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Girl talk is half the reason black women love to hit up the beauty shop on a regular, but long before women just showed up every week for a wash and set and a side of gossip, hair salons were the birthplace of political activism.

NPR recently talked about the civil rights element of black salons with Tiffany Gill, associate professor of history, African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Gill is the author of “Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry,” and in her book she talks about how black women came to the forefront of the beauty industry around the 1820s when it became unacceptable for black men to style white women’s hair and how enslaved women in Urban areas were even able to hire themselves out as stylists and make money.

Stemming from the entrepreneurial example set by Madame CJ Walker at the beginning of the 20th century, Gill said by the time the 1950s and 1960s rolled around, guidelines were written into beauty college curricula about how to engage clients in conversations about politics.  She went on to talk about a South Carolina woman named Bernice Robinson who’s salon was known as a place for “all kinds of subversive activity.”

“She would literally be washing someone’s hair, put someone under the drier, be walking someone through the long kind of elaborate voter registration hurdles that black people had to go through and while someone was under the drier she would go and run someone down to the courthouse, try to get them to register to vote, and then come back,” she said.

“And then she actually took it to a more formal level where she would actually organize other beauticians in the area and tell them that, yes, within your space, as women come in, we can do citizenship education classes. We can help prepare people to vote. We can help prepare African-Americans to engage in civic activity and so they balanced their entrepreneurship with their politics.”

Gill said when she started her research she expected to see a decline in political activism inside shops today but she found that the conversation isn’t all weaves and kinky twists in the new millenium.

“I found in San Diego, there’s this very robust research as well as community activism happening, where beauty shops are being engaged in health activism. So everything from empowering beauticians to talk with their clients about HIV/AIDS, about mammograms – because they found that that was a space where African-American were willing to take care of their bodies, willing to talk about their bodies.

So it’s still there. It functions differently, but certainly the health activism, as well as domestic violence prevention, is something that’s happening very much in beauty shops today.”

In 2010, The L’Oréal Fondation D’Enterprise founded Hairdressers Against AIDS to provide in-depth training to thousands of salon professionals at special L’Oréal educational sessions, and this year they held their annual event in Harlem to address the high rate of new HIV diagnoses among African Americans in New York City. Several other black shops held independent events at their salons in recognition of Aids Awareness Month as well.

Were you aware of the history of social activism spurred in black beauty shops? Do you witness this type of activity in the salons you visit?

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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