Melony Armstrong: Braiding a Better Future
By Jennifer Lindsey
There is a reason that the colorful hats that you see jauntily perched atop the heads of many African American women during Sunday church service are commonly referred to as “crowns.” To the African American community, hats and hairstyles are beautiful and culturally significant. While the art of hair braiding predates the arrival of African slaves onto American shores, the freedom to create economic opportunity for oneself is as American as apple pie.
For many decades, skilled hair braiders were limited to working from their front porch or on the floor of their living room. In 1999, cultural expression and entrepreneurial spirit collided when Melony Armstrong became the first professional hair braider in the state of Mississippi. Since Black women make 63 cents for every dollar that their white male counterparts make in the workplace, Melony’s decision to braid hair professionally and to teach others how to do the same was a bold one.
Melony’s decision to become her own boss paid off in a huge way. Clients traveled for hundreds of miles just so Melony could style their precious strands. However, it was only a matter of time before the state of Mississippi came knocking with very bad news. The State Board of Cosmetology informed Melony that anyone working in her salon would need a full cosmetology license. Unfortunately, cosmetology school can cost more than $10,000 and requires hundreds of hours of cosmetology instruction that do not relate to natural hair braiding at all. In fact, the cost and time spent learning chemical techniques that are contrary to natural hair care principles is a huge deterrent for many women.
Thus, Melony’s fight for economic liberty began. In 2004, Melony, along with two aspiring braiders and the Institute for Justice, filed a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging Mississippi’s cosmetology laws. One year later, the governor signed a law that essentially deregulated hair braiding in Mississippi and eliminated the need for thousands of hours in classes. Braiders could now pay a $25 registration fee with the Board of Health and complete a test on infection control in order to be licensed, thus opening the opportunity for countless women to legally control their economic fate by going into business for themselves.
More than 300 people registered as hair braiders the first day the law was passed. Even more impressive, there were zero health and safety complaints filed against braiders in Mississippi between 2006 and 2012. As of early 2021, more than 2,600 hair braiders are registered in Mississippi to practice their craft.
Melony’s fight for economic liberty in Mississippi caused a ripple throughout the nation as other states reconfigured their restrictive cosmetology and hair licensing laws, thus affording thousands of women the right to earn an honest living through entrepreneurship. The efforts of one woman of color in a relatively small Mississippi community provided thousands of women with the blueprint to a better life through honest enterprise.
Jennifer Lindsey is a federal attorney residing in Tupelo, Mississippi. She is also an alum of Hampton University, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., the daughter of a barber, and the proud mother of Grayson the Great.