This is the story of how a young black girl and a small town in the Mississippi delta, influenced the forming of a hair care company.
In this town, the mayor, the sheriff, the postmaster, the depot train master, the greyhound bus station manager, and two grocery stores were all manned or in some cases womaned, owned and operated by people who looked like her. There were even two hospitals that served the community. One of the hospitals, even had a zoo! And of course a high school. The lands were owned, tilled, harvested and the profits yielded were received by the local people of color.
Her grandmother, Peggy Armstod was born into slavery in 1859. During those times the slaves would use natural healing concoctions to treat their ailments and to restore health naturally, because the powers that were, certainly would not or could not help them. Her grandmother Peggy, was taught from descendants of the “motherland”, to live off the land and to use roots, tree bark, leaves, blossoms etc. When medical care was not available for enslaved individuals and those who were later freed.
The girl’s mother Gertrude Johnson was an authorized school teacher so the little girl learned the “three R’s” early in the home. And she grew in this town being located in the Mississippi delta known as, “cotton country”.
She was born in 1919, and in those depression days, the cotton fields would make anyone with half a mind and a backbone move north. She moved north got married. The marriage was not made in heaven, so she struck out on her own and ended up in Chicago.
Why Chicago? Because, she had heard in the fields and on the street, “if you can’t make it in Chicago, you can’t make it anywhere”.
When she moved to Chicago, she did domestic work, (“day”), work cleaning houses to make ends meet, she now had a boy child to support.
In her heart, she always wanted to become a beautician because she was influenced to do so by Mrs. Cleggs, who was the hair dresser and piano teacher in this small town that she was from in the Delta of Mississippi.
In the mid 1950s, she enrolled in Mrs. Frazier School of Beauty Culture and took the hands on training classes at night after she had worked during the day cooking and cleaning in other people’s homes.
She learned to perform proper sanitation practices, the science of cosmetology and hair styling techniques. At the end of the curriculum she earned her diploma and became a licensed hair stylist in the state of Illinois. She was now a practicing hair stylist/entrepreneur.
She went the extra mile to not only practice the techniques she had learned in beauty school, but to help the patrons in her chair feel better about themselves and to improve their well being. She had a knack for having a natural healing solution for almost any situation or ailment that was expressed in her salon.
She remembered her grandmother Peggy. So she would go to the kitchen and make up special “concoctions” as she called them, for some of her customers who had problems with their hair, scalp or skin. She even had special ones for female issues. Nothing high tech, just mostly items that she would find in her garden, kitchen cabinet and/or pantry.
There was always a very large aloe vera plant in the salon to treat those in need of it, especially if the big wooden serving spoon did not cover an ear and got a bit heated from the hot comb or curling iron.
Dandelions were collected in the spring and cooked with her mustards, turnips, collard greens and kale. Peppermint grew in her backyard. She had learned from her grandmother Peggy that rosemary oil extends the anagen stage of the hair growth cycle. Turmeric, lavender, chamomile, ginger, rosemary, sage either grew in her summer gardens or she collected them and could be found in her pantry along with a myriad of other carrier and essential oils, weeds and such. The benefits of Ginko Biloba and Golden Seal was taken and extolled well into her 90s.
As many children or relatives of hair stylists will attest, we got to learn about hair whether we wanted to or not.
She tried to get her son to “take the course” that she had taken for cosmetology. He had other ideas however and went into industry.
As fate would have it, one day in the 1980s her son got a so-called “Jerri Curl” or as many say, a “Willie Morrow” curl. From that experience, he has been intrigued with how the ingredients in personal care products can affect a person’s hair, skin, scalp and body.
And though he was not interested in styling hair, she influenced her son to become interested in making quality hair care and skin care products. Products that solve the problems of everyday people. He became the Director of Operations of the makers of Forever Silk Hair and Skin Systems.
Her grandson went to college and studied business and marketing and has joined the business of which she was the genesis, and helps with marketing the products. Both of us have been influenced by the little lady who just wanted to help her clients have a better quality of life.
Vivian Johnson Bruce was very supportive of her son’s and grandson’s arm of the family business.
Oh, by the way, the name of that Mississippi delta town is Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Mound Bayou has a special mention in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Some say that it was or still is, the largest all black town in the country. It is located on route 61 about 100 miles south of Memphis, TN.
Mound Bayou has produced a good number of Chicago people who have become part of the Chicago metro tapestry. Some local people of note include Ms. Barbara Jean Watkins – Slay, (now deceased), who came to Chicago and worked for Jack James of J. & J. Beauty Supply. With her daughter Carla and brother Norvell Watkins run B.J. Beauty Salon Services.
The politician Willis Harris, who represented the constituents of the Dalton area is from Mound Bayou. By the way, his mom, Ms. Willie Harris was my first grade school teacher down there.
The owner of the now closed Artis Lounge, home of Jazz and Blues on the east 87th street came to the Windy City of Mound Bayou. To name just a few of the people who moved north to better themselves.
I am that boy child. My name is Darnell and my son is Jared. He has a growing family who one day will take the baton to carry on the family’s legacy. And we are Forever Silk Hair and Skin Systems. Our family strives to follow our mother’s lifestyle and are advocates to any who will listen. She reached the age of 99 years and 4 months, with no serious ailments, pharmaceuticals and plenty of daily prayer.
Once a customer sat in her chair, they became family. And likewise, as a customer who buys Forever Silk Hair and Skin Systems products, you get to enjoy the benefits of Peggy Amstod and the Mound Bayou bloodlines where it all began.
Darnell and Jared