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

"Sometimes I wonder if Gwen is proof the old superstitions are true -- that some people can feel their own death approaching, especially if they die young," Summersett says. The weekend before Cherry was killed in a car crash in Tallahassee, she called Summersett on the spur of the moment, saying, "Hey, let's hang out together all day tomorrow! I need to talk and have fun." They ate breakfast downtown, went shopping on Flagler, then caught a movie and grabbed a bite. Cherry told her driver to take them all over Miami for people-watching. "We were like teenagers. It was such a beautiful day," Summersett says.

They soared over the causeway with the pastel skyline glowing against the sunset, the moment when Miami earns its nickname the Magic City. Cherry turned to her friend and said, "I have something important to ask. You know how shy my daughter is. She's at that self-conscious age, and I don't want that to keep her from being happy. Would you look out for her?" She asked if the girl could visit the salon and if Summersett would be her confidante. "She may need someone besides her mother to help her know she's pretty enough to be out there in the world, so she never gives up," Cherry said. Summersett agreed. She never saw her friend alive again. "But when I think about my work, what it really means, I always think of that day with Gwen," she says.

More than 1700 guests -- including Sunlight graduates and their adult children, whose college educations were funded by beauty shop income -- were in attendance at the October 26 Gusman Center celebration to honor David and Lurel Julius. Two string ensembles performed Mozart; the music floated past tables laden with fruit, shrimp, and bottles of white wine.

Then-Mayor Joe Carollo put in an appearance. WPLG-TV (Channel 10) anchorman Dwight Lauderdale was master of ceremonies, which was also a benefit for the M. Athalie Range Cultural Arts Foundation and included performances by Melton Mustafa's Jazz Orchestra, soprano Marvis Martin, Smokey Joe's Cafe star Ashley Howard Wilkinson, and Metropolitan Opera pianist Joseph Joubert.

Keisha Fulwood, who once ran a Coconut Grove salon with her Sunlight license, flew in from California to pay her respects. Flipping through her program, Fulwood paused at a paragraph describing a scholarship fund Range had set up for Charles Bells, a long-time employee of her funeral home who was murdered in 1994. The endowment's goal is "to produce young people who value life, feel good about themselves, and commit themselves to maximizing their potential," the program read.

It reminded Fulwood of her year at Sunlight, before the Juliuses sold the business in 1971. Overtown was being chopped to bits by crime and developers, and whites no longer ventured into the neighborhood's nightclubs. Fulwood was on her way to class when she saw police gathered around a dead man lying in the middle of the street. He was wearing what looked like a deliveryman's uniform. Blood had soaked through the sheet covering his face. A young cop nervously surveyed the crowd of spectators, while the teenage suspect lounged next to him, calling out to his friends. A second officer groaned like an old man as he leaned wearily against the car to question the kid.

"Dude shoulda given the money up faster," the teen finally shrugged. "I'm juvie. You got to take me to juvie hall." As the car hauled him away, he waved out the window to his friends like a departing celebrity. In the middle of the crowd, Fulwood saw the boy's cousin, a girl of sixteen who lived with his family. The girl often lingered outside Sunlight's window on weekends, watching the beauty treatments work their magic.

Fulwood asked her if she'd like to go to the salon to talk. She went for sodas while the girl flopped her schoolbooks onto the table in the Sunlight employee lounge: algebra, world civilization, Spanish. "Your family must be proud of how hard you study," Fulwood said.

The girl sipped her soda a moment. "No, it makes them call me a bitch," she replied evenly. She paused a moment. "I wish I could go to college anyway, even though they think that's funny."

The girl was obviously on her own. Her hair was fastened haphazardly with barrettes, her clothes were clean but rumpled, and her makeup consisted of blush that looked like a slap on her skin. Fulwood had two hours before her first class. "Why don't you let me give you the full treatment? Hair, face, nails," she suggested. "You can rest up and pretend you're on a vacation somewhere fancy just for a while." While she worked, she noticed a book of folktales among the girl's texts, ornately illustrated stories of brave girls who broke wicked spells, saved kingdoms, and won gallant princes. All the heroines were white. "I just like the happy stories," the girl explained defensively. "I know they're stupid."

"No, you just need to start your own story," Fulwood responded. She grabbed some blank paper, decorated it with flowers, and wrote: "Once upon a time there was a very smart and pretty Overtown girl who decided to go on an adventure. She --" Fulwood handed the page to the girl and said, "You keep it and work on it."

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