Civil Rights

After the Civil War, many African Americans began to straighten their hair. Madame C.J. Walker was raised in a family so poor they had to walk everywhere. But she invented a hair system that many people used. She became the first Black millionaire. She used her money to help Black citizens fight for their rights. And never had to walk to the store again.

Another famous Black inventor, Garrett Morgan, invented a hair straightening comb for men . He also invented a traffic signal and a gas mask. In 1916 a tunnel explosion trapped workers under lake Erie. He and his brother risked their lives with this new invention, and became famous for this successful rescue.

If you could travel back to their time, which inventor would you talk to? What questions would you ask?

With all that hair straightening, why didn’t cornrows just die out? One reason is that children were still using braids. History is usually all about adults. But this is a history where the kids played an important role.

When Martin Luthur King and others began to protest for Black rights in the 1950s, some artists decided to visit Africa and learn more about their roots. Artist John Biggers was surprised to learn that some of the cornrows hair styles he had seen all his life were the same ones he could see in Africa. So he created this drawing.

The comb in her hair is traditional in Africa. 20 years later, a design for making this comb in plastic was invented by African American designers Samuel Bundles Jr., and Henry Childrey.

Did they get the idea from African examples like this? Or by a tradition in America? Or just their own new invention? What do you think?

This is a choice Cicely Tyson had to make in 1962. She chose to wear cornrows and became the first woman to wear the style on TV! By 1969, the African-roots style had become very popular.

Imagine getting your big break in TV as a Black woman in the 1960s.

Would you pick a hairstyle that helps you blend into the crowd, or take a risk and wear your hair in a style that was never seen before on TV?