Mississippi Hairbraiders to State Senators: “Get the Board of Cosmetology Out of Our Hair”

John Kramer
John Kramer · March 3, 2005

Washington, D.C.—Mississippi citizens who wish to practice and teach the art of African hairbraiding and natural hair care have a clear message for their state Senators: get the Board of Cosmetology out of our hair.

Already, the Mississippi House of Representatives has done just that. Last month, representatives overwhelmingly (118 votes in favor, one not voting and three absent) approved legislation reauthorizing the state’s Board of Cosmetology—along with an amendment offered by Rep. Joey Fillingane that exempts hairbraiders from the Board’s unnecessary and irrelevant licensing restrictions. Those restrictions currently prevent braiders across the state from earning an honest living practicing and teaching their craft—unless they complete up to several thousand hours of training in cosmetology classes that do not teach the art of hairbraiding.

On Tuesday, the state Senate Committee on Public Health and Welfare dealt a blow to braiders when it voted 11-6-2 to reject the braiding amendment. The vote fell largely along racial lines, with African-American Senators Hillman Frazier, John Horhn, Willie Simmons, Joseph Thomas and Bennie Turner joined by Sen. Hob Bryan as the only committee members voting to free braiders from unnecessary and irrelevant regulatory burdens.

But there is still time for the Senate to hear the pleas of aspiring braiders when it takes up the cosmetology reauthorization bill next week. The full Senate can vote to adopt the House version of the legislation (H.B. 454), including the exemption for hairbraiders. Alternatively, it could vote to reject the Senate version and simply let the Board of Cosmetology’s authorization expire in order to protect the rights of citizens to earn a living practicing and teaching the cultural art form of braiding.

“This is about economic empowerment for black women,” said Margaret Burden of Tupelo, who has been braiding since she was a young girl and wants to transition to a career as a professional braider. “Without the braiding amendment the legislature is regulating me into poverty. Don’t let the system fail me.”

Senate committee members voting against the braiding exemption offered weak justifications for their votes. Some cited concerns with health and sanitation, but braiding (also known as “natural hair care”) developed as an alternative to the harmful chemical processes that many African-Americans use to straighten tightly coiled hair. Since it does not involve the use of reactive chemicals or dyes, it does not pose the same health and safety risks that may accompany other techniques. Furthermore, even if exempted from cosmetology licensing, braiding establishments would still be required to secure business licenses and meet all state health and safety regulations.

Moreover, a growing number of states, including Arizona, California, Kansas and Maryland, have already recognized the distinction between cosmetology and braiding by exempting braiders from the cosmetology requirements—with no adverse heath or safety consequences. Likewise, Washington state recently interpreted its laws so that braiders do not fall under the cosmetology regulations. Michigan has implemented a voluntary licensing regime.

“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,” said Institute for Justice attorney Valerie Bayham.

Last August the Institute filed a civil rights lawsuit challenging Mississippi’s cosmetology licensing regime on behalf of Burden, fellow aspiring braider Christina Griffin and Melony Armstrong, an experienced Tupelo braider who wishers to teach her trade. The Institute has helped free braiders from needless regulation in Washington, D.C., Arizona and California, and also represents braiders in Washington state in a similar lawsuit.

Bayham called concerns by Senate committee members that exempting braiders would interfere with the pending litigation “nonsense.” She added, “The whole point of our clients’ case is to free braiders to practice and share their cultural heritage. Those Senators voting against the exemption voted against a measure to bring jobs and economic opportunity to African-Americans in Mississippi.”

“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 IJ client Melony Armstrong, who under the current licensing regime would have to take 3,200 hours of classes to legally teach what she already knows. “As an entrepreneur, I want to grow and expand my business and help other people secure financial independence through braiding.”

Talib-Din Uqdah, founder and president of the American Hair Braiders and Natural Haircare Association and braiding activist, said, “The Board of Cosmetology cannot license what it does not teach because it cannot teach what it does not know. Regardless of what legislators do, the reality is that braiders in the state of Mississippi are still going to braid. This comes down to what is right and wrong, and clearly the state is wrong.”

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference has offered its voice in support of exemption. Stephanie Parker-Weaver, Executive Secretary of the Jackson chapter noted, “This is an issue of great cultural significance to African-Americans. Braiding is passed down from generation-to-generation, by mothers and sisters. The State shouldn’t be in the business of preventing African-Americans from earning their share of the American dream.”