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Nation's Largest African-American Hair Show Marks 70 Years Of Black Beauty

Feb 11, 2017
Originally published on February 11, 2017 10:58 am

The country's largest African-American beauty show turns 70 this weekend. The hair product company Bronner Bros. holds the show at Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Ga.

The event's formal name, the Bronner Bros. International Beauty Show, might sound masculine. But behind it is a league of black women. They overcame Jim Crow laws to lay the groundwork for the industry.

The Bronner Bros. show attracts tens of thousands of hair care professionals each year. On the company's website, they tout their commitment to "providing the best and the brightest educational experience." This year, the beauty product event runs from Saturday through Monday, and features a special museum exhibit to mark the 70th anniversary.

It offers classes on topics like weaves and straightening. And it's known for its competitions — hair battles that turn the heads of judges with inimitable creations, innovation and styles.

Most of the stylists and clients in attendance are black women. But they're not just the Bronner Bros.' target audience. They inspired this company.

It's a story that goes back to the 1930s, when Dr. Nathaniel Bronner came to Atlanta.

His son, James Bronner, tells the story from the floor of the company's factory on Atlanta's west side. It's a few weeks before the show, so the staff is at work while he slips away to talk.

He says his late father was raised in Kelly, Ga.

"The KKK burned down their home twice, so, when he came to Atlanta, he only had $20, so he started out delivering newspapers," Bronner says.

Dr. Bronner studied business at Morehouse College and spent a lot time at his sister's salon.

"He, one day, began to take hair products from his sister's salon on his paper route. He looked at his sales and said, 'Hey, these products are selling more than the newspapers.' "

Dr. Bronner got plenty more inspiration from female stylists on Atlanta's Auburn Avenue.

These days, the streetcar runs past historic buildings here. But when segregation laws were in place, wealthy African-Americans came for the restaurants, clubs and hair salons.

Ricci de Forest is curator of a neighborhood history museum for African-American women in hair care. "You prepared yourself for the experience of walking up Auburn because it was that significant in terms of style and culture," he says.

De Forest says women like Madam C.J. Walker and Annie Malone started franchise locations on Auburn Avenue. They were both born to former slaves and became millionaires off their hair care empires.

After them came Sarah Spencer Washington. In the 1930s, she opened one of her Apex beauty colleges in this district. In 1939, Dr. Bronner graduated from that school. He was the only man in his class.

"You know, you've got to think," de Forest says. "This is the 1930s, and you've got a man in beauty school. You know, what was he thinking?"

At the Bronner Bros. factory, James Bronner answers that question.

"He looked at Madam C.J. Walker and the others and saw a boldness in them. And he said, 'This is what is required to be successful.' "

In 1947, Dr. Bronner and his brother, Arthur, founded their company and show. Over the years, it's featured speakers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the stylists for Michelle Obama and Beyoncé.

James Bronner, the baby of his family at 43, only has brothers, so men have always led the company. He says, however, "I'm the show director now, but I plan to turn it over to my daughter one day and she will be a female face for that show and the company."

She'd follow a long line of women who made the Bronner brothers possible.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The nation's largest African-American hair care show turns 70 this weekend. It takes place in Atlanta. It's run by a company called Bronner Bros. The name might sound masculine, but behind it is a league of black women. Amy Kiley of member station WABE in Atlanta sent this report.

(CROSSTALK)

AMY KILEY, BYLINE: The Bronner Bros. show attracts tens of thousands of hair care professionals each year. It offers classes on topics like weaves and straightening, and it's known for its competitions.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Show those styles to the judges.

KILEY: Most of the stylists and clients here are black women, but they're not just the Bronner Bros.' target audience. They inspired this company. Its story goes back to the 1930s when Dr. Nathaniel Bronner came to Atlanta. His son, James Bronner, tells the story from the floor of the company's factory. He says his late father was raised in Kelly, Ga.

JAMES BRONNER: The KKK burned down their home twice, so when he came to Atlanta, he only had $20, so he started out delivering newspapers.

KILEY: Dr. Bronner studied business at Morehouse College and spent a lot of time at his sister's salon.

BRONNER: He, one day, began to take hair products from his sister's salon on his paper route. He looked at his sales and said, hey, these products are selling more than the newspapers.

KILEY: Dr. Bronner got plenty more inspiration from female stylists on Atlanta's Auburn Avenue. These days, the streetcar runs past historic buildings here. When segregation laws were in place, wealthy African-Americans came for restaurants, clubs and hair salons.

RICCI DE FOREST: You prepared yourself for the experience of walking up Auburn because it was that significant in terms of style and culture.

KILEY: That's Ricci de Forest. He's curator of a neighborhood history museum for African-American women in hair care. He says women like Madam C.J. Walker started franchise locations on Auburn Avenue. They were born to former slaves and became millionaires off their hair empires. After them came Sarah Spencer Washington. In the 1930s, she opened one of her Apex beauty colleges in this district. In 1939, Dr. Bronner graduated from that school. He was the only man in his class.

DE FOREST: You got to think. This is 1930s. You got a man in beauty school. You know, what was the thinking?

KILEY: At the Bronner Bros. factory, James Bronner answers that question.

BRONNER: He looked at Madam C.J. Walker and the others and saw a boldness in them, and he said this is what is required to be successful.

KILEY: In 1947, Dr. Bronner and his brother founded their company and show. Over the years, it's featured speakers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and stylists for Michelle Obama and Beyonce. James Bronner only has brothers, so men have always led this company, but...

BRONNER: I'm the show director now, but I plan to turn it over to my daughter one day. And she will be a female face for that show and the company.

KILEY: She'd follow a long line of women who made the Bronner Bros. possible. For NPR News, I'm Amy Kiley in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.