CEDAR RAPIDS — When Paulette Clark wanted to become a hair dresser, she faced a challenge; the local cosmetology school, the Paris Academy, had never accepted a black student. It was 1970, and 20 years earlier the school, which later became Capri College, denied entrance to another black woman, Freda Long. Clark decided it was time for that to change. She called the school, and officials there agreed to let her enroll.
In July 1971, she opened Paulette’s House of Beauty at 1136 Ninth St. SE in the Oakhill Jackson neighborhood. The salon remained open for more than 30 years until she retired.
The story of Clark’s beauty salon is featured in “Untangling the Roots: The Culture of Black Hair,” an exhibit opening Saturday at the African American Museum of Iowa. The exhibit will remain up through next summer.
“It’s an honor. You do your work, and you just don’t think about people noticing what you’re doing,” Clark said of being included in the exhibit. “I’m proud to be from Cedar Rapids. I love people, and I love my work.”
African American Museum of Iowa curator Felicite Wolfe said salons like Clark’s are more than places to get a hair cut; they often served as places for community and conversation and are integral to black culture.
Long before salons became places of community, however, black hair was politicized in America. The exhibit is built around a timeline that starts in pre-slavery days in West Africa, where many ethnic groups treated hair a source of spiritual power, and hair dressers were highly respected members of society. Wolfe said slave traders knew this, and one of the first things they often did to people they were enslaving was to cut off their hair.
Under slavery and later under Jim Crow, she said black hair was policed and labeled “good” or “bad,” ideas that persist into the present. Under slavery, those with lighter skin and straighter hair were more likely to be given jobs in homes rather than in fields.
“The more European your features, the better off you were,” she said. “After the Civil War, European features were a way to get into mainstream white society.”
At the same time, hair and hair care provided economic opportunities for black women, as the black beauty industry grew in the 1910s and 1920s and women opened salons and created hair care products. That continued to be true for decades to come.
Clark had been working for 10 years at Collins Aerospace, where she helped build equipment for the Apollo space missions, when she decided to pursue a longtime dream.
“Beauty was something I always wanted to do. My mom said, ‘Do it, you’re always doing our hair!’ and then my husband said, ‘If you still want to go, go!.’ I approached Paris even though they weren’t taking black students,” she said. “I didn’t want to have to go to Des Moines.”
Still, she had to travel to a different program in Omaha to learn specific techniques for styling black hair; the Paris Academy didn’t teach those skills.
Clark said she only remembers encountering one instance of racism in her time at the Cedar Rapids school. The students would line up and wait to style customers as they came in to the training salon. One woman saw her stylist would be Clark and said she would like someone else. The other students refused to accommodate her demand, and the woman left rather than let Clark cut her hair.
In Cedar Rapids, black entrepreneurs in the 1950s and 1960s who opened salons included Thelma Price, who is believed to be the first professional black beautician in Cedar Rapids and opened the Beauty Studio and Gift Shop on the 800 block of Eighth Avenue SE. Freda Long, who was denied attendance at the Paris Academy, went to work for her after attending Crescent School of Beauty Culture in Des Moines and graduating in 1955. In 1989 she opened Freda’s Beauty Rama and Gift Shop, at 1028 12th Ave. SE, which she continues to operate with her granddaughter Octavia.
Students for the Iowa BIG School interviewed Long and others about their life experiences and created a video for the exhibit, which visitors can watch while sitting in a makeshift salon set up in the gallery space. The exhibit also includes an interactive area where people can style wigs, complete with combs and barrettes. Black hair the politics surrounding it are still something Americans are grappling with, Wolfe said. The exhibit continues to the present, with references to things like cultural appropriation and perceptions of professionalism and hair in the workplace and in the armed forces. It also includes celebrations of black hair and style, in hip-hop culture of the 1980s and beyond.
Wolfe said she hopes people walk away with a deeper understanding of the complex history behind black hair, and also with a sense of appreciation for its beauty.
“This exhibit is for everyone, to give an understanding of black culture behind hair, and the history of why it is so important,” she said.
If You Go
What: Untangling the Roots: The Culture of Black Hair exhibit opening
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: African American Museum of Iowa, 55 12th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
Cost: Regular admission rates; free to $6
Details: (319) 862-2101, blackiowa.org/untangling-the-roots
What: Untangling the Roots Story Time
When: 10 to 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Next Page Books, 1105 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
Details: (319) 247-2655, npbnewbo.com
What: Urban Bush Women: Hair & Other Stories
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21
Where: Hancher Auditorium,
Cost: $10 to $45
Details: Drawn from personal and public narratives centered on individual identity in a collective culture, “Hair & Other Stories” contemporary dance company Urban Bush Women investigates issues of body image, race, gender identity, economic inequity, and more.
Urban Bush Women also will create work for the UI Department of Dance’s Dance Gala, In Motion, which will be presented on the Hancher stage on November 15 and 16. Related free events are a lunch discussion at the Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St., Iowa City at noon Sept. 17; Dance for Every Body movement workshop at 6 p.m. Sept. 17 at Old Capitol Museum, 21 N. Linn St., Iowa City; and Hair Party (Getting it Done!) at 7 p.m. at the African American Museum of Iowa Sept. 19. Registration for the Hair Party event is full.