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

Inebriated operators were disastrous for black clients, since heated combs were used on their hair. "I can't count the women who would come into Sunlight near tears, saying they had to go to their jobs with their hair burned by a salon owner who'd had one too many beers," says Summersett. "The first and strictest rule Mrs. Julius gave girls in class was no partying with customers. We were professionals." Students were required to wear white uniforms, white shoes polished daily, and stockings, even in summer.

Dorsey gave scholarships to women who couldn't pay Sunlight's $150 tuition for a seven-month, 1200-hour course. Graduation was complete with caps and gowns. David and Lurel's goal was grander than merely establishing a beauty school. They were carving out a new social class for black women and creating careers with far more potential and pay than other pink-collar jobs, and with almost as much cachet as a profession like law.

"My mother was a widowed Dade County schoolteacher who earned only $25 monthly due to race-based pay scales -- our family would not have survived without the cosmetology license she got from Sunlight," says Carmen Dean Jackson, whose public relations firm organized a gala honoring the Juliuses late this past October at Gusman Center (where her father had been a janitor).

David bought what constituted the cutting edge in supplies, including the Ultra-Violet Rod Treatment, a plastic comb attached to a wooden handle that, when raked across the scalp, was supposed to stimulate hair growth. Did it work? "Well, we assumed it did," smiles Sunlight graduate and retired salon owner Sybil Johnson. "And it glowed with a very pretty purple light."

Utility companies ran very few lines to Overtown; most homes and businesses had no electricity. At night the blocks of pale frame houses sank into the shadows. There were only a few islands of light: nightclubs, Dorsey's two-story house, a factory, a white-owned brothel, and the Sunlight Beauty Academy. David helped wire it. It had modern plumbing and was kept spotlessly clean, even when winds whipped the dirt roads. David allowed local merchants to showcase their wares -- floral bouquets, hats, handmade jewelry, plaster cakes decorated with a rainbow of icings -- in Sunlight's foyer.

Because of overcrowding, Overtown was periodically swept by smallpox, influenza, and TB. Lurel's first course was hygiene; she taught her students to wear gloves and wash with antibacterial soap, how to sterilize the equipment, how to recognize skin diseases. They studied anatomical charts, memorizing bones in the face and neck and the muscles of the hands and feet, in order to pamper their customers with massages.

Metal combs used for smoothing hair were heated on small stoves. The school had ceiling fans, but there was no air conditioning. To help ameliorate the summer heat, students loaded small neighborhood boys with nickels to buy what they dubbed "anti-fainting tonic." The children rattled around the corner to Cola Nip, a black-owned soda-pop plant housed in a scarlet-and-gold palace. They heaped their red wagons with icy peach, orange, coconut, and lime colas to revive ladies drooping near the hair dryers.

As word of Sunlight spread, celebrities came. Cab Calloway's entourage played Miami Beach nightclubs but had to sleep in Overtown because of Jim Crow laws. His chorus girls always had their hair done at Sunlight.

During World War II Madame La France was so swamped with clients that she asked the Juliuses if Sunlight students would be willing to make forays to Miami Beach to do socialites' hair in their homes. It was a perilous request; most white residents resented black women taking business away from Miami Beach's white salons. And Miami Beach was treacherous: fantastically rich, yet thuggishly bigoted. Dorothy Fields, who heads the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida, has interviewed black women who worked as Miami Beach maids and who often had the task of ironing their employers' Klan robes. "When that was one of the day's tasks, they knew the Klan was making a horseback night ride, and they rushed home to warn all the men to get off Overtown's streets," says Fields.

Blacks and working-class whites had to carry work permits -- like temporary passports -- to enter Miami Beach, and they had to get out by dusk. The money was good; more than five times the amount Sunlight charged per hairdo. But the journey was terrifying. "And it reminded us that talent's no protection against morons with power," says Laverne Carter, who went to the Beach as an eighteen-year-old Sunlight student.

On one occasion Carter's client kept her waiting for an hour, then refused eye contact and uttered only commands. There was nothing unusual in that. But Carter was so delayed that she had to run to catch the last jitney, a hazardous ride. Miami Beach men had devised a barbarous evening sport: They would stop jitneys and randomly order black women out to be grilled about their patriotism. Sometimes they slapped or spat on a woman, even if she said all her male relatives were fighting overseas.

The night Carter was late, a security guard jumped aboard her jitney. "My boss wants to look at your niggers and foreigners," he shouted to the driver. His employer stumbled onto the jitney. He was not a happy drunk. Carter remembers that moment most clearly because the silent passengers, black and white, exchanged wary glances.

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