Economic Liberty Lawsuit Challenges Mississippi’s Cosmetology Licensing LawsAfrican Hairbraiders Just Want to Earn an Honest Living

John Kramer
John Kramer · August 5, 2004

Washington, D.C.— What profession is so dangerous and difficult that the State of Mississippi requires at least 3,200 hours of classroom instruction before it can be practiced legally? Neither paramedics nor firefighters undergo so much training—but that’s how much Mississippi demands for anyone who wants to teach the art of African-style hairbraiding, thanks to the State’s tangled mess of cosmetology laws.

The Institute for Justice today filed a civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi challenging Mississippi’s cosmetology laws on behalf of Melony Armstrong, an experienced Tupelo braider who wishes to teach her trade, as well as Christina Griffin and Margaret Burden, two aspiring braiders who want to learn from Armstrong. Mississippi’s cosmetology licensing laws needlessly stifle job and entre-preneur-ial opportunities and suppress a vibrant means of cultural expression.

“In Mississippi, knowing how to braid doesn’t get you a license to braid—or to teach braiding—and having a license to braid doesn’t mean you actually know how to do it,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dana Berliner, the lead attorney in Armstrong v. Lunsford. “Government regulations like these do little more than protect established economic interests—in this case, licensed cosmetologists and cosmetology schools—and cut off the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.”

Hairbraiders—and those who want to teach braiding—must be licensed, but Mississippi offers no licenses specifically for braiding or for braiding instruction. Instead, to practice hairbraiding, Melony Armstrong had to spend 300 hours in class to earn a license in something called “wigology,” even though wigology programs teach the care of wigs and don’t emphasize braiding. Only two of Mississippi’s more than 40 cosmetology schools teach wigology, and neither is in her hometown of Tupelo. Fortunately, Melony convinced a local cosmetologist to teach her wigology so she could get her license and open Tupelo’s only natural hair care salon, Naturally Speaking.

Griffin and Burden aren’t so lucky. Without a nearby wigology school, their only option to braid legally is to get a cosmetology license, which requires 1,500 hours of classes. Not only is braiding not part of the curriculum, but Christina and Margaret would have to learn damaging chemical services that are unrelated and even antithetical to African hairbraiding and natural hair care.

Recognizing this problem, Armstrong decided to open a wigology school in Tupelo to teach her craft to others. But the State says she’s not allowed—unless she spends 3,200 hours (about three academic years) in cosmetology and cosmetology instructor programs, which of course don’t teach braiding.

Mississippi’s cosmetology licensing scheme delivers a one-two punch to African hairbraiders.

The first regulatory hurdle—requiring a license that is almost impossible to obtain to practice hairbraiding—keeps even skilled braiders from operating legally. The second hurdle—requiring yet another license in unrelated subjects to teach hairbraiding—keeps skilled braiders from teaching their trade and aspiring braiders from learning it. The result is a system that stifles economic opportunity and forces experienced and aspiring braiders alike to operate outside the law (and, ironically, outside the reach of the State’s health and safety regulations).

“The state cosmetology regulations seem strategically designed to prevent this industry from emerging in Mississippi, and they have supported misperceptions in the black community that braiding is not an option as a legitimate profession,” said Armstrong. “My experiences since I opened my salon have been very rewarding, and I want to be able to help other people trying to come into this business and secure financial independence.”

Only one group benefits from Mississippi’s regulatory regime: the cosmetology establishment. Practicing cosmetologists get to set the bar for entry to their profession high (and thereby keep competition to a minimum) and cosmetology schools get captive customers. Not surprisingly, these are the same people who write and enforce the cosmetology regulations—the State Board of Cosmetology, whose five members must all be practitioners of at least 10 years. The Board is officially advised by other practicing cosmetologists and cosmetology schools.

“I believe that a woman’s pride is in her hair, and I have seen too many women in the African-American community destroy their hair with chemicals to try to live up to someone else’s image of beauty,” said Christina Griffin, a single mom who already braids but wishes to do so professionally to achieve financial independence and support her two young children. “I want to empower others with my craft and let them know that they do not need chemicals to manage their hair—but the State of Mississippi is standing in my way.”

The Institute for Justice’s Washington Chapter filed a similar case, Diaw v. Washington State Cosmetology, Barbering, Esthetics, and Manicuring Advisory Board, et al., today in King County Superior Court in Seattle challenging the application of Washington’s cosmetology regulations to African hairbraiders.

Thanks to cosmetology licensing laws in nearly all 50 states, mainstream cosmetologists enjoy a virtual monopoly over all forms of hairstyling, forcing most experienced braiders to operate underground. With these two cases, IJ hopes to build on victories eliminating cosmetology licensing requirements for African hairbraiders in California, Arizona and Washington, D.C.

“Our goal is to restore economic liberty—the right to earn an honest living—as a fundamental civil right,” said Berliner.

The Institute for Justice is ably assisted in this litigation by local counsel Rick Patt of Langston & Langston, PLLC, in Jackson, Miss.