There are moments, between the hustle of our daily routines and busy lives, where life demands we pause and make room for discovering something great. In September 2017, my world was forever changed when my father’s first cousin, Uncle Lucky, passed away. My Dad and Uncle Lucky were raised together. More than cousins, they were like brothers. The traditional exploration through my grandparent’s archives for pictures led my Dad on a late night trip down memory lane. But, as he geeked out scanning old photos, articles, and documents, neither of us expected his trip would become my own. The moment I opened that email thread at 11:30pm entitled: “Big Mama”, I realized things would never be the same for me.
My memories of Big Mama (a 6’2” strong, powerful, woman) are vivid. They consist of visits to see her and my Dad proudly showing me her beauty salon. I remember her home always smelled like cream of wheat with milk and sugar. To this day, that scent brings back nostalgia of Big Mama’s. But even that September as the family email thread came rolling in, the significance of those memories were lost on me. What I had known to be a beauty salon was just the surface of a deeper history lesson. Buried within the email threads and in newspapers articles was a history dating back to the 1920’s.
So here’s what I know now:
Somewhere between the 1920’s and 1930’s (we’re still trying to pinpoint an exact date), Big Mama opened a beauty school with an accompanying salon and women’s toggery shop (fun fact: back in day, when you wanted to be fancy you said toggery instead of clothing. The more you know). She traveled across the country and the world visiting Paris and London, educating herself on the latest styles and trends and bringing her knowledge back to grow her business. But beauty was just the tip of her hustle.
Big Mama was a businesswoman. Self-made and self-sustained. She took entrepreneurship to new heights. We’re talking about investing in real estate and owning property like the building that housed Twilight Beauty Shop and School, an events hall, and even the house next door which she rented out to “roomers”. And she didn’t stop there. In a community that had one bank with limited access, Big Mama stepped in on many occasions, co-signing loans and working to provide accessible housing to families. Back then, my Dad and Uncle Lucky would work the events hall and stock the toggery shop. My Dad has memories of people getting paid in brown envelopes full of cash that they kept under mattresses. Mostly business owners had bank accounts which left many people out to fend for themselves. He was able to see firsthand the social structures in place and the impact Big Mama had. Twilight was more than a beauty school and salon. It was an enterprise. Can we take a moment to let that sink in? An enterprise, providing employment opportunities, educating hundreds of beauty school students, and supporting the economic development of a community led by a black woman during the Jim Crow era and beyond.
Twilight Beauty Shop and School thrived for over 40 years. Big Mama was an entrepreneur. She was an educator. She was a mentor for countless young men and women. A supporter of fellow entrepreneurs and African-American cosmetology school owners, and a beacon preparing students for their careers and their future.
A LEGACY CUT SHORT
As our history has shown time and time again, black success is always accompanied by a system determined to limit it. By the early 1980’s Big Mama and many of the black women who owned and operated beauty schools became a target of our prejudiced system. The State Board of Cosmetology began to put pressure on African-American cosmetology schools with the sole purpose to retrieve the licenses of black schools and sell them to their white competitors.
Big Mama and other black cosmetology schools were called to appear for the board for minor infractions in order to pressure them to sell. There were even members of the cosmetology board negotiating the sales between the black school owners and the white owners looking to purchase their licenses. It was only a matter of time before Big Mama was cited for having 8 of the 10 student minimum enrollment. She was given 90 days to make a choice: enroll more students or sell. With little time and little support, Big Mama was ultimately forced to sell the license for Twilight Beauty Shop and School. Her early retirement wasn’t an anomaly amongst the black community. Most of her fellow African-American cosmetology school owners faced the same decision while white owners remained in operation despite having many of the same shortcomings.
IN HONOR OF BIG MAMA: TWILIGHT QUEST
I was livid reading these articles. First, about the social justice issues and racial targeting that was so blatantly on display, and then, about the realization that if Big Mama was able to secure more business, she would have been able to win this battle. I have an agency, Orange Moon Media, that does just that. The geek in me wishes I could hop in a DeLorean and travel back in time. To create a business development strategy to grow Twilight Beauty Shop and School. To help Big Mama secure her minimum enrollment. To empower her fellow business owners to do the same. And while I know that isn’t possible (yet), I’ve found a way to honor Big Mama and her legacy.
If you know me, you know that I’m an advocate for positive energy. Even in the tough moments, peace and positivity have a way of turning something tragic into something beautiful. Today, my quest, that started with a trip down memory lane, is to provide the support to social enterprises that I never had the chance to give to my Big Mama. Businesses and organizations that are providing positive impact in a community on a scale like Big Mama’s Twilight Beauty Shop and School require business development, marketing, and strategy to become successful, sustainable, and scalable.
Twilight Quest is an online platform dedicated to providing that support. To positively impacting economic workforce development in local communities by bolstering the success and sustainability of social enterprises including small business, non profit organizations, and the people who lead them.
This is my way of honoring Big Mama and the organizations that fought alongside her to empower our communities. My Dad says Big Mama is somewhere smiling…and that makes my heart glad.