DR. MARJORIE STEWART JOYNER
A revolution in the beauty industry occurred during the early twentieth century when a small group of visionary African American woman inventors began to develop products and processes with Black women’s particular needs in mind – products under girded with a philosophy of self affirmation that sought to generate positive sentiments regarding their physical appearance, and that created a new paradigm for a Black aesthetic; thus, improving both their looks, and their societal status in the United States and around the world.
Dr. Marjorie Stewart Joyner was one such woman. The granddaughter of a slave and a white slave-owner, she was born on October 24, 1896, in Monterey, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains area of the state to the parentage of George Emmanuel Stewart and Annie Daugherty Stewart. She grew up in extreme poverty – only four of the thirteen Stewart children survived infancy – but her father was a schoolteacher who had worked with the famous African American educator Booker T. Washington and harbored higher ambitions for himself and his expanding family. They moved to Dayton, Ohio, in 1904, where Dr. Joyner’s father had been offered a teaching job at a white school. Her parents divorced soon afterward, however, and Dr. Joyner bounced between various family members for the duration of her childhood. Her education was frequently interrupted, and when she finally moved to Chicago to be with her mother in 1912, it was further derailed by the need for her to earn an income to help support the household. This she did, by performing grueling manual labor for long hours and little pay on various cleaning and food service jobs. She was able to attended Englewood High School located in the South Side of Chicago, but did not receive her high school diploma until 1935 from the Chicago Christian High School.
It was during those intervening years that she began her studies in cosmetology when she enrolled in the renowned white owned and operated A. B. Molar Beauty School, and in 1916 made history by becoming the first Black woman to graduate from the school. That same magical year, at the age of 20, Marjorie met and married her husband, Dr. Robert E. Joyner, a noted podiatrist. She and Dr. Joyner became the proud parents of 2 daughters, Ann and Barbara. Always availing herself of every opportunity to expand her horizons, she latter attended Chicago Musical College, earning a certificate in dramatic art and expression in 1924. She would go on to earn a Bachelors of Science Degree in psychology from Bethune-Cookman College, in Daytona Beach, Florida, during her seventy-seventh year of life.
In 1916, the same year of her marriage and historic graduation from beauty school, Dr. Joyner opened a salon of her own at 5448 South State Street, establishing herself as a successful cosmetologist from the very beginning. At that time, her first customers were all white, but the turning point of her career came when she became connected with Madame C. J. Walker, the well-known and influential beautician and businesswoman, and enrolled in her beauty and hair-styling classes. Madame Walker, the “mother” and pioneer of the African American hair-care industry (and America’s first African American female millionaire) had revolutionized the world of beauty a few years earlier by creating the Walker Hair Care System and opening beauty schools around the country. Joyner took the class at the prodding of her mother-in-law. According to her recollection as quoted in the book “Notable Black American Women”, Dr. Joyner botched a hair styling job she undertook on her mother-in-law, and instead of harshly scolding her, her mother-in-law insisted she strive harder by receiving the training she needed to do the job right, “When I got through with her hair she looked like an accident going somewhere to happen. She said, ‘you can’t do anything with my hair anymore, but I am going to give you money to go down to Walker’s class; she is teaching how to do Black hair’…. I was just glad she didn’t stop speaking to me after that.
Madame Walker quickly recognized her student’s intelligence and boundless energy and signed her on as both an instructor and an agent. Dr. Joyner helped Walker spread her methods and products across the Midwest, and was highly instrumental in the rapid growth of the Walker empire. By the time of Walker’s death in 1919, Joyner had become the Vice President of the company and the National Supervisor for the Madame C. J. Walker beauty schools. In this position Dr. Joyner oversaw and directed the total operations of more than 200 beauty schools across the nation. She recruited, trained, and managed thousands of “Walker Agents,” women who sold straightening combs, shampoos and hair oils from their homes and door-to-door. “People were making big money with hot combs at the time”, she recalled, “and I had to make sure our women knew how to use them properly”. Considered one of the foremost authorities in her field, her expertise was called upon in 1924 by the governor of Illinois to help write State’s first cosmetology laws. Although she was a busy national executive, community leader and business owner, she remained a renowned and noted hair stylist herself, and personally did styling work for such African American celebrities as Billie Holliday, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, the ever beautiful Dorothy Dandridge, and opera star Marian Anderson. In addition to her styling work, Dr. Joyner supplied beauty products to a number of the most prominent Black figures of the time.
A dilemma existed for Black women in the 1920’s. In order to straighten tightly curled hair, they had to use a stove-heated curling iron. The iron’s larger curl would relax tightly curled hair. But only one fire-heated iron could be used at a time. This was very time-consuming, cumbersome and frustrating. Dr. Joyner disliked the slow and uncomfortable process and thought there must be a way to improve upon this. So, in 1926, she set out to make this process faster, easier and more efficient. She imagined that if a number of curling irons could be arranged properly, they could work at the same time to straighten the hair all at once. The revolutionary idea came to her while she was, of all things, cooking a pot roast in her kitchen one afternoon. She looked at the roast, which was being held together and heated from the inside with several long, thin rods. She recalled, “it all came to me in the kitchen when I was making a pot roast one day, looking at these long, thin rods that held the pot roast together and heated it up from the inside. I figured you could use them like hair rollers, then heat them up to cook a permanent curl into the hair.” Her groundbreaking concept envisioned an innovative system that would use several rods hung above a client’s head to roll several sections of her hair at once, and then they would be heated up to impress a lasting wave or curl into the hair. A hairstyle like this, she knew, would hold for several days, if not for weeks at a time.
So the 30-year-old beautician began to experiment with actual pot roast rods and an old-fashioned hair dryer hood. She thought it would be more efficient if the group of curling irons could be hung above a woman’s head. Accordingly, she hooked 16 pencil-shaped pot roast rods to an old-fashioned hair dryer hood, and then joined them together with a single electrical cord. Soon she had a feasible prototype. After two years Joyner completed her invention and patented it in 1928 receiving U.S. patent No. 1,693,515, calling it the “Permanent Waving Machine.” She thus became the first African American woman in the United States to receive a national government patent and her device enjoyed enormous and immediate success. It performed even better than anticipated, as the curl that it added would often stay in place for many days, whereas curls from standard curling irons would generally last only one or two days at best. It literally changed the whole way women’s hair was styled and completely revolutionized the industry. She later remarked, “If I can take pot roast rods and create a one-of-a-kind invention, believe me, anyone can do what they set their minds to.”
In 1929, Joyner also patented a scalp protector to make the procedure more comfortable. This too proved to be a major success. Her proprietary ownership to this and to the “Permanent Waving Machine” was assigned over to Madam Walker’s company. Despite her accomplishments and success, Dr. Joyner received none of the proceeds of her inventions as the patents were created within the scope of her employment with Madame Walker’s company, which therefore received all patent rights and royalties. But she stated this never bothered her, “I just wanted to improve the whole process and make it better for both the beauty operator and the client, and to help Black women hold their style for longer periods of time. Who benefited from it wasn’t as important to me as the purpose for which I created it”. Dr. Joyner’s invention was hugely successful, and was adopted widely and readily by salons everywhere. Although it was developed for Black women who wanted to change their hair’s tight curl to a wave, the Permanent Waving Machine found an unexpected market. To the surprise of many, the device was a hit in white salons as well, allowing white women who wanted to add curl to their straight hair, the ability to enjoy the beauty of their “permanent curl” or “perm” for several days more than had been previously possible.
Dr. Joyner remained with the Walker firm for more than fifty years, and always credited her hair-styling experience with developing her vivid imagination and her problem-solving abilities. She continued to break ground in the beauty industry, inventing and creating a host of other ingenious products, including the famous “Satin Tress” preparation, the Walker Company’s premier product line, and the predecessor of the now ubiquitous hair relaxer. It was Dr. Joyner’s long labor, leadership, keen intellect, and cutting-edge creativity in the beauty industry that defined for generations of Black women what it meant to be lovely, gracious and glamorous; thus earning for her the affectionate title “The Grand Dame of Black Beauty and Culture” as she was known by the many who benefited from her life’s work.
In 1945 she embarked upon her greatest and most enduring contribution to Black America and to entire nation as a whole, when she founded (with the help of her close friend and mentor, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, and longtime political comrade U. S. Congressman William L. Dawson) the Alpha Chi Pi Omega Sorority and Fraternity and the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association. She beheld the need for concerted action among the members of her profession and recognized that the times in which they lived dictated a united and cohesive movement of Black women, centered around a shared vision of beauty and culture. For many years, she and other African Americans of her profession had been cold shouldered and barred from joining the various White trade associations, and were treated as outcasts in the very industry they helped to develop and maintain. But Marjorie Stewart Joyner would not be denied. She envisioned a network of well-organized Black beauticians, barbers, salon owners, and beauty school directors and instructors, empowered not just to “do hair”, but to affect and influence the images of Black society and culture everywhere and at every level. Further, Dr. Joyner understood the imperative of elevating professional standards of excellence among the purveyors of the hair stylist industry, and made training and development the mandate of the organization she created and presided over until her death.
It was the strength and fortitude of her indomitable will that forged, from the diverse personalities, backgrounds, geographical proclivities, and individual agendas, an enduring professional institution dedicated to the perpetuation of the philosophy that “Black is Beautiful” long before it was even conceivable to think so; certainly long before the phrase, as such, was ever thought about or uttered. Like few other national African American female leaders of her time, her untiring and committed leadership actually carved out a space where Black women could excel in business, exercise their political muscle and have some fun at the same time. Through the national Greek-Lettered organization for hair care professionals which she founded (Alpha Chi Pi Omega) Dr. Joyner assisted Black women – and men – around the country to gain economic independence and political power, as well as providing for them a viable social outlet of elegance, and sophistication. Her sustained and visionary leadership of the organization gained for many Black women entrepreneurs genuine respect as business owners during the most difficult and challenging times of the 20th century for African Americans. Nothing demonstrated this more than when she became frustrated at the slow pace at which U.S. beauty colleges admitted African American students, and as a response, she organized and led a widely reported and vastly successful European tour, culminating in Paris, France, by 200 members of the sorority to learn new techniques and to be exposed to a different environment – one that was not as restrictive as the extremely oppressive and segregated America of that day.
However, she would not be limited to just one arena within which to utilize her formidable skills and abilities. No, not at all, but she set out to affect positive change in every area that impacted her life, and the lives of millions of her people. As such, she broadened the scope of her energies to include more civic/community-oriented and philanthropic endeavors. She served a term as the National President of the National Beauty Culturist League during its formative era, and was a National Officer or Executive Board Member of many national and international organizations and associations of that day. Despite her success and national prominence, she had been scorched by the same burning indignity of legal segregation, and institutionalized and codified racism that permeated American life for others, and it became her steadfast determination to help dismantle it during her lifetime; a goal she was blessed to see fulfilled before she closed her eyes in eternal rest. It was this struggle – one of justice, equity, and basic human dignity – that defined and influenced her work as the years progressed. She remarked in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, “They talk about Rosa Parks having to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Well, how would you like to ride all night in a baggage car with a corpse?” On her way to a speaking engagement in Texas from Cairo, Illinois, railroad personnel refused to allow her to board the Whites-only cars of the train because she was Black. Since no Blacks-only seating was available, Joyner had to ride in the train’s full baggage car. Resting her feet on what she thought was a long box in order to get comfortable in the confined space, she was later horrified to realize that it was a casket containing a dead body being transported on the train.
After experiences like that, Dr. Joyner was inspired to devote her considerable organizational talents to laying down the roots of what eventually became the modern civil rights movement. She became a close confidante and associate of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the early 1930’s fighting together with her against discrimination and prejudice, and opening doors of opportunities for women of color in the work place, and in the war effort of the 1940’s. The two women made national headlines by facing down threats of Ku Klux Klan violence when they attended together a concert with an integrated-audience given by the Bethune-Cookman Collegiate choir. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Dr. Joyner to a national leadership post on the Democratic National Committee where she served with great distinction.
She was also a founding Charter Member and National Officer of the National Council of Negro Women organized by her life long dear friend and close confidant, Dr. Bethune in 1935, and became a key supporter for the Bethune-Cookman College – a charge and commitment she would keep as a personal priority until the end of her long life. Her untiring and unrelenting efforts raised many hundreds of thousands of dollars for the college and later for the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation and the Bethune House, which she mandated to be the National Project of her sorority daughters. As a lifetime member of the College’s prestigious Board of Trustees her advocacy for the Bethune-Cookman was monumental and unrelenting. She garnered the friendship of many white patrician admirers for the support of the college, including the multi-millionaire New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a major donor who, out of friendship with and respect for Dr. Joyner, helped make possible the college’s expansion. Because of her years of service and proven dedication to the college and vision the of the late Dr. Bethune, the school conferred upon her an honorary Doctorate of Humanities in 1961, and later in the 1970’s the Freshmen’s residence hall was built in her honor and named after her.
She worked closely with, and was personally known by all Democratic U. S. presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, and was considered by the highest levels of government to be an absolutely indispensable component of the national political machinery of the Democratic Party. When Louis Martin, the influential Special Presidential Assistant to several Democratic presidents, who served as one of the highest ranking Blacks in the nation as a senior White House advisor during the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, became the first Black deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee and wanted to galvanize Black voters to support the presidential ticket, he called her beauty shop, and it wasn’t to get a haircut.
Martin knew that Dr. Joyner and her organization of beauty salon operators and beauty school instructors were essential in getting the political message to the Black community nation-wide. It was actually Marjorie Stewart Joyner, and her huge successes in grass roots organizing, that inspired Martin to go national with his political outreach efforts. His utmost respect and high regard for her and her abilities, as well as the regard with which she was held by the presidents he served is reflected in the interview he gave for the White House Archives of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum. He recalls in the interview, “…I’ll tell you, Marjorie Stewart Joyner was a beautician who did most of the national organizing then and in succeeding campaigns. She was a real tower of strength… Two women, Marjorie Joyner took half of them and another lady out of New Orleans, who finally came to Washington, had another beauty organization. But Marjorie Joyner of Chicago was the most active and effective. Incidentally, she’s eighty or ninety years old I think now, but she was something else… Yes, Marjorie Joyner. She had had experience in Chicago working with the rank and file and political things, so with those beauty shops, there was no problem. We could never have won it without her. As a matter of fact, I think that one of main things that inspired me to go national was Marjorie Joyner’s success… You know what I mean? And how she was working with the machinery rather than against it…Where you found a beauty operator who was interested, you really had a jewel, and the same thing with the barbers, the guys got into it…”
In the 1940’s during the desperate and daunting days of World War II, Dr. Joyner opened up her salons and beauty school to the United Service Organization (USO) so that Black servicemen, who were not allowed to partake in any of the regular USO-sponsored social activities due to segregation, could have an outlet for entertainment and relaxation. “They didn’t have any kind of military places where they could hang out and have fun. So, I opened up the doors of the school and organized the ladies to roll out the red carpet for our Black boys, with the best of food, music, dancing, and lots of celebrities and nationally-known entertainers” she recalled. Dr. Joyner had a keen sense of understanding that as an educator, business owner and founder of a national organization, she had been entrusted with an institution, a treasure placed in her capable hands, and she wanted to make it available for the full utilization of the Black community.”
A true pillar of the city of Chicago, Dr. Marjorie Stewart Joyner affected the lives of untold numbers of African Americans with her altruistic endeavors for most of her ninety-eight years. A very popular and beloved icon, her birthday was proclaimed a citywide holiday as the “Dr. Marjorie Stewart Joyner Day”. An adopted mother and close personal friend to the late Harold Washington, he credited her as being largely responsible for his election to the U. S. Congress, and his historic election as Chicago’s first Black mayor. Many Chicagoans knew Dr. Joyner as the “Matriarch of the Bud Billiken Parade.” For it was in 1929 that she organized the very first Bud Billiken Parade (Bud Billiken is a mythical figure in African American folklore who serves as a protector of children), begun by the Chicago Defender, the city’s venerable African American-owned newspaper, as a benefit for its young delivery carriers. Joyner organized the first gathering and presided over it as its General Chairman for the next sixty years. Under her decades-long leadership and vast organizational abilities it grew to become the nation’s largest and most successful African American gathering of its type, and remains to this day the leading model for the planning, organization and structuring of massive outdoor festivals in a parade format. Later, Dr. Joyner became the founding Executive Director of the newspaper’s benevolence arm, the Chicago Defender Charities, overseeing the citywide distribution of money, food and clothing to the needy and organizing fundraising efforts and massive drives to acquire resources for the social agency.
Throughout her long and extraordinary life, Dr. Joyner was consistently dedicated to community service, and to those things that empowered and improved the plight of her people. Undaunted by the passing of time, she continued to work with national, state and local organizations, and with establishments and causes dear to her heart. To the very end, she led and gave direction to the organizations which she had founded; especially to the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association and Alpha Chi Pi Omega Sorority and Fraternity, which she nurtured, cared for and brooded over as a mother does her children. She remained active in her church, the non-denominational Cosmopolitan Community Church, which she co-founded in the early 1930’s and attended Sunday services each week. Her groundbreaking invention, along with an exact model of her beloved salon has been exhibited at the prestigious Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. and at several other major museums around the country. Dr. Joyner died of heart failure at her South Side home two days after Christmas on December 27, 1994, at the age of ninety-eight.
A phenomenal woman of exceptional tenacity, talent and strength, Dr. Joyner literally changed the world as it was known, and changed it for the better. Her work was divinely sanctioned by longevity of life and length of days, and she was afforded the unique opportunity to see many of the seeds she planted for justice and equality come to fruition and harvest. As a legend in her own time, her status as one of the most remarkable women in history is indelibly engraved upon the cultural consciousness of the nation, and her name shall forever resound across the generations yet to come, out from the shadow of obscurity into the hearts of a grateful community. The Chicago Tribune stated in her epitaph that she had “touched the lives of millions…” Upon her passing, U. S. Congressman Bobby Rush spoke well and true when he paid tribute to her life in the hallowed chamber of the House of Representatives in the nation’s capital, he proclaimed, “…Dr. Joyner was an American treasure who throughout her long life gave tirelessly of herself for the advancement of her race and of all persons in need.” Her vision lives on, her spirit remains with us still, and her legacy continues. Well done servant, well done.