Durham’s Civil Rights Heritage
Although the explicit purpose of beauty parlors and beauty schools was not political protest, African-American women saw no need to check their political and racial justice ideas and work at the door.
Beauty shops fostered an “invisible” network of grassroots supporters for civil rights in Durham. Beauty workers made up the single largest group — about 20 percent — of black business owners in Durham, with 43 shops by the 1950s. Because black beauty parlors were owned and operated by black women and served black customers, the shops were “safe spaces” in the community. Beauty shops operated as communication centers, free from the eyes and ears of whites, and the beautician’s role as confidante gave her an opening to politically mobilize clients.
Durham’s most prominent beauty college, DeShazor’s Beauty School, was probably even more important than the local beauty parlors in advocating for civil rights. In April 1957 the school’s Durham alumnae association won the NAACP trophy for enrolling the largest number of new members in the local branch. The school even formed its own NAACP chapter, and its president, Nancy Grady, became a leader of Durham’s student movement in 1960. Fittingly, the Rev. Douglas Moore, who delivered DeShazor’s May 1957 graduation address, went on to lead Durham’s first major sit-in, which took place at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor just one month later.
(Content adapted from Christina Greene’s “Our Separate Ways: Women and the Black Freedom Movement in Durham, North Carolina,” published by UNC Press, 2005)