Rose Meta Morgan began a beauty empire in Harlem, New York, during the 1940s and quickly became a powerhouse in the field and a doyenne of African American high society. Ebony magazine called her House of Beauty the Number One establishment of its kind in the world, and women flocked from across the country to patronize this fabulous salon. The poet Langston Hughes once said that Morgan was on a stairway to the stars.
Born around 1912 in Shelby, Mississippi, Rose Morgan always felt homely. But her father, Chaptle Morgan, was a great influence on young Rose, and he doted on her. She toldEssence’s Mike Moore, “He used to praise everything I did. And I’d work as hard as I could to please him. I believed I could do anything because he told me I could.” An extremely successful sharecropper, Mr. Morgan moved his family of 13 to Chicago when Rose was six years old. Her father’s prowess as a businessman fascinated her. She watched him keep his accounts for much of his life, knowing that one day she would have her own business. Her first foray in this area came with her father’s help when Morgan was ten; she made artificial flowers and convinced neighborhood children to sell them door to door.
Morgan also worked in a laundry, shaking out sheets until her arms ached. She would get up at 5:30 in order to be at work by 7:00. Early one morning, when her father woke her for work, Morgan complained that her arms hurt too much and that she needed more sleep. “You’ve made yourself a hard bed,” her father said, as she recalled to Moore. “Now lie in it. “Morgan went on to declare, “I was determined from that point it would not be a hard bed all my life.”
Developed Styling Gift as a Teen
By 11 Morgan began to show an affinity for hairstyling and by 14 was earning money this way. Although some sources suggest she finished high school, Morgan seemed proud of her lack of a diploma when she extolled the merits of the beauty field to Ebony, saying, “I know [it’s an important field] for I was a high school drop-out, and [the beauty industry] gave me an opportunity to prove that I could go as far as those who had been to college. “
Her high school education notwithstanding, Morgan did attend Chicago’s Morris School of Beauty, where her innate ability in styling, cutting, and grooming hair enhanced her progress. After school she rented a booth in a neighborhood salon and began taking on customers full-time. In 1938 a friend in the theater business introduced Morgan to singer/actress Ethel Waters. Morgan styled Waters’s hair prior to a performance, and Waters was so impressed that she invited Morgan to accompany her back to New York City. When Waters’s Chicago engagement ended, Morgan took her first vacation ever, traveling back with Waters in her car. “I
At a Glance…
Bom c. 1912, in Shelby, MS; daughter of Chaptle Morgan (a sharecropper); married second husband, Joe Louts (a boxer), 1955 ( marriage annulled, 1958); married Louis Saunders (a lawyer), early 1960s (separated) .Education: Attended MorrisSchool of Beauty.
Began styling hair professionally, c. 1926; rented booth in neighborhood salon, c. 1930s; styled Ethel Waters’s hair, 1938; took job in salon, New York City, c 1939; opened own salon, c. 1939; opened Rose Meta House of Beauty, Inc.;, Harlem, NY, c. 1943; opened Rose Morgan’s House of Beauty, 1955; co-founded New Jersey savings and loan association, early 1960s; founded Freedom National Bank, 1965; retired, mid-1980s.
saw tall buildings for the first time,” she toldEssence. “I went on a boat ride and saw the most glamorous women, all dressed up. I wanted to stay.”
Morgan would not stay, however, without her family’s approval. When she returned to Chicago her father once again proved himself her biggest backer; he gave her his blessing and told her to go out and make something of herself. Accepting a job in New York, Morgan almost immediately became a very popular beautician. In just six months’ time she had developed a large enough clientele to establish her own beauty shop. In the converted kitchen of a friend’s apartment, Morgan’s first business began to grow so rapidly that she was soon forced to hire and train five stylists to work under her. By then she also needed a bigger space. With her friend, Olivia Clark, she signed a ten-year lease on a rundown mansion that had been vacant for years— it was even referred to as the haunted house.
“All the men I knew thought I was out of my mind— doomed to failure,” she told Moore. “They said I didn’t know anything about renovation. But I’m in a business where a woman has to take care of herself. I’ve never been afraid to take the next step, to take on responsibilities.” The renovation of the house cost $28,000 and the latest in hairdressing and health equipment was valued at $20,000. But within three years the Rose Meta House of Beauty was the biggest African American beauty parlor in the world, well in the black and earning handsome profits. Each co-owner was a specialist in a different but related field, Morgan in hairdressing, Clarke in scientific body treatments.
Rejected Racist Conceptions of Beauty
Hairdressing had long been an important industry in the African American community. In order to dull the devastating effects of racism, blacks often yearned to look more like whites, with their more “accepted” conceit of what true beauty was. An early issue oiEbony reported, “Thousands of Negro men and women spend sizable sums annually on their hair, purchase enormous quantities of hair greases and pomades, and invest heavily in special dressing and curling treatments calculated to ’straighten’ kinky hair. To some, de-kinking is synonymous with de-Negrofying and hence improvement.”
Rose Morgan was one of the first people to begin quashing such racist notions. She spent her career pointing out the beauty inherent in everyone, insisting that there was no such thing as bad hair and that African American hair was equally beautiful to any other. “Miss Morgan contends,” Ebony continued, “this belief [that African American hair is inferior] is a reflection of the extent to which white America has warped the values of certain Negroes who feel that the more Negroid a Negro the less attractive. “Hair textures vary from race to race and type to type’ she says, “and it is very wrong to classify one kind as “better” than another. It’s all in the way you care for the hair. All hair is bad if it isn’t well-styled and groomed.’”
The House of Beauty’s policy was to send the customer back into the world looking her best. This sometimes led to disagreements. “We don’t always agree with what customers want and when we don’t we say so frankly,” Morgan toldEbony. “Thus, there are many women who want styles our experience and judgment tell us are unbecoming to them. In such cases we make suggestions on what we think is the suitable hairstyle for the person concerned.” Sometimes Morgan actually refused to style a prospective customer’s hair because she felt the look requested would be unattractive; she would rather do nothing at all than let a woman out on the street with an unflattering hairstyle.
This first incarnation of the House of Beauty drew an average of 1,000 customers a week. The staff of 29 included a registered nurse, 20 hairstylists, and three licensed masseurs, drawing a payroll of $40,000 in 1946. Morgan began selling her own line of cosmetics, in which she exhibited a progressive flair for marketing. By identifying her market, tailoring her cosmetics to it, and pricing them carefully, the cosmetics line sold extremely well. In time Morgan began staging fashion shows for which her employees and customers acted as designers and models.
Thousands of people turned out for these huge social events at the Renaissance Casino and the Rockland Plaza in Harlem. Models wearing exquisite dresses and luxurious furs were escorted by dashing men in tuxedos—all choreographed to the jazzy beat of swing. Great balls followed the shows. “The people had seen nothing like it, “Morgan toldEssence. “All the girls loved the shows because there was nowhere else they could show themselves off like high-fashion models. “Customers came from coast to coast to the House of Beauty. Morgan sailed on the Queen Mary to Europe to spread her slogan: “To glorify the woman of color. “When she went to Paris to demonstrate her technique, Paris Match referred to her as one of the richest businesswomen in New York.
By the mid-1950s Morgan had begun to look for a sleeker, more chic salon. She planned to invest $250,000 in refurbishing the new building she had purchased. For years she had been doing business with a certain bank, and during almost two decades she had deposited three million dollars there. She needed a $40,000 loan for her new venture, but asked the bank for only a modest $25,000. They said no. Ever resourceful, she tried another banker, one to whom she had given Harlem real estate advice in the past; he came through with the loan. Friends and family covered the rest. Ten thousand people came to the opening of Rose Morgan’s House of Beauty on a rainy day in February of 1955. Themayor’s wife cut a big pink ribbon inaugurating the new shop.
One young woman quoted by Ebony attested of the salon, “This place is the end. Under one roof it has everything a woman needs to get re-styled, upholstered and reconditioned!” The new building included, in addition to the customary salon amenities, a dressmaking department, a reducing and body department, and a charm school. Cologne was infused regularly throughout the building to keep the House of Beauty smelling sweet. And in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when wearing wigs went from a fad to an entrenched trend, Morgan opened a deluxe wig salon, initiating a wig pickup and delivery service so woman could have their coiffures styled off the premises. Once again, Morgan had anticipated a major change in the industry and embraced it, greatly furthering her success. One area in which Morgan did not excel, however, was marriage.
Her husbands could not seem to compete with her career. Morgan’s first marriage, which lasted only one year, occurred while she was still living in Chicago. But her second marriage would be by far her most famous match. On Christmas Day, 1955, Morgan married the heavyweight champion of the world, boxer Joe Louis, who had held the title for twelve years. Although he had earned five million dollars during his professional career, when he retired in 1949 Louis owed one million dollars in back taxes. He was a proud man who enjoyed the good life, but to maintain this style of living he took whatever work came his way. He tried hard to woo Morgan, whom he had met during several high society functions, though he had not met a woman who wouldn’t jump when he said jump. The independent Morgan did finally fall for Louis, later accepting his spontaneous proposal of marriage. The small wedding was nonetheless a huge media event.
Morgan was ever enterprising in her attempts to help Louis earn a living in pursuits that she considered more “dignified” than wrestling and other demonstrations. She got them on a quiz show, and during their run they won more than $60,000. She also tried a joint business venture with Louis, but this time her acumen was far too ahead of its time. The men ’ s cologne—called My Man— that she developed, selling it with posters of Louis, was not a hit. Men, especially black men of the late 1950s, were not ready to wear cologne.
By then the marriage was in trouble, too. Each partner concluded that their lifestyles did not mesh. For one, he was a chronic night owl; she had to rise early to be at work. Neither was satisfied, but each had great respect for the other. In 1957 they separated; the marriage was annulled the following year. Morgan later married lawyer Louis Saunders. Together they founded a New Jersey savings and loan association. After two years the couple separated, though they never filed for divorce. Saunders later died.
In 1965 Morgan founded the Freedom National Bank, New York’s only black commercial bank, in which she became a major shareholder. In 1972 she began franchising a new business, Trim-Away Figure Contouring. And then, after roughly 60 years in the beauty game, Morgan retired. Morgan’s salon was among the first of its kind, providing full service for black women, including hair care, manicures, eyebrow shaping, massage, and cosmetics. She had employed and trained more than 3,000 people. In her eighties Morgan’s skin was still flawless and she continued to exercise seven days a week. Reflecting on her life, she toldEssence, “I have been happiest in knowing that I made women more beautiful, that people have leaned on my shoulder, that I have taught hundreds of hands to do what these two do.” She concluded to another Essence reporter, “I don’t need anyone to take care of me. I’ve made that possible myself.”