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5 Black Pioneers Who Changed the Beauty Game As We Know It

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When it comes to creating environments that expand access to all people, the beauty industry still has a long way to go. 

But despite the odds, African Americans have made great entrepreneurial strides in breaking down systemic barriers and redefining how beauty is received.

Sarah Breedlove, more commonly known as Madame C.J. Walker is perhaps one of the better-known African-American entrepreneurs who have greatly contributed to the beauty and hair industry, but without the crucial work of lesser-known Black innovators making lasting contributions too, we wouldn’t have the diversity, knowledge and Holy Grail products we can’t live without today. 

Ahead, are five of the history-making trailblazers who led the beauty game to monumental change.

1. Anthony Overton

Banker, lawyer and manufacturing pioneer Anthony Overton was no stranger to building empires. Born into slavery during the end of the Civil War in Monroe, Louisiana, he rose to prominence as a leading Black entrepreneur of a major conglomerate that catered to and supported the needs of Black women. After establishing the Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Company in Kansas City, Missouri in 1898, a maker and seller of baking powder, cosmetics, perfumes, toiletries and hair products, he moved his company to Chicago in 1911 after suffering a severe financial loss caused by the great flood of 1903, that all but wiped out Kansas City’s business district. 

While there, he catapulted into the world of women’s hair care and cosmetics by patenting them under the name “High Brown”, employing a massive, salaried sales force. One short year later, the company exported products in over 52 beauty categories to countries around the world, including Liberia, Egypt and Japan.

A major driving force behind Overton’s vision for High Brown was the lack of product options that matched the skin tones of Black women.  During the early 1900s, retailers did not provide them, so he developed the very first face powders, designed to specifically match Black women’s complexions.  The products were formulated with high-quality ingredients, those which Overton thoroughly tested, to ensure they were safe to use. The business was so successful, he expanded the brand to include complementary classifications such as eye makeup and a deeper assortment of hair products, perfumes and more. 

Overton was also one of the first entrepreneurs to focus on enhanced product packaging and mail-order sales, to offer his customers a high-quality, dignified, satisfying shopping experience. He also assembled a network of salespeople that had grown to about four hundred, selling his products directly to Black women within their own communities; and away from the department stores that underserved them. 

In addition to improving product formulas, his company designed its own, private odor base for its perfumes, an unusual yet genius business decision at the time, Overton was on the leading edge of change and innovation within the beauty industry, paving the way for many of today’s cosmetics brands.  

He died on July 2, 1946.

 

2. Marjorie S. Joyner

Among the first Black women to receive a patent, Marjorie Steward Joyner had an influential career as a businesswoman, hair care entrepreneur, philanthropist, educator and activist.

Born in 1896 in Virginia, she moved to Chicago in 1912. Four short years later, she was the first African American to graduate from the A.B. Moler Beauty School and went on to open her own salon. While continuing her education in cosmetology, she meets and takes a class, taught by Madame C.J. Walker.

At the time, Madam C.J. Walker was already a hair care mogul and proprietor of the Madame Walker Beauty Schools and Walker Manufacturing Company, the largest African American-owned company in the United States in 1917, with thousands of Black women in her employ. Joyner becomes a teacher and eventually the national supervisor for Walker’s schools.

While making a pot roast, Joyner becomes inspired to use her pot roast rods as rollers, creating a device that applies multiple rods to the hair at once, greatly reducing the time needed to create curls and waves, when styling women’s hair. After slight adjustments and experimenting with its construction, she invents the permanent wave machine; the first of its kind. 

Unaware she should patent her invention, Joyner uses the machine for years before submitting a petition and drawings in 1928. As a result, she never received payment for her invention but remained committed to her craft, business and community. 

Joyner was a devoted educator for more than fifty years and co-founded Alpha Chi Pi Omega Sorority and Fraternity for beauty culture students in 1945 and the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association one year later. She also assisted in drafting the first cosmetology laws for the State of Illinois and was also a founding member of the National Council of Negro Women.

3. Christina Jenkins

Born Christina Mae Thomas in Louisiana in 1920, Christina Jenkins is credited for creating the hair-weaving method in 1950, when she was thirty years old.  

A graduate of Leland College in 1943 (near Baton Rouge), with a degree in science and a former employee of a wig manufacturer, she began working on a technique to make a more secure fitting wig. She then moved to Malvern, Chicago and began to study how the sewing of commercial hair into one’s own, natural hair added length and volume.

In 1952, she was granted a patent for the method (named the “HairWeev”) and, similar to Madam C.J. Walker, opened her own cosmetology school to teach others her technique. 

Although there is a dispute over Jenkins’ claim to the hair weave (historians note a similar technique already existed, dating back to ancient Egypt) it’s no overstatement to say her revolutionary “fine-tuning” forever changed women’s lives. At the time, most hair weaves were temporary; installed and secured into place with hair pins. Jenkins’ method of sewing hair extensions into cornrows offered long-term solutions and changed the landscape for African American hairstyling. It is still used worldwide by millions of women today.

Christina Jenkins died in 2003, at the age of 82. 

 

4. Eunice W. Johnson

Eunice Walker Johnson was a powerhouse; businesswoman, publisher, philanthropist, fashion pioneer and cosmetics titan.  

Together with her husband John H. Johnson, she established the well-known Johnson Publishing Company in 1942, having created and distributed groundbreaking monthly publications like Ebony and JET magazines, household staples that highlight African American life and culture.

In 1958, Eunice started the Ebony Fashion Fair, an event that originally started out as a favor for a friend to raise money for a hospital in New Orleans, but evolved into a grand traveling tour, bringing in the latest fashion creations from legendary designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, Christian Dior and Valentino. 

Eunice’s Ebony Fashion Fair also elevated Black talent, launching the careers of aspiring designers that included Quinton de’ Alexander, L’amour and Lenora Levon, along with top African American fashion models like Pat Cleveland, Beverly Johnson, Terri Springer and Iman donning their designs. The event raised more than $55 million for civil rights groups, hospitals, community centers and scholarships.

Frustrated by the chore of mixing makeup colors to compliment the varied skin tones of her models, Eunice also created Fashion Fair Cosmetics in 1973, the largest Black-owned cosmetics company in the world at the time. It specifically addressed the needs of Black women and for the first time, was sold in top department stores. Stars like Diahann Carroll, Aretha Franklin and Leontyne Price appeared in the company’s ads. In 2003, the company’s sales totaled $56 million.

Eunice Walker Johnson has long been praised for her business savvy and commitment to centering Black representation in an industry dominated by whites. Her pioneering branding, business acumen and history continue to inspire and encourage growth within the cosmetics industry.

 She passed away in 2010, in Chicago, Illinois.

5. Bernadine Anderson

Bernadine Anderson is Hollywood’s first Black makeup artist. 

Having started in 1968 and throughout a 20-year career in film, she worked with famous movie stars like Eddie Murphy, Laurence Fishburne, Jane Fonda and more. In fact, Jane Fonda adored Anderson and continually requested her during a time when Black people were not allowed to work on white movie sets. 

Anderson was also the first woman makeup artist to obtain membership to a major cosmetologist union for hairstylists and makeup artists in television and film.

As the war on civil rights came to a head in the 1960’s Anderson was repeatedly denied work on movie sets, as studio heads established firm positions against the movement. Well, Miss Bernadine wasn’t having any of it and helped to organize a class action lawsuit against the union to expose discrimination against people of color. After winning the case, she went on to have a long career working with A-list actors on films like Coming to America, 48 Hours and 9 to 5. 

Today, you can find her makeup case on display at the National Museum of African History & Culture, in Washington, D.C.

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