Growing up, there was hardly any mention of my biological father, except that I knew his name was John Henry Smalls, that he had attended high school with my mother and who had gone into the service during World War II. Like many young men during that time, my father left home for the war before finishing high school, but he returned from the war and completed work for his high school diploma. He went to Howard University in Washington, D.C, he told me when I finally met him while I was in college, and that he also graduated from law school. I have no idea if he ever practiced law.
My mother, Gloria Marie Walker, was married to my father for a short time. Based on my mother’s age — she was 19 when I was born — and the fact that she did not complete college after starting at Fisk University in Nashville and transferring to Howard University for a short time, they were likely young and unprepared for marriage. The short time they lived together was in my grandmother’s house on West 41st Street in Savannah. When they divorced, my mother left me in Savannah to be raised in my early years by my grandmother, who herself was a busy business owner.
The Walkers had moved from Atlanta to Savannah in the late 1920s when my grandfather, James Madison Walker, accepted a promotion and transfer as district manager with Atlanta Life Insurance Company. He moved to Savannah ahead of his family, leaving my grandmother and their three children behind while he established himself in the new city.. About a year later, they purchased a large house on West 41st Street and the family moved to Savannah. My grandmother was pregnant with my mother during the move, which made her their only child to become a native-born Savannahian.
For the times — as an African-American family — the Walkers were likely pretty well off. My grandfather’s career took him on the road a lot as he traveled throughout southeast Georgia and north Florida to hire and train insurance agents. My grandmother was one of two daughters from a farming family in North Georgia. Both she and her sister, Marie, from whom my mother received her middle name, attended Spelman Normal School around the turn of the 20th Century. My grandmother told me stories of how their father worked hard farming land to pay the $10 a month to keep both of his daughters in school at Spelman, which later became Spelman College. The woman we called “Auntie,” my grandmother’s sister, had a long career as a teacher in Cherokee County in a town called Canton in North Georgia. Auntie married James Allen Burge, also an educator who became a principal in Canton. A school there is named for him.
My grandmother was also an educator. She learned the trade of cosmetology at Spelman and she used the initials of her husband and became Madam J.M. Walker in Savannah (no relation to Madam C.J. Walker of St. Louis, the first black female self-made millionaire who taught beauty culture in St. Louis, MO). My grandmother said she used J.M. as her first name because she wanted to ensure the respect of white people on whom she relied as vendors for products and services.
“I don’t want them to call me by my first name,” she would say. More importantly, the South wasn’t that far out of the era when white people called black women “girl” or “gal” — or worse. My grandmother demanded respect.
Like Madam C.J. Walker, Mudear made and sold many of the pomades used in her school. The kitchen at home often smelled of the chemical and natural product mixtures she created and put into small jars and affixed labels to be taken to her beauty school for use by the students and for sale to clients. Unlike Madam C.J. Walker, my grandmother never attempted to mass produce her products, thus vastly limiting her income potential.
Interestingly, most black people in Savannah never knew that my grandmother’s name was Oper Lee. Outside of her business, she was called Mrs. Walker, except for a few neighbors and very close friends who called her “Mudear” — an endearing term that combines the words “mother” and “dear.”
According to the book “Madam C.J. Walker’s Secrets to Success,” by A’Lelia Bundles, the “Madam” title was adopted by black cosmetologists from women pioneers of the French beauty industry. Mudear taught night school cosmetology at Beach-Cuyler School, Savannah’s first high school founded to teach black students. When she opened her business on West Broad Street, she was president of her company and my grandfather was vice president, clearly an organization chart ahead of its time. She named the business Boyce’s School of Beauty Culture, giving it the middle name of her first-born child, my mother’s big sister Catherine Boyce Walker.
During that era, West Broad Street was the corridor of commerce for the African-American community and many women came into her business to get services from students at a discount price. The school also taught the students how to do facials, manicures and pedicures. Many years after my grandmother’s death in 1971, I went through some of the books she left behind and learned how deep the curriculum was for cosmetology students. They had to learn math, chemistry, biology (especially understanding the muscles and bones of the face, hands and feet), business administration and personal hygiene.
Growing up in the beauty school in the 1950s, I can still remember the sizzling sounds and sense the distinct smells of straightening the coarse hair of African-American women. Boyce’s was a bustling place, especially on Saturdays when working women took the time to spend in the salon part of the school. In the back of the building was classroom space where teaching took place. The large front room of the building was open to customers who came in to get their discounted services by students. There was a manicure station; sinks for washing hair were placed along a wall, hair dryers along another wall. Each styling station had an electric heating element designed to heat heavy iron combs and curling irons that tamed black hair.
A common description of black women, especially little girls, was whether they were “tender-headed,” a term describing women or girls who are especially jitterish when someone starts to comb out their tangled, coarse hair. After the comb-out, every strand of hair was “pressed.” Then, depending on the desired style, curls were put in with a curling iron. The goal was to straighten and curl without burning the customer.
Mudear used to describe “zing-boom hair,” which she said was black women’s hair before it was tamed by the iron implements. “You pull a few strands of the hair and it goes ‘zing’,’’ Mudear would say. “You let it go and it goes ‘boom’,” indicating that black hair would not stay straight without the applied heat. That’s why schools like hers existed, to train generations of women (and a few men, I suppose) to learn the trade and then pass the state licensing test so they could serve black clientele. This was, of course, years before perms and relaxers became the process of choice for many women in the 1960s and later.
“Oooooh,” “ouch,” “owww!” women or girls would exclaim when a stylist parted or pulled on their hair to section it and get hair ready for pressing. Mudear had great skills with black hair because she pressed and curled my own hair in the kitchen at home when I was young. I don’t remember experiencing the combing out pain of many of her students’ customers. However, I did get a few burns from my grandmother’s hot iron pressing comb along the way.