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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 geared toward African American customers, amongst them a comb designed to work with the pure types that exploded in reputation within the Nineteen Sixties — a software he referred to as the Afro Tease, however which got here to be often known as the Afro decide — died on June 22 at his dwelling 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 standard 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 folks had seen their naturally kinky hair as a legal responsibility, and both trimmed it near the scalp or straightened it, usually utilizing painfully caustic chemical compounds to take action.

But the civil rights motion produced a technology of younger Black folks keen to say their freedom from oppressive aesthetics. Natural hair was turning into as a lot a political assertion as a mode alternative, a bodily expression of the rising Black Power ethos.

The blowout, later often known as the Afro, turned the dominant model. But it offered a brand new problem to barbers like Mr. Morrow.

“The Afro caught all people off guard,” he advised Ebony journal in 1970. “Even Black barbers and beauticians in America had been caught missing the information in addition to the will to model a good Afro.”

An inveterate innovator, Mr. Morrow spent years engaged on his decide design, at first making picket picks at the back of his store earlier than he landed on a plastic model that might be mass produced. Eventually he had seven fashions, certainly one of them a blow-dryer attachment, and he was promoting about 12,000 picks per week.

Based on his rising popularity, the Department of Defense contracted with him in 1969 to coach its hundreds of barbers and beauticians to work with Black hair.

“Until pretty not too long ago, the Black individual was self-conscious about his curly, kinky hair,” he told The New York Times in 1971. “He or she would lay our a fortune attempting to take the curl out. That made it simple for the navy. They would merely run the clippers carefully over a Negro’s head — no downside in any respect.”

Over the subsequent few years, Mr. Morrow logged tens of hundreds of miles visiting bases round Asia, Europe and the United States, giving workshops to navy and native civilian barbers. He claimed he was the youngest individual ever to log one million miles on Delta Air Lines.

Of course, not everybody needed an Afro, even on the top of the Black Power period, and so alongside the decide he developed dozens of different hair care merchandise, a lot of them straightening and softening therapies that had been gentler than the traditional chemical compounds then in use.

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

Again, his timing was excellent. The Afro was waning in reputation, and younger folks had been searching for a brand new model. But when Mr. Morrow determined to market his product completely 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 model amongst younger African Americans 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 mother and father, Hollie and Olean (Jordan) Morrow, had been sharecroppers, and his father offered bootleg whiskey on the facet.

Along 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.

One of eight youngsters, Willie began work at an early age. He later mentioned that after he realized that solely the easiest college students in class had a shot in school, he determined to seek out one other manner out of poverty and shortly landed on barbering. He began chopping 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. Soon it was a cornerstone of Black life in San Diego, and Mr. Morrow was the barber of alternative for professional athletes, California politicians, musicians and film stars.

“The first time I lower my hair I went to that barbershop and found that it was an entire tradition, the place folks would giggle discuss, discuss politics, discuss social points, discuss life,” Starla Lewis, a professor emerita of Black research at San Diego Mesa College, mentioned in a cellphone interview. “It was a neighborhood for a lot of, many many years.”

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 way 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 entire block, and he employed some 200 folks. A ten-foot Afro decide stood out entrance.

He finally handed over most of his enterprise to his daughter Cheryl, although he continued to come back to work nearly on daily basis — if to not lower hair, then to putter in his laboratory, all the time searching for one other new thought.

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