“The hoary head is a crown of
“This is history,” Veronica Macon said.
It’s late on a Saturday morning, and Macon, 31, is completing a client’s roller set on the clinic floor of Velvatex College of Beauty Culture, a one-level red-brick building situated on a corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Little Rock. Like other smock-clad trainees in the room — shampooing the
The history she speaks of is Velvatex’s: The institution training Macon was the first of its kind to open in Arkansas for people of color. Thanks to the care and intention with which Velvatex changed hands across decades, a history of finger waves, goddess braids and black women’s empowerment has been kept alive for 90 years.
Now, that story itself is being preserved and archived: In the fall of 2018, Velvatex donated a total of 105 artifacts to the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center’s permanent collection, just a few months after partnering with the museum on the “Don’t Touch My Crown” exhibition. With a name inspired from Proverbs 16:31, “Don’t Touch My Crown” celebrated the history of African-American aesthetics through artwork and objects.
“For people to be able to see this collection, to know that we’re committed to preserving this collection in perpetuity as part of our commitment to the public trust, I think, says a whole lot about black women and the ways in which their bodies and their stories matter,” Christina Shutt, Mosaic Templars director, said.
“I find that our hair is really important to us, but it’s not something that we often think about it in a
In the summer of 1929, M.E. Patterson founded the beauty college as a way to transfer her skills from the kitchen — the era’s choice location for at-home hairdressing — to an educational setting. Inspired by her belief that black hair could emulate velvet, Patterson named the school Velvatex Beauty College.
At the time, Velvatex was the only approved school in the state for people of color, adding a more formal education to what some may have learned in their own kitchens. With Velvatex’s training, students were not only learning cosmetology techniques, like applying chemical relaxers and hair cutting, but they were also studying the science behind the hair, skin
“You understand the structure of the hair, you understand what the hair grows from, you understand the basics of what is in a body when you study anatomy,” said Velvatex CEO Barbara A. Douglas, who earned both
Towns took ownership of the school from her mother in 1954, and that year the school adopted the name Velvatex College of Beauty Culture. For years, the school was located on State Street near Philander Smith College and was within walking distance from Ninth Street, the thriving African-American business district full of black-operated churches, grocery stores, restaurants, beauty shops, clubs and more. In the mid-’50s, Velvatex opened at its current location, adjacent to another historically black institution, Arkansas Baptist College. Douglas purchased Velvatex in
For much of Towns’ time with the school, examinations for white and black cosmetologists were segregated, Mattie Sue Woods, a Velvatex alumna
Even as trends in hair have shifted, Velvatex has kept up with it all — and its donated items to Mosaic Templars attest to that. Artifacts include a 1941 “Art of Shampooing” guide, an electrotherapy machine used to stimulate hair growth, a vintage manicurist table and pressing combs, metal comb-like tools heated to straighten hair without chemicals to achieve styles like roller sets, French braids and pin curls.
Some tools, like the pressing comb, have been supplanted by modern devices like the electric flat iron, but the styles executed with them still give a nod to the past. Just view any Velvatex-styled mannequin head in the museum’s permanent collection for proof. The finger waves, for instance, recall a ’20s-era style that could have been spotted along Ninth Street. Braided up-dos that have roots in African
“[Black hair] can go through so much,” said Abraham Johnson, a Velvatex instructor trainee whose mannequin includes braids ornamented with wooden beads. “It can be natural, it can take chemicals, braiding. We can really do each and every category of something. I think it’s so diverse. You got to know how to really work with it. You need a little love to work with black hair.”
Johnson enjoys installing extensions or creating wigs for clients. “With extensions, you’re trying to extend, you’re trying to add a little
One of Macon’s favorite aspects of her Velvatex education is learning about the African influences behind some of her favorite natural-hair stylings, particularly braiding, which has long been a cornerstone of black hairstyling and has been widely interpreted over time to create looks like goddess braids (a style of thick cornrows) and “lemonade braids” (a style of thinner cornrows named after a hairstyle sported in Beyonce’s “Lemonade” visual album). “I love the experiments, to go back into time and look at the different hairstyles that they created back in the day and what we come up with in our time and age,” Macon said.
The more popular styles requested today at the school include thermally straightened looks and various braiding styles. But, most all of the styles showcased in the Mosaic Templars collection cross generations and are still practiced on the institution’s clients, many of whom are neighborhood locals who have been clients for years, B.A. Douglas said.
Today, to qualify for a cosmetology license, which can be obtained within a year, students must earn 1,500 hours studying sciences related to anatomy, the nervous system, fungi
Velvatex graduates about eight to nine students a year; some of the 15-20 who are enrolled annually may break from their training. While it isn’t the largest beauty school around, Velvatex certainly prides itself in holding its own, instructor Woods said.
Woods, who received her cosmetology license in 1955 and instructor’s license in 1966, has a relationship with Velvatex that is storied: She worked under both Patterson and Towns and credits much of her career journey — including the nearly 30 years spent instructing at Velvatex — to the legacy they created.
“I would think that they would say, ‘I thank God for enabling us to make it such a beautiful place,’ ” Woods said from behind the instructor’s desk of the school’s classroom. “It doesn’t have to be the biggest school. It’s not the quality or the size; it’s what you get out of it inside. I just think they would be very, very proud. In fact, I know they would — I knew them.”
Both students and staff say Velvatex is not just an educational resource: It’s family. Its meet-you-where-you-are approach differs slightly from how Towns ran the
Before she enrolled at Velvatex, Macon said, she lacked a career path. But in the two and a half years during which she’s been at the college, the staff has been a constant source of encouragement as she works toward her career as a stylist. For these