Willie Lee Morrow, Barber Who Popularized the Afro Pick, Dies at 82


Willie Lee Morrow, a son of Alabama sharecroppers who constructed a enterprise empire round hair care merchandise aimed toward African American customers, amongst them a comb designed to work with the pure kinds that exploded in reputation within the Sixties — a device he known as the Afro Tease, however which got here to be referred to as the Afro choose — died on June 22 at his house in San Diego. He was 82.

His daughter Cheryl Morrow mentioned the trigger was pneumonia.

Mr. Morrow was already a profitable barber on the east facet of San Diego when a household good friend, Robert Bell, walked into his store in 1962. Mr. Bell had simply returned from finding out in Nigeria, and he introduced Mr. Morrow a present: a conventional picket comb, with lengthy, stiff tines spaced nicely aside, meant to tease out curly hair.

Mr. Morrow had by no means seen something prefer it, nevertheless it couldn’t have landed in his fingers at a greater time. For generations, many Black individuals had considered their naturally kinky hair as a legal responsibility, and both trimmed it near the scalp or straightened it, usually utilizing painfully caustic chemical substances to take action.

However the civil rights motion produced a technology of younger Black individuals keen to say their freedom from oppressive aesthetics. Pure hair was turning into as a lot a political assertion as a mode selection, a bodily expression of the rising Black Energy ethos.

The blowout, later referred to as the Afro, turned the dominant type. However it offered a brand new problem to barbers like Mr. Morrow.

“The Afro caught everybody off guard,” he advised Ebony journal in 1970. “Even Black barbers and beauticians in America were caught lacking the knowledge as well as the desire to style a decent Afro.”

An inveterate innovator, Mr. Morrow spent years engaged on his choose design, at first making picket picks at the back of his store earlier than he landed on a plastic model that may very well be mass produced. Ultimately he had seven fashions, one in all them a blow-dryer attachment, and he was promoting about 12,000 picks every week.

Primarily based on his rising popularity, the Division of Protection contracted with him in 1969 to coach its hundreds of barbers and beauticians to work with Black hair.

“Until fairly recently, the Black person was self-conscious about his curly, kinky hair,” he told The New York Times in 1971. “He or she would spend a fortune trying to take the curl out. That made it easy for the military. They would simply run the clippers closely over a Negro’s head — no problem at all.”

Over the following few years, Mr. Morrow logged tens of hundreds of miles visiting bases round Asia, Europe and the US, giving workshops to navy and native civilian barbers. He claimed he was the youngest individual ever to log 1,000,000 miles on Delta Air Strains.

After all, not everybody needed an Afro, even on the top of the Black Energy period, and so alongside the choose he developed dozens of different hair care merchandise, a lot of them straightening and softening remedies that have been gentler than the standard chemical substances then in use.

By the mid-Seventies he had a product known as Tomorrow Curl, which started to take off in 1977 when he modified the title to California Curl. It gave his clients’ hair a gentle and glossy look, and just like the choose, it was simple to make use of.

Once more, his timing was excellent. The Afro was waning in reputation, and younger individuals have been searching for a brand new type. However when Mr. Morrow determined to market his product solely to hair care professionals, different firms moved in. Jheri Redding, one other California hairdresser, reformulated a product he already had available on the market for white hair and offered it on to Black customers.

By the Nineteen Eighties, the most well liked hair type amongst younger African People was the Jheri curl, named for its popularizer if not its inventor.

Willie Lee Morrow was born on Oct. 9, 1939, in Eutaw, Ala., a farming city southwest of Birmingham. His dad and mom, Hollie and Olean (Jordan) Morrow, have been sharecroppers, and his father offered bootleg whiskey on the facet.

Alongside together with his daughter Cheryl, he’s survived by his spouse, Gloria (Lacy) Morrow, and one other daughter, Angela Morrow. A son, Todd, died earlier than him.

Considered one of eight youngsters, Willie began work at an early age. He later mentioned that after he realized that solely the perfect college students in class had a shot at school, he determined to seek out one other means out of poverty and shortly landed on barbering. He began slicing hair when he was 13.

He moved to San Diego in 1959, a part of a wave of Black Southerners drawn to Southern California’s heat local weather and promise of plentiful jobs.

He attended barber college, joined a salon and, when its proprietor determined to retire, purchased him out for $5,000. Quickly it was a cornerstone of Black life in San Diego, and Mr. Morrow was the barber of selection for professional athletes, California politicians, musicians and film stars.

“The first time I cut my hair I went to that barbershop and discovered that it was a whole culture, where people would laugh talk, talk about politics, talk about social issues, talk about life,” Starla Lewis, a professor emerita of Black research at San Diego Mesa School, mentioned in a telephone interview. “It was a community for many, many decades.”

Mr. Morrow wrote greater than a dozen books, most of them manuals like “The Principles of Cutting and Styling Negro Hair” (1966), in addition to a historical past, “400 Years Without a Comb” (1973), which traced the story of Black hair care from Africa by means of slavery to the current.

Mr. Morrow later branched out into media. He began San Diego’s first Black-centered radio station in 1979 and a newspaper, The San Diego Monitor, in 1986. He made most of his merchandise subsequent door to his salon, having expanded to take over nearly your complete block, and he employed some 200 individuals. A ten-foot Afro choose stood out entrance.

He finally handed over most of his enterprise to his daughter Cheryl, although he continued to return to work nearly day-after-day — if to not reduce hair, then to putter in his laboratory, at all times searching for one other new concept.


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