400 YEARS WITHOUT A COMB
Born in Eutaw, Alabama, he was the oldest of eight children. His parents were both sharecroppers and the family were extremely poor. His father used to make bootleg whisky in order to boost the family savings.
Willie hardly ever went to school as he was working in the fields. His job at home was to cut the hair of his seven younger siblings, and he found he was rather good at it.
At 18 his father used up all of his savings to send Willie to college – to the Independent Barber College in San Diego, California. Willie said he wanted to go there, “to try my ideas and vision in a city I had read was the Harlem of the West.”
He graduated in 1959. The plan was for him to come home to Alabama, but when he got back he felt the place had changed. “The fields were too hard, and the sun was too hot.” He went straight back to San Diego.
He got a job working in Horace Smith’s barbers’ shop on Market Street. He was paid $17 for his first week’s work. But he learned his trade and became a very capable barber and hair stylist. And he learned everything he could from talking to his customers.
Then Horace decided to retire. He offered the shop to each of the six men that worked there, but Willie was the only one who was interested. He only had $5,000 in savings and was stunned when Horace accepted it.
The hair styling world was just about to change. The black community had no hair styles of their own. Women used to try to straighten their hair like white women, and men used to shave all their hair off.
But the world was changing too. Jazz and Rock & Roll had taken off, there was a rise in political activism and there were more black students at universities. They wanted a hair style of their own.
So Willie invented the ‘Afro’, styling the natural curls of the African-American community. And it caught on very quickly. People had a style of their own. “Black people no longer had to put their hair up, straighten it or braid it to be perceived as having groomed, styled hair – or to be taken seriously.”
Willie said, “The Afro caught everybody off guard. Even the black barbers and beauticians in America were caught lacking the knowledge as well as the desire to style a decent Afro.”
Willie quickly realised there were more issues. All the hair equipment and accessories were designed for white people. There were no combs that could brush African-American hair and the chemicals that were used at the time on hair, tended to turn black people’s hair red.
A friend, Robert Bell, brought Willie a wooden comb that he had bought on holiday in Nigeria. It had bigger gaps between the teeth than a standard comb. Willie realised it was perfect and designed a plastic version (putting his own stamp on it). It became known as the ‘Afro Pick’ – designed for curly hair. It was nicknamed both the ‘Afro Tease’ and the ‘Eze Teze’. Very quickly he was selling 12,000 a week, posting them all round the country. There were 7 types of the comb.
And he was determined to design new hair products. He taught himself chemistry, and when his inventions came on the market they sold extensively, as he made sure they were affordable to poorer communities.
In the days before buying things online, there was nowhere in the city where you could buy tickets for the American football team, the San Diego Chargers. You had to go to the stadium, outside the city.
Willie began to sell tickets from the shop and quickly became friendly with the players, doing their hair as well. He was particularly friendly with the Charger’s player Ernie Barnes, who advertised his shop.
And the word spread. All the leading members of the Black Panthers had their hair done there, claiming to have, “the biggest, baddest Afros in the country.”
Everybody went to Willie’s from local children to celebrities. A 15-year old Whoopi Goldberg was taken there, and she said Willie created her style.
He wrote a book in 1965 called ‘The Principles of Cutting and Styling Negro Hair’. This was followed by a second book in 1973, ‘400 Years Without a Comb’.
During this time he had married Gloria. They were to be married 56 years and had two daughters, Cheryl and Angela.
By now he was buying up other buildings in the block as his company expanded. He called it the ‘California Curl Company’.
Then, in 1969, he was contacted by the US military. They were having trouble getting their barbers to adapt to the requirements of black servicemen. Willie was asked to teach their barbers, which he did, but soon found himself cutting hair.
He travelled to 30 countries in just 4 years with the military, including into war zones. By the age of 28 he had flown over a million miles, so Delta Air Lines made him a ‘Flying Colonel’.
The fashion of the Afro began to die out in around 1977. Willie spotted this and came up with a new design, the ‘California Curl’, which was a wave in the hair, with softer, looser curls. This was picked up and developed by another California hair stylist Jehri Redding. It became known as the ‘Jehri Curl’ and was very popular with young blacks in the 1980s and 1990s (and was used by many popstars, including Ice Cube and Michael Jackson). Redding always said the idea was really Willie’s.
Willie branched out in a new direction in 1979 when he created a black radio station for San Diego, Radio XHRM 92.5.
He took this further with a newspaper in 1986, the ‘San Diego Monitor’. Both the radio and paper encouraged local small business advertising. His daughter Cheryl, who eventually took over editing the Monitor, said, “He just believed in community being the source of the economy…That you should not have to go out of your community for the resources and wealth you needed. It should be in your community.”
And he encouraged young people in business, giving them his time and advice. One such person was William ‘Tayari’ Howard who was working as a coast guard. He went to get his hair cut at Willie’s, heard about the radio station, asked for a job and has become San Diego’s leading radio personality. He said, “Working for the man was a blessing. I did 50 years. He was my personal barber, my friend, my mentor.”
Willie’s business grew and he soon owned the whole block. He had a personal collection of antique hair tools.
And his friend Ernie Barnes, the former footballer, retired and became a noted painter. He presented the barber with a signed picture called ‘Willie’s barbershop’.
In his private life he loved gardening and producing his vegetables and making his own wine, something he had learned to do when he was just 13, back in Alabama. He put both of his hobbies down to his upbringing.
By the time he retired, he was worth millions of dollars, the richest legitimate black businessman in San Diego.
A documentary was made about him, also entitled ‘400 Years Without a Comb’.
He died at home of pneumonia aged 82.
When he died the local newspaper said, “Dr Willie Morrow is the epitome of what black entrepreneurship looked like.”
It was also said, “he was the embodiment of the promise of America.”
His collection of antique hair tools was put in an exhibition on display at the California Centre for the Arts, at Escondido. There was also a painting made especially, to signify Willie’s contribution to hairstyling.
RIP – Redesigned Image (of) Panthers