Black hair care in Nova Scotia is something that began in momma’s kitchen, on the living room floor, on the porch, over at Aunt Frannie’s, or at cousin Lynn’s house. For black Nova Scotians, hair care has always been something personal. Even though it could sometimes be painful, it made everyone feel confident and beautiful. The best part? Everyone who did hair would do it!
Before the late 1800s, black hair care was nonexistent. Those in slavery were given little to no means for preparing or preserving their hair. Even though it’s not surprising that the history of Black Canadians draws many parallels to African-Americans, it’s still quite interesting. When studying about our people’s history, there are many of the same successes, struggles, and sacrifices.
An interesting parallel is Mrs. Viola Desmond, one of the most prolific human rights activist, educator, and pioneer of beauty culture in Nova Scotia. Christine Samuelian called her the Nova Scotian counterpart to Rosa Parks. Where Rosa refused to give up her seat on the bus in 1955, Viola refused to give up her seat at the theater in 1940. Both women stood up for what they believed in.
Between the late 1800s to the early 1900s, black beauty culture would boom in the United States. While Nova Scotians would await change, we would welcome visitors and relatives from the US who shared some of the advancements in black hair care among Americans. At the time, much of what went on in the US would go on to revolutionize the industry for the whole continent. Hair straightening went from an iron and ironing board to a hot comb.
The journey down the yellow brick road of beauty was one of caution for most black women. On the other hand, black barbershops were already being established, and as early as the 1940s, black men had already begun to chemically straighten their hair with an unsafe formulation of lye and mashed potatoes.
In the early 1940s, Mrs. Viola Desmond established a hairdressing school, the first of its kind in Nova Scotia. She pioneered a cultural change that allowed black women to train in hairdressing and opened a world of opportunities in hair care and beauty. Black women could now have their hair done professionally and be confident in the results.
Hairstyling has always been one of the biggest expressions of culture, and since its arrival to the continent, black hair has been ignored and abhorred. However, with the opening of Mrs. Desmond’s beauty school, long-awaited changes occurred and black hair could now be fully cared for and adored for its uniqueness.
“Before Mrs. Desmond, black hair care was not recognized. Beauty culture for us as a people was more than a learning process. It was a cultural change,” said Mrs. Verna Skinner, who trained with Mrs. Desmond at her black beauty school.