CHATHAM — There's nothing about the brick building or the yellow sign outside of it on a quiet stretch of 83rd Street that indicates the flashy history of the business inside that led its owner to become a South Side legend.
But Selena's House of Beauty at 444 E. 83rd St. now has iconic status as the salon started by Selena Williams, one of the early pioneers of hair weaving. The technique involves weaving commercial human or synthetic hair into a customer's own hair to make a hairstyle fuller and longer.
“All my life, I knew that my grandmother was influential. I'd come here after school, and Mrs. Jesse Jackson, Mrs. Jerry Butler would be getting their hair done. Mahalia Jackson would come here to get her wigs styled,” said Williams' granddaughter, Bonnie Taylor-Williams.
But it wasn't just celebrities who made it to Williams' shop. Williams owned several beauty shops and a beauty school — the School of Hair-Weev Technology — in the '50s, an era when women seldom worked, let alone became entrepreneurs. As an African-American who had moved from the South to make a better life, she represented enormous success that inspired the entire community.
Taylor-Williams, who now lives in South Holland, documented her grandmother's trail-blazing life in her recent, self-published book, "With These Hands: A Country Girl Came to Town." Filling the pages with the scenes and stories she witnessed or heard as a kid, Taylor-Williams chronicles the latter part of the Great Migration, when the South Side was bursting with prosperous African-American business owners like her grandmother, known as the “queen of Hair-Weev.”
Bonnie Taylor-Williams stands behind her grandmother, Selena Williams, at Williams' beauty shop. [Bonnie Taylor-Williams]
Williams, who is now 90 and also living in South Holland, said she loved her job.
"What I liked most about running a beauty business was making people look pretty and feel good about themselves," she told DNAinfo Chicago. "I learned from working with my mother in her business how to treat people and make them feel welcome."
Taylor-Williams said she originally planned to write about William's mother, who was "a sharecropper who ran her own roadhouse. She had Robert Johnson perform there."
But Taylor-Williams' great-grandmother died, so she shifted to her grandmother, the other influential woman in the family.
“I called them 'way makers': They always made a way,” Taylor-Williams said about the women in her family. "I come from strong women. They wouldn't work for nobody!"
She added: "They always said, 'Make something happen, don't wait for something to happen.'"
Inside Selena's House of Beauty, bright yellow work stations line the room, and enlarged photos of Williams — in a lace dress in one, a leather suit and fur stole in another — reveal her glamorous life. It's a far cry from when she whipped up hairstyles for 50 cents a head as a "kitchen beautician" doing hair in her home for neighbors and church members.
She started doing hair in a salon in the Pershing Hotel, and in 1956, opened her first salon, "Selena's House of Beauty," inside the Mansfield Hotel on 64th and Cottage Grove. The hotel was frequented by African-American celebrities that weren't allowed to stay Downtown, and they often got their hair done at Williams' shop.
In 1959, Williams was encouraged to take a "Hair- Weev" class from Christina Jenkins, who worked in a wig shop and developed the technique. Williams later traveled to Ohio to take an advanced hair weaving class after Jenkins moved from Chicago. Williams, Taylor-Williams said, developed a modification to the process to make it more efficient and shared it with others after becoming an official "Hair-Weev" instructor.
At this point, she owned two shops, including one on 63rd Street that was open 24 hours.
The portable Hair-Weev machine Williams invented. [DNAinfo/Rosalind Cummings-Yeates]
In 1965, she bought the building in Chatham which still houses her salon. In the early 1970s, she opened a Hair-Weev Technology school in a shop next door, which also included a distribution center that shipped hair weaves all over the world.
Throughout the decade, she also owned a Detroit location as well as a shop Downtown in the Stevens Building at 17 N. State St.
In its heyday, customers included teachers, judges, CTA workers, postal workers, lawyers and even a few White Sox players.
"We were trendsetters, not followers. Now everybody is doing [hair weave], but back then, we were the only ones. It was an elite club for those who could afford it,” Taylor-Williams said, noting that her mother "went from making 50 cents a head to $1,000 a head.”
In the early 1980s, Williams developed a faster, more portable Hair-Weev machine, which was used to loom strands of hair together before they are sewn to a customer's hair, and are still used today.
Taylor-Williams and her brother Brant grew up in the shop. After school, they would hand-loom hair for the machine.
“I learned at 10, my brother was 9. These kids these days say, 'I don't want to do that.' We couldn't do that. Selena would say, 'You don't want to make money?'"
Williams' shops reputation traveled around the world.
“We were a one-stop shop for weev and hair information,” said Taylor-Williams. “We had the hair here, we had the technicians, and we'd teach. We had students from everywhere: Trinidad, Africa, Alaska and Arizona.”
But by the early '90s, Koreans started developing cheaper, synthetic hair weaves.
“I thought, ooh, that's rough, when the Koreans started coming up with weave,” recalled Taylor-Williams. “They knew Selena's name, and they knew that they could make a lot of money. My grandmother said, 'Just keep doing what you're doing.' We still had our clients."
She continued, "But now you can get hair anywhere — in a drugstore or Wal-Mart. It's not the quality we use. It's caused a shift for us, but people who love our work and respect us as the first, the innovators of Hair-Weev still come.”
Williams doesn't do hair anymore. But Taylor-Williams, a licensed Hair-Weev technician, continues the tradition by taking personal appointments for Hair-Weev and selling custom hair products. She also runs Dunbar Bus Service with her mother, a retired Hair-Weev technician.
Taylor-Williams hopes writing the book will help pass the traditions and memories on to anyone who cares to read them.
“I wanted to write this book while my grandmother is still around to enjoy it,” she said. “It's so important to honor this history.”
Bonnie Taylor-Williams will speak on a panel at a book fair Oct. 10 at the Woodson Library, 9525 S. Halsted St., at 9:30 a.m. The fair runs until 4 p.m. She also will have a book-signing Oct. 17 at the South Holland Library, 16250 Wausau Ave., South Holland, 2-4 p.m.
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