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Black Beauty

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.

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.

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.

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.

"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."

Two years later Fulwood got a Christmas card from the girl. Inside was an inscription: "She went to Spellman to study. And she said, 'I can change things!'" Last year the girl's wedding photo was included in the annual card. Fulwood pulled the picture from her purse. "Isn't she a lovely bride?" she asked.

The lights began to fade before that opinion could be weighed. But Sunlight students know how to judge true beauty.

Kaylois Henry contributed to this article


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