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 man followed the guard down the aisle flinging insults, then froze next to Carter. He pointed at the gold sunburst pin on her collar, a prize from the academy for perfect tests. "I know why you bitches are here," he said, his voice shaking with anger. "I hear you people say, 'We want honest work.' But I know what you girls do. You poison our women's face cream." He leaned closer, and Carter stared hard at her neatly gloved hands and thought, "Well, I guess this is the night I'll die." A young soldier who had asked her for a Sunday date flashed into her mind. "And I remember this big sudden sadness hit me so hard that I'd be killed before I ever got a chance to fall in real love," she says.

Just as the man grabbed her wrist, a calm voice rose from the middle of the bus. "Leave all of us alone. We're ladies, even if we work for a living." A mutinous mutter rumbled through the jitney. The drunk dropped Carter's arm before he recovered himself. "What are you going to do to me if I take her away?" he sneered. There was a brief hush.

"We can hurt you," the woman replied. "We have hat pins. And your man doesn't have a gun."

The drunk allowed himself to be pulled from the jitney by his employee. The moment their feet touched pavement the driver floored the accelerator, and the passengers erupted in relieved laughter. In the darkness, the black and white women traded boyfriend stories and beauty tips about how to make mascara and lipstick despite wartime rationing. Everyone started singing lyrics the war had made popular: "For all we know, we may never meet again."

Carter doesn't know to this day whether the woman who spoke up in her defense was black or white. "I guess I got one peek at what life would be if the color line disappeared, even if just for an hour," she muses.

Sunlight Beauty Academy was more than an occupation for David and Lurel Julius -- it was a calling. To act as school administrator, David earned his own cosmetology license. He and Lurel were a team, romantically and professionally. Not all Sunlight students were so blessed. When Emma Summersett attended in 1948 as a young mother, her husband was happy about his shy wife's income. "But like a lot of men, he was jealous when my job made me popular, a little famous, on my own," she says.

One client who always asked for her was boxer Joe Louis's mistress, a fashion model named Sally Dallas who had appeared several times in the pages of Vogue magazine. Her skin was white as cream. "The only way you knew she was black is because she told you she was," says Summersett. Dallas and the heavyweight champion wintered in Miami from the last week of February through the first week of April, staying at Overtown's Mary Elizabeth hotel. "I charged $3.50 for a shampoo and haircut, but Sally would tip me $20 or more," almost a month's rent, Summersett recalls. "While she was having her hair done, she'd order seafood dinners from one of the nightclubs for all of us."

Louis and Dallas became Miami legends when they strolled down Lincoln Road without a "passport." "Oh, they owned the street!" says Summersett, a thrill running through her laughter. "The owner of one shop would phone the next one down when they spotted them, and they'd start marking up prices because Joe Louis loved to shop." Dallas bought special dresses; she flaunted the complexion that made her controversial in two worlds. "What she was known for, her trademark, is that she never wore colors," Summersett says. "You could search her whole wardrobe, and every piece of clothing would be white. The only exceptions were her gold earrings, shoes, and belts."

One evening Summersett was waiting in the Mary Elizabeth penthouse -- one of Overtown's few air-conditioned rooms -- to do Dallas's hair. The model's elegant ensemble was laid out on the couch and included a wide, intricately woven gold-mesh belt. Summersett held it up to her own waist, then dropped it, unnerved, when she heard Dallas chuckle.

"It looks better on you than it does on me," she said. "After I wear it tonight, it's yours to keep." Whenever Summersett protested that the lavish tips or thoughtful gifts were unnecessary, Dallas insisted, maintaining that the stylist's talent in beauty culture was an art. The words clung to Summersett whenever her husband harangued her about giving herself airs.

They divorced. When she eventually met the man who became her second husband, she remembers exactly what he thought of her salon business. He maintained lawns for homes in Miami Shores and had an artistic talent of his own. "His expertise was roses," she says. "Our house always had a garden as beautiful as a painting." When she discussed the salon with him, its place in the community and her clients, he was proud. He said, "I don't understand all the details, but I believe in you." She knew he was her true love.

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