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story.lead_photo.caption Amanda Nelson (right) and Karen Biekman look at a display Saturday in the “Don’t Touch My Crown” exhibit at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock. The exhibit runs through August. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

Stephanie Sims remembers the Sundays she spent in Holly Grove. She'd drive 90 minutes to wash, blow-dry and silk-press her grandmother's hair every few weeks for nearly a decade.

Sims was the only person her grandmother trusted with such a special task.

She told that story with a smile last week at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. Sims helped curate the Little Rock museum's new exhibit, "Don't Touch My Crown," which examines the history, beauty and variety of black women's hair.

The exhibit, which runs through August, is influenced by a version of Proverbs 16:31: "The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness."

Sims wrote her thesis, It's Growing on Them: Black Hair's Fight for Social Acceptance, while pursuing a master's degree in public history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. As the exhibit's guest curator, Sims wrote the text that complements the artifacts and artwork.

Historically, black women were pressured to mimic white women's hair to be accepted in professional and social settings, Sims said. Natural black hair, for women and men, was and sometimes still is considered "unkempt" and subjected to ridicule, she said.

"So often, African-American women are stereotyped and criticized for their creativity when it comes to their style," said Quantia Fletcher, the museum's assistant director.

Fletcher, who wears her hair "natural," meaning she doesn't use chemical straighteners, remembered a meeting where a man told her she'd never have been able to "walk into a room looking like that" five years ago. Sims said that recently, her hair was rummaged through by an airport screener.

Big-box stores rarely carried hair products for black women until recently, the women said. When they were available, the products were isolated in a separate aisle, labeled something like "ethnic hair care," Sims said.

Many hotels provide shampoos and conditioners only for white people's hair, Fletcher said, which "makes you feel like maybe you're less than, or you don't matter."

And white people have asked or attempted to touch their hair too many times to count, which is disrespectful and an invasion of personal space, Sims and Fletcher said.

Despite persistent judgments and stereotypes placed on black hair, "Don't Touch My Crown" cherishes whatever form that hair takes, Fletcher said.

"It is an extension of yourself," she said. "So you should be allowed to wear it any way that you feel."

Every piece in the exhibit is tied to Arkansas in some way. Fletcher said one of her favorites is a fused glass portrait of a mother who hovers over her daughter's head with a hot comb in hand. The daughter holds a tin of Royal Crown hair product and pinches her ear forward, so not to get burned.

"This is like every little black girl," Fletcher said.

Museum visitors will see an anatomical drawing of a hair follicle, a shampoo bowl, vintage Jet magazines and a bulky metal contraption called an electric scalp stimulator. A lot of the items were on loan from Velvatex College of Beauty and Culture, an 88-year-old Little Rock institution.

The cosmetology school sits at Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and West 16th Street. It opened just months before the Great Depression in 1929 and was the capital city's only established beauty school for nonwhite people.

Nearly nine decades later, the school graduates about 30 students a year, said Roberta Douglas, daughter of the school's owner and CEO, Barbara Douglas. After 1,500 hours of instruction, graduates can do all types of hair, nails, eyebrows and makeup.

The career possibilities are extensive, the younger Douglas said. "That's the whole thing about cosmetology: wanting to be an entrepreneur," she said.

As technology and styling tools advanced, Velvatex kept track of the vintage devices, like a gas curling iron heater and the old scalp stimulator. The history of hair care is part of a student's education, Barbara Douglas said.

Along with the tools, Velvatex students styled eight wigs to show the evolution of black women's hairstyles. The museum also is hosting a competition for amateur hairstylists based on the number of social media "likes" they accrue. The finalists will debut their styles before a jury in August.

Fletcher said before the exhibit opened, she went to get her hair done at the historic beauty school. She reveled in the experience.

"The first time I sat in a chair, I was 6 years old and I was getting my hair pressed," meaning straightened, she said. "And now I can sit in the same place and get a natural hairstyle."

At the exhibit's debut Thursday, Bianca Buchanan moved from pedestal to pedestal to inspect the different pieces.

"The things we go through with our hair, a lot of people would find it hard to believe," Buchanan said.

The versatility of her own hair has always been important to her, she added.

"When my mood gets down, I know it's time to change my hairstyle."

Another museum visitor, Patricia McCoy, stood among a crowd of women with their hair in locs, braids, twists and curls. She thought the exhibit was "marvelous" because it shows that black women are wearing their hair however they want.

"If you don't like it," she said, "what are eyes made for? Look the other way!"

Metro on 06/17/2018

Print Headline: Visitors to black-hair exhibit invited to look, but don't touch

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