With his hair neatly pulled back into a ponytail, Dr. Willie Morrow looks back at his career as a pioneer in the black hair care industry – his lively legacy currently on display at a museum in Escondido, California.
Morrow is the focus of “The History and the Hair Story: 400 Years Without a Comb,” an exhibition at the California Center for the Arts Escondido.
The exhibit carefully displays Morrow’s long career as an entrepreneur, professional barber, self-taught chemist and inventor of black hair care products and tools, including very functional, widely used Afro Pick combs and California Curl relaxers.
Wall by wall, photograph by photograph, Morrow’s deep-rooted role in black hair care history comes to light, as does the importance of hair in African American culture as a whole.
“Oh, I’ve been through it. I’ve been through probably five generations of hair,” Morrow told NBC 7. “Hair seemed to be one of the carriers in the black community. It’s popular. People go out of their way for some hair. Hair is everything. I mean, you have some hair, you may have the cornerstone of beauty.”
Many of the artifacts on display come from Morrow’s own personal collection – items he’s kept over the decades that tell his unique story, including newspaper clippings, books he has written and tools he has used to create his hair care products.
“I always say that I'm the world's best kept secret,” Morrow said, with laugh.
Some of those books, he said, were translated into other languages and distributed around the world, often times to military service members. In the 1970s, Morrow visited military bases around the world teaching the ins-and-outs of cutting black hair. He’s touted with creating the natural haircut for the troops.
Another part of the museum floor is set up to mimic an old-time barbershop.
Two worn, red chairs sit there. For Morrow, those chairs represent not only history, but his story and those stories of all who have taken a seat on them, waiting for a haircut.
“Lives – you learn about everything [from people sitting in the barber’s chair],” said Morrow, with a smile.
Those two chairs are original chairs from Morrow’s barbershops, one from the shop he ran in the 1960s on Market Street in southeastern San Diego, the other from his business in Alabama. Back then, Morrow only charged 20 to 25 cents for a haircut.
His philosophy as a barber, he said, has always been to carefully listen to the customer.
“Always do what the customer asks you to do, no more, no less,” he explained.
San Diego Mesa College professor emeritus of black studies, Starla Lewis, curated the exhibit and told NBC 7 it’s a true “labor of love” for a man who has given so much to the community.
“I would say he’s iconic,” said Lewis, referring to Morrow’s permanent place in African American history. “I feel that we are honoring a man who deserves it, while he’s still alive.”
Besides being effective, Lewis said Morrow’s black hair care products have sent a powerful message to the African American community: your hair is beautiful, you are beautiful.
“Hair represents power. It represents privilege. It represents beauty,” Lewis explained. “You can’t talk about the African American experience without talking about hair. Other people are always fascinated and wanting to touch African American hair.”
Lewis said Morrow’s career is also an inspirational example of how successful someone can become if they tap their potential and work hard. To this day, Morrow creates hair products in his warehouse in San Diego's Lemon Grove community.
“Here’s a man who not only created hair products and combs, but he also said to the community, ‘You can be a self-made human being,’” she said.
“I’ve been employed by myself all my life,” said Morrow.
“I made it with these," he added, glancing at his hands. "As Booker T. Washington said, you train these to do something. Make something, do something, create something, develop something that can be made into a greater part – another part – and make a contribution to society.”
Lewis said her hope is that visitors leave the exhibit feeling good about themselves, on the inside and outside.
“I wanted people to walk through and leave feeling that it's okay to be who they are and to feel a sense of self love,” she said. One young lady said, ‘This exhibit makes me love myself more.’ That’s what I want all people to come in and see.”
Although Morrow has had much success and influence in the history and industry of hair, he doesn’t let his legacy go to his head.
Looking around the exhibition, he pauses, takes a few steps and, suddenly, is speechless.
“The feeling I get is, ‘How in the world did I create all of this stuff?’” he said. “I never thought that I would see it so beautifully displayed as it is here.”
“This just makes my heart feel good,” he added. “That is my life. It’s been a great journey – a great life.”
“The History and the Hair Story: 400 Years Without a Comb” runs through March 6 at the museum at the California Center for the Arts Escondido (340 N. Escondido Blvd.).
The exhibit is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $5 for students and seniors to $8 for general admission. It is free to military and children under 12 years old. To learn more about the exhibit, visit the California Center for the Arts Escondido website.