Black Beauty

In an era when race relations were ugly, the Sunlight Beauty Academy did its part to make black Miami a more lovely place

The glamorous Madame La France trained David and Lurel Julius in secret and by night, with the windows of her Flagler Street shop heavily draped. If any white passersby had seen them, the black couple could have paid for their forbidden lessons with their lives, lynched by the Ku Klux Klan or some idle racist.

They toiled in white lab coats, surrounded by jars of frothy cold cream; bottles of lavender, rose, and magnolia scent; pots of polish and glosses labeled "Cherries in the Snow" and "Starlight Desire"; and lacy "fascinator" scarves scattered with sequins like nets filled with stars -- all the mysterious trappings designed to excite male passion.

It was dangerous terrain in 1937. Miami's race laws prohibited white beauticians like Madame La France from training blacks in "beauty culture." There was no legal commingling of the races when it came to educational opportunities. Though blacks could pay to take the Florida cosmetology examination, the license itself required classes, and classes required a teacher.

David and Lurel had arrived from Brooklyn early that year to fulfill their dream of founding a black beauty school. Back in New York, Lurel's emphysema had worsened as blizzards and sleet whipsawed across the city. She and David had planned to move to Arizona "because we'd read it never rains or freezes there," she recalls. They had portable skills; she was a hair stylist, he an electrician.

At the last moment, David bought a bus ticket to Miami so he could explore that option. When he arrived, the palm trees and flowers reminded him of Jamaica, where he was born. Blacks were banned from most Miami beaches, but glimpses of Biscayne Bay's blue tantalized him with what he would miss in the Western desert.

He roamed Overtown, the district where Miami's blacks were forced to live, trying to imagine it as home. Few houses had indoor plumbing. Excrement-disposal trucks (bitterly nicknamed "honey wagons") rumbled along the streets. But an empty stucco storefront on NW Eighth Street and Second Avenue caught his eye. Painted lilac, it was trimmed with cobalt-blue glass bricks and tiles decorated with golden shells. As he peered through the window he heard a voice behind him. "Do you need something?" He turned to see a small man in an old green sweater and large round glasses. David explained that this was a perfect site for a beauty school, and the stranger pulled from his pocket a huge clump of keys -- "enough to open every door in Miami," he remembers. Dana A. Dorsey, Miami's sole black millionaire, introduced himself as he unlocked the property, one of dozens he owned.

Miami was no more egalitarian than any other city, but it did have a raw pioneer town's respect for pluck and cleverness. And its white leaders had one character trait blacks could depend on: greed. The authorities needed only to be convinced that the business of black beauty would mean a white jackpot. So D.A. Dorsey and the Juliuses made their pitch: The proposed beauty school would graduate 200 students per year. Each graduate would have to pay the state examination fee. And if each ran a salon, just think of the zoning and local fees! Madame La France herself had boxes of letters from black women as far away as Atlanta and the Bahamas, asking if there were any licensed salons in Miami allowed to take black customers. They won the approvals they needed.

It was Dorsey who arranged for David and Lurel to study with Madame La France so they could pass Florida's cosmetology licensing exam. (She was a Paris-born cosmetologist who dismissed the city's race laws as provincial.) And because Miami banks refused to serve blacks who had less than $500 in initial deposits, it was Dorsey who opened an account, at First National, for their business savings. David and Lurel finished their secret lessons and opened the Sunlight Beauty Academy -- dedicated to manicures, pedicures, facials, and hair styling -- amid the dirt roads, outhouses, and tuberculosis of Overtown.

The Juliuses' school was Miami's first beauty school licensed to teach black people. And indeed, black women from across the South flocked there to learn the beauty arts. But the newfound financial independence fostered by the beauty industry throughout the South enraged white opinion-makers. Beauty was connected to female empowerment, and anything that gave black women or poor white women a seeming advantage was enough to set off the ire of the privileged. "Liberty from a firm white paymaster breeds other liberties in Southern coloreds: haughtiness, arrogance, dangerous displays of learning leading to social anarchy that will infest our white lower class as well," a New York Times editorial that year fumed.

And beautiful was not something white Miami leaders wanted blacks -- or lower-class white women -- to feel. The Miami Herald noted instances of black and white female laborers being shoved to the ground by Miami Beach matrons for the offense of looking too pretty and stylish for their stations.

At that time the only hair salons Miami allowed in the black community were unlicensed. Nonetheless, black beauty shop owners wielded extraordinary influence in their community. The hair salon circuit was as crucial to campaigning black politicians as were black churches. The beautician's prestige was comparable to a minister's; neither depended on white bosses or customers for a single cent of income. Many of the beauty shops, however, were more like saloons than salons. Owners were known to give their clients liquor rather than expert stylings; the staff imbibed as well. "Some so-called beauticians were drunk by noon," says Sunlight graduate Emma Summersett, who now runs her own Beautyrama salon near Liberty City.

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