A Brief History of the Twists, Knots and Kinks of Black Hair in Milwaukee

A look at the history of Black hair and the local legislation about it.

A Milwaukee teacher, in 2009, called one of her students up to the front of the classroom for playing with her hair. Timidly, the young Black girl walked to the front of the room. The teacher claimed it was a distraction to the class, and with a pair of scissors cut off one of her braids. The little girl walked back to her seat while her classmates laughed, and the teacher mocked her by asking if she was going to tell her mother. She cried at her desk.

Later, when her mother found out, she took the issue to the school. According to reports by WISN and the Journal Sentinel, the teacher was charged with disorderly conduct and fined $175. In the reports published about the incident, the name of the young girl was used in several outlets, but the teacher’s name was not mentioned once. There was no follow up report on if she was fired or taken off paid leave.

Since then, both Milwaukee and Dane counties have passed their own versions of the  CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair). The legislation aimed to make workplaces more equitable and stop targeted hair discrimination, which is often overlooked but is still present today, especially for Black women. In January 2021, The CROWN Act was passed by the Milwaukee legislature in a unanimous vote. Dane County passed the CROWN Act as local ordinance which amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act. 

Milwaukee County’s version may extend to businesses registered or operating inside the county. Dane County passed a version which only applies to operations using county resources, which drastically limits where the law is enforceable. Meaning, there are businesses in Dane County to whom the law does not apply and may still have dress codes which discriminate based on hair because they do not utilize county resources. 

Rep. LaKeshia Myers co-sponsored the legislation and believes it is a crucial step toward equity in the workplace. She said that the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race, but there is not adequate legislation that bans discrimination for hair. A lawsuit in 1976 is the sole protection for natural hair but only specifies afros as a protected style. Where enforceable, the CROWN Act added twists, braids and dreadlocks to the list of protected styles. It also protected against dress codes which labeled these styles as unprofessional and against company grooming guidelines. 

“As Black people, our natural hair textures must not be weaponized and used as a tool of rejection when seeking or maintaining employment,” Myers said. “With changing demographics and values we must evolve our policy to reflect and protect the people it represents.”

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According to a study by Dove’s CROWN Coalition – which surveyed 2,000 participants – Black women are 80% more likely to change their hairstyle to adhere to a dress code or societal expectations. Black women are also reported to be 30% more likely to have a grooming policy that is specific to their natural hair textures. Following suit, Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home because of their hair styles. In the Good Hair Study by Taborah Johnson, of the 4,163 men and women surveyed, Black women recognize the social stigma against textured hair and have the highest levels of social anxiety about their hair. According to the study African American Women, Hair Care, and Health Barriers, 60% of Black women wore their hair chemically straightened at some point and 41% had been embarrassed by their hair.

According to Hair It Is: Examining the Experiences of Black Women with Natural Hair, “Hairstyles have historically represented social class and political stance.” This has translated to the separation of Black features from European features as a lower level of social status or class regardless of their economic situation. “Black hair has not escaped this notion of vulgarity,” said Johnson. “Black hair continues to be seen as wild, untamed and frightening.” While the view of Black hair had not much changed, it is evolving. The sense of community surrounding styling hair remained an intrinsic part of the Black community.

Jermaine Jones, the owner of The Barber Academy in downtown Racine and barber, said barbershops meant a lot to the community. “Customers come in if it is just for a haircut, or if its just to talk,” says Jones. “It’s like a meeting ground where you can feel comfortable” The shop is not only a place to talk, but a place for networking. According to Jones, people who work at fortune 500 companies might come in and have an appointment right after someone who works at McDonalds. They are always talking about their lives and help promote Black excellence, and of course provide the most recent styles.


In ancient Africa and in some cultures today, social, marital status and age are represented with hair. In some cultures, as the most elevated portion of the body, hair is believed to help with divine communication. Therefore, in many cultures styling is done by family or those who are close to them to protect their spirituality. Socialization was common whilst styling hair, similarly to the barbershops of our modern day.

One example is the hairstyles of the Fulani tribe, which was largest nomadic tribe in the world. Their hairstyles were brought into the modern zeitgeist. They braided their hair into what looks like modern dreadlocks. Some young girls decorated their hair with beads and cowrie shells. Another example is the Hiba tribe of Northwestern Namibia. Teens wore dreadlocks or braids that covered their faces to symbolize they have entered puberty. Married women and those who had recently given birth wore headdresses and women who are ready for marriage tied the dreads back to reveal their faces. Men wore a single braid to show they had not married. When their status changes, they put a covering over their heads never to show the tops of their head again in public apart from funerals.

In Ancient Egypt wigs were worn as a status symbol. Only the wealthy and powerful were permitted to shave their heads and decide when they were to wear “hair”. With the harsh sun and extreme heat, it was a luxury to know you would have shade to protect the top of your head from burning. Wigs adorned fine lace and jewels to further represent their high class.

Europeans and slave traders knew the cultural importance of hair, which was why many who were captured and forced into slavery were shaved before being transported to another country. Those who were not shaved may have braided rice grains into their hair according to Judith Carney in her book Black Rice. This might have proven essential to survival on the brutal journey many people did not survive. It is also corroborated by the presence of rice from Africa that was not seen in the Americas at the time until the transportation of African slaves.

Descriptions of slaves who ran away to find freedom had their descriptions posted including their walk, demeanor and hair styling. The term “wooly” was often used according to Slave Hair and the African American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. When a freedom-seeker was captured, barring they were not killed, might have had their head shaved along with the physical torture to discourage running away again.

Having been treated as disposable, deformities were not uncommon for slaves. Often, while their hair was generally matted and knotted due to the poor conditions, hair styles were one of their sole forms of self-expression, according to Slave Hair. It was also a mode of survival and health. According to I am Not My Hair: African American Women and Their Struggles with Embracing Natural Hair, those who worked in the fields might have worn rags to protect themselves from the sun and those who worked in the house might have mimicked the style of the enslavers by wearing wigs, straightening or shaving the head to hide their natural curls.

According to Slave Hair the testimony of Black people made it clear some of the communal aspects of hair care survived the twentieth century, but these tend to be associated with attempts to make African American hair resemble that of whites. One relaxant which was common was a combination of eggs, potatoes and lye. Malcom X was one of many who endured the painful application of this mixture. Other forms of relaxant and straightening were also used. Roger Wilkins, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, had his hair greased with Vaseline e

Photo by Everett Eaton

very night by his grandfather, then placed a stocking around the straightened hair overnight so it would hold its shape. He did this from the time he was a child all the way through college because he did not wish to be known as a “wooly head.”

During the Black is Beautiful movement in the 1960s, the afro became a symbol of self-acceptance and simultaneously an attack on white-supremacist norms. Symbols such as the fist and the peace sign adorned the handles of picks and were enforced by idols such as Angela Davis. According to a 1960s Newsweek poll, nearly 70% of northern Black people and 40% of southern Black people under thirty approved of afros, whereas before nearly all straightened their hair or styled against its natural growth.

Map from public records

During this time, Milwaukee was one of the most segregated cities in the nation. The Inner Core, a section of neighborhoods that was located on the North side of the city, housed nearly all of Milwaukee’s Black population. Between the years 1950 and 1960 the Black population had grown over 186% and the size of the Inner core had not increased. According to the study the Inner Core – North, A Study of Milwaukee’s Negro Community, most jobs held by Black men was in physical labor like construction and smelting, and Black women held jobs in communications like phone operators. Of the 62,458 Black people who lived in Milwaukee, only 30 were barbers and 26.3% of the non-white population were living in poverty. This made it difficult to prioritize hair care when basic needs were not able to be met. 

Milwaukee is still one of the most segregated cities in the US. However, the CROWN Act may contribute to solving this issue, according to Myers.

This does not mean attitudes towards natural Black hair and the Black identity will change over-night. Two days before the CROWN Act passage, a group of concerned parents called out the Cedarburg school Board and district Superintendent on permitting racism in their schools. The mother’s biracial child would receive traditional shirts from his father who lives in Tanzania but was bullied because the style was different than typical US clothes. Now he is fearful of wearing anything that expresses his heritage and actively covers his hair and other identifying features that make him a target for bullying.