He was a pioneer of the Jheri curl hairstyle!
Willie Lee Morrow, a Black hair care pioneer who popularized the Afro pick, has joined the ancestors, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Morrow was born October 9, 1939, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the son of sharecroppers. On the farm, he taught himself basic barbering and chemistry skills, among other things, using those foundational tools to eventually build an empire of Black excellence. A barber’s barber, Morrow opened up his first salon in 1959, inventing products throughout the 1960s and 1970s that would transform Black hair.
Not only did Morrow popularize the Afro pick, but he also pioneered the Jheri curl hairstyle. Morrow started like many barbers, offering his services to paying customers. But once he began expanding his hair products business, he quickly expanded, using the profits to start a radio station and newspaper out of the same building as his hair company. The endeavor was a multi-prong initiative, providing tangible products to African Americans while also creating a source of community engagement and offering affordable advertising opportunities for other small business owners.
“He just believed in community being the source of the economy. That you should not have to go out of your own community for the resources and wealth that you needed. It should be in your community. And it just so happened that because of the cultural iconography of Black hair, it was such an industrial powerhouse that it funded other things,” said Morrow’s daughter Cheryl Morrow.
During the 1970s, Morrow was enlisted by the U.S. Department of Defense to teach hair cutting skills on military bases and in war zones. While serving, he fell in love and married his wife, Gloria Morrow, and the couple had two daughters. Morrow would go on to author several books about hairstyling and cutting based on his experiences.
An entrepreneur and eager inventor, Morrow’s daughter says her father was a jack of all trades, often growing his own vegetables and making his own wine. He also was an avid collector, specifically of antique hairstyling tools, many of which were displayed in a 2016 exhibit about Black hair culture in California. Later in life, Morrow took to mentoring other young broadcasters, giving them opportunities at his radio station.
One mentee was veteran San Diego radio personality William “Tayari” Howard, who initially met Morrow while serving in the Coast Guard in the 1970s. Morrow started as his barber and the two eventually became friends, Howard going to work for Morrow when he took charge of a local radio station.
“His entrepreneurial skills were out of this world. Always coming up with new ideas in order to make money, and to give back…Working for the man was a blessing. I learned a lot from him. I credit him with giving me mentorship for a broadcast career that lasted 50 years in San Diego. He left a great impression on me,” said Howard.
San Diego activist Shane Harris echoed those sentiments, speaking about how Morrow’s work transformed Black people’s perceptions of themselves and impacted the way other people saw Black hair as well.
“[He gave Black people] the tools they needed to do their hair the way they wanted to do it. But he also worked hard to change the perception in America of natural Black hair being something that was not ‘neat’ or ‘professional,’” said Harris.
Morrow passed away on June 22 at the age of 82. He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Gloria, and their two daughters, Cheryl and Angela. State Assembly member Akilah Weber spoke about the pioneer’s passing, calling him “the embodiment of the promise of America.”
“He grew up in the south to a family of sharecroppers and through hard work and his own ingenuity, built a multi-million dollar haircare business and media empire. He embraced his community and became the protector of rare and priceless Black art and artifacts. He opened his doors to young entrepreneurs and shared the invaluable lessons not only of achieving success but of starting over and rebuilding from scratch. He will be remembered for his many inventions and connection to the curl phenomenon and for his devotion to family,” said Weber.
Rest in peace and power, Mr. Morrow. Thank you for leaving behind a legacy that will continue to inspire generations.
Photo Courtesy of Cheryl Morrow/LA Times