Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Beauticians and the Civil Rights Movement

(L to R) Mamie Stewart Love Wallace, Annie Townsend Brewster, and Bernice Smith.
In the 1920s, Mamie Stewart, Annie Townsend, and Bernice Smith were born in Benton, La, where they grew up learning that not all citizens in America were given equal rights. Little did they know that a century later, they would still be remembered and talked about for their never-ending pursuit for equal rights and reconciliation between races.

These three girls grew up to become successful business owners, civic leaders, and civil rights activists. Stewart, better known today as Mamie Love Wallace, founded the Modern Beauty Shop on Milam Street in the business district of the old Allendale neighborhood in Shreveport. Townsend, better known as Ann Brewster, was the co-owner. Later, Smith went to cosmetology school and went to work at Modern Beauty Shop.

These women were more than just beauticians. They were entrepreneurs, leaders, activists, and freedom fighters. Being self-employed, the women could be more active in fighting for civil rights than if they had been in the employ of another. They did not have to fear losing their jobs if they were found to be involved in any activities to advance equal rights.

In an interview, Wallace explained that her mother was a civil rights worker whose involvement in the movement got her interested. Her mother was a teacher, and many of her siblings also became teachers, but Wallace saw how the fear of losing your job hindered the work that needed to be done, which is why she became a beautician.

As an officer of the Louisiana state beauticians Wallace attended the National Beauticians' Convention in New Orleans in 1958. It was at this convention where Wallace met Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time. King spoke to the beauticians about the advantages they had as self-employed people and how they could support the civil rights movement.

A few months later, King made his first visit to Shreveport, where he spoke at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at Galilee Baptist Church. The fear of violent repercussions made most churches afraid to open their doors to King, but Wallace's brother, the Rev. Jessie Taylor Stewart, was the pastor of Galilee Baptist Church, and he was not afraid.

The newspapers would not print the announcement of his scheduled visit, so flyers were made and distributed at barbershops and beauty salons like the Modern Beauty Shop. The majority of people in attendance besides the usual congregants were barbers, beauticians, and ministers. Again, those not self-employed were afraid to lose their jobs, and they often avoided taking any chances.

The Modern Beauty Shop, like so many, became a place for strategy meetings and education about the movement. It also served to provide a safe place for community members to communicate about issues and events. These women talked to their clients about the importance of being an informed participant in the voting process. If they were not registered to vote, they would be educated on the literacy test and provided with voter registration forms.

All three beauticians were known for their participation in countless voter registration drives, marches, sit-ins, and other non-violent protests. Smith was among the plaintiffs in the civil rights lawsuit that helped to desegregate Caddo Parish Schools, and her daughter, Brenda, was the first black student to integrate at Byrd High School. Wallace was a plaintiff in a lawsuit to integrate restaurants and was one of the first black people to eat at Woolworth's diner after integration.

Brewster was especially outspoken about the need for justice and was known for being arrested for protests that she was not in attendance. When students demonstrated at Booker T. Washington High School, police officers showed up at the salon to arrest her, and when she explained that she was not there, the police said, "her name was mentioned." Brewster opened her home for NAACP meetings and local gatherings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King shared his vision with a group of like-minded people in her Allendale home. She also provided food and shelter for freedom riders that came through town.

These women cared about people, and they were passionate about fixing the injustices they faced. They fought and risked their lives to make a better world for themselves and future generations. They were instrumental in changing the course of black Americans' civil rights in the local community.

To learn more about black history in Bossier Parish, visit the Bossier Parish Libraries History Center, 2206 Beckett Street, Bossier City. Whether you want to know about local history or research your family history, we are here to help. Can't come in, call 318-746-7717 or email with your request.

By: Amy Robertson

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