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

Single students who didn't live on their own or with families rented rooms at a ladies-only rooming house. David Julius told them that they, and the rest of the students, were always on call. Their appearance was important, he stressed, because sloppy dress was one more weapon racists could use against them.

Sarah Young arrived from the Bahamas in 1950 and shared a suite with five other girls. A wealthy patron gave them the latest high-tech gadget -- a toaster oven -- so they could experiment while listening to the "Mystery Chef," a radio host who promised women that "chic and terribly modern" tuna mixed with condensed asparagus soup and Orange Madness pudding cake were aphrodisiacs. Sometimes they toured Overtown's nightclubs to hear singers like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald.

One weeknight at around eight, Young got a hysterical call from a staffer at the Night Beat club. "You don't have time to get dressed!" he nearly sobbed, pleading a beauty crisis. Young ran down the street in her robe and slippers, with her duffel full of makeup and combs. A chartered bus was parked near the club. She gazed at the enormous silver Indian above the headlights -- his metal feathers flowing around the windshield. "Manhattan Chief," read the sign above the bus window. "Then I saw a neatly dressed man -- nice back, trim little waist, cute little butt, good shoulders, leaning real sexy. I thought, 'What else can he be but a saxophone player?'" He was cajoling a woman crumpled on the first step of the bus, her hair matted across bleary eyes. There was no mistaking the cheekbones or the throaty voice: Billie Holiday. She tossed her paper cup to the sidewalk. "I told you coffee doesn't get me drunk, especially if it's got milk in it!" the singer growled, and Young remembers thinking, "This will be a hard night to earn a dollar."

Holiday was to perform at an all-white club, then bring in the dawn at Night Beat. In the dressing room the sax player watched Young transform the star. With each stroke of skin balm, blush, and shadow, Holiday's posture straightened. As a final touch, Young pinned a white silk orchid in Holiday's French curls. "Little girl," she said softly, "thank you for helping me get on my Miami Beach armor."

Vogue, Elle, and Allure -- these magazines are put together by editors who are, like most of the models pictured inside, thoroughly white. "But beauty culture was founded in Egypt, in Africa," says Lurel Julius. "We had to make it our own again in America."

Florida resident Madame C.J. Walker, the daughter of slaves and a former cotton-field hand and maid, became America's first black female millionaire, with a line of black beauty products. David and Lurel stocked herbal shampoos, conditioners, witch hazel astringent gel, and, most revolutionary of all, face powder designed for black skin, ranging in color from "Bronze Thrill" to "Ebony." And they used some of Walker's drawings of hairstyles that suited the texture and body of black hair.

Toward the end of her life, Walker insisted that the hot comb, which she invented, was a grooming device, not a hair straightener. She sponsored black-run causes: anti-lynching leagues, orphanages, and Mary McLeod Bethune's vocational school in Daytona (a favorite beneficiary of the Juliuses, too). At a time when racists wanted to make the case that blacks were uncivilized and incompetent, Walker proclaimed that a "philosophy of inner and outer black beauty" was essential to survival. Her words echo throughout the Sunlight brochure penned by a student. "How beautiful the world would be if more of us put into action the meaning of Beauty Culture," it reads. "Be leading in character, personality, and appearance. Remember, love many and trust few. Learn to paddle your own canoe."

Sunlight never stocked Madame C.J. Walker's controversial skin-lightening cream or the pomades that promised to "weight kinky hair into Caucasian-type strands." If black women were to feel truly beautiful, Lurel insisted, blackness should be enhanced, not submerged. The attitude kept Sunlight Beauty Academy alive in the Sixties, when natural black beauty was a political rallying cry. During that decade, the Juliuses added a parade to the postgraduation ceremonies. The girl voted most gorgeous by her classmates donned a crown and rode in a convertible through Overtown, followed by a school band and dancers. When Miss Sunlight 1966 took her place in the bright red Mustang, there was total silence. "Then the crowd sounded like an explosion!" says Jill Unger, whose aunt attended that class. "She was the first Miss Sunlight ever to wear an Afro. It was bigger than Angela Davis's!" The crowd bounded up and down, hurling coppery glitter, yellow streamers, and gold confetti, all Sunlight colors.

David and Lurel opened cosmetology schools in Tampa; Mobile, Alabama; Waycross, Georgia; and Kingston, Jamaica. Lurel jetted to Paris four times to study beauty trends. Black politicians patronized the shop in Overtown. Athalie Range, Miami's first black city commissioner, was a regular. Schoolteacher Gwen Cherry, Dade County's first black female lawyer and first black female state representative, was too busy to have her hair done but asked Emma Summersett to keep two wigs styled for her at all times, while she wore the third. They became good friends.

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