Overlooked No More: Rose Morgan, a Pioneer in Hairdressing and Harlem

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“We had someone to check your coat. Nobody took care of themselves,” Morgan said.

Formality and respect for clients was paramount. Morgan forbade her employees from talking with clients outside of questions and answers about their service for the day. If an employee became a little chatty, Morgan would sweep in with a friendly “Hello, Mrs. Smith! How are you today?” Code for stop talking.

Morgan also had a strict policy on addressing clients. “You never called anybody Lucy, Sarah or Rose,” she said. “Whatever your last name, they had to call you by your last name.”

These policies went a lot deeper than mere formality at a time when black people were purposefully not addressed with respect. In those years, some were so frustrated at being referred to so informally, they gave their children names that automatically conveyed respect, such as Major, Sergeant or General. There was no need for concern in Morgan’s salon, however.

Special events like fashion shows were too large for the salon, so they were held at bigger venues in Harlem like the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino or the Rockland Palace. Rose-scented cologne wafted through the air as models showed off Morgan’s signature hairstyles. Morgan then developed and sold a full line of cosmetics. Most makeup companies at the time didn’t bother making products for people with darker skin. Rose Morgan Cosmetics offered face powder in three shades, Peach, Honey, and Brown.

In 1955, Morgan married the boxing legend Joe Louis, an event that was covered by The New York Times. She created a cologne called “My Man” as a tribute to him, though their tumultuous union was annulled after just three years. Money, or Louis’s lack of care with it, was a big issue.

Despite the success of her enterprise, including banking more than $3 million in her first decade, Morgan had challenges getting even small business loans because of her race. “I had banked with Manufacturers Trust for ten years,” she said in the 1988 video interview. “They would let you have money to buy a car but not for something constructive. I went to them and tried to borrow some money and couldn’t get a dime.”

Experiences like that encouraged her to get involved in the banking industry herself and in 1964, Morgan helped start Freedom National Bank, a rare black-owned commercial bank in New York.

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