioneer, there was discrimination against Black hair. Black people had to straighten their hair or braid it to be seen as neat or serious individuals. Morrow changed that and provided Black people the tools they needed to do their hair the way they wanted to do it.

The Afro hairstyle, which symbolized Black pride, became popular at the time Morrow had just started his career. But there was no proper tool for the style. People would use “angel food cake cutters”, Morrow told the San Diego Reader. In 1962, a colleague traveled to Africa and came back to the U.S. with a hand-carved African hair comb. Morrow started creating similar combs that sold quickly. Today, many historians agree that Morrow is the man who first mass-produced the plastic Afro pick in the U.S.

Later in the 1970s, he was enlisted by the U.S. Department of Defense to teach hair cutting and to cut hair on military bases and in war zones. He traveled across the United States, Europe and Asia for the project, and everywhere he went, people came to him begging for haircuts and his products, particularly the Afro combs.

Seeking to give Black people choices in their hairstyles, Morrow also looked at a chemical process to turn kinky hair into curly hair. That gave birth to the California Curl products in 1977 which caught the eye of other hair care manufacturers. Jheri Redding, a White entrepreneur who founded Redken, Jhirmack and Nexxus, produced what historians say was “a modified product” that generated the term “Jheri curl”.

Morrow was not bitter that his idea was copied but was “gratified” that he was able to introduce a process that has been accepted universally, he said, according to the authors of “Hair Story”.

Today, besides being remembered as the inventor of the Afro pick and a pioneer of the Jheri curl hairstyle, he is also known for starting a radio station and newspaper for Black people and supporting the civil rights movement.

Morrow, who also collected antique hairstyling tools, passed away June 22 at his home in San Diego at the age of 83, leaving behind a wife and two daughters. 

He “was the embodiment of the promise of America,” State Assemblymember Akilah Weber (D-San Diego) said of Morrow after his death, the Los Angeles Times reported. “He grew up in the south to a family of sharecroppers and through hard work and his own ingenuity, built a multi-million dollar haircare business and media empire. He embraced his community and became the protector of rare and priceless Black art and artifacts. He opened his doors to young entrepreneurs and shared the invaluable lessons not only of achieving success but of starting over and rebuilding from scratch. He will be remembered for his many inventions and connection to the curl phenomenon and for his devotion to family.”

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