Since this is Women’s History Month, the “Classroom” column will keep its focus on the contributions of Black women. Last week, “Stagecoach Mary” led the way in opening the West, and on the eastern front, wielding not a rifle but a hot comb and a cosmetic kit, was Rose Morgan. She realized from the very beginning of her business that beauty was a relative thing and truly in the eye of the beholder, and a woman’s hair was her crowning glory.
Born in 1912 in Shelby, Miss., Morgan, the daughter of a sharecropper, began styling hair even before attending the Morris School of Beauty in Chicago. Her creativity was evident at a very early age when she made artificial flowers and had her friends sell them in the neighborhood. She was 10. Four years later, she rented a booth in a local salon and began styling hair. In effect, she was following in the tradition of Madam C.J. Walker.
One of her customers was entertainer and vaudeville star Ethel Waters, and Morgan could not have found a better person to publicize her work. She parlayed this relationship into a number of other notable contacts, and this prompted her move to New York City. In 1939, after only a year’s residence in Harlem, she opened her own salon, Rose Meta House of Beauty. This salon grew and acquired the name that would make her famous: Rose Morgan’s House of Beauty.
She was soon employing a number of hair stylists, licensed masseurs, cosmetic specialists and even a registered nurse. In the early 1960s, her business empire had expanded considerably, and she ventured into real estate and a savings and loan association. It was through this enterprise that she became one of the founders of Freedom National Bank in 1965.
But it wasn’t all work and no play for Morgan, and in 1955, her affair with heavyweight boxing immortal Joe Louis blossomed into marriage. The marriage was doomed almost from the start, with Morgan keeping her name and her gorgeous brownstone at the corner of 148th Street and Convent, and Louis holding on to his apartment not too far away on Edgecombe Avenue. “I tried to make him settle down,” Morgan told a reporter, referring to Louis’ love of golf and possibly other women. “I told him he couldn’t sleep all day and stay out all night anymore. Once he asked me why not, I told him I’d worry and wouldn’t be able to sleep. So he said he’d wait til I fell asleep before going out. Well, I stayed up til 4 a.m.—and then he fell asleep.”
Their marriage was the talk of the town and filled the gossip pages almost weekly, reaching an interesting plateau when they appeared on a quiz show, and within six weeks they amassed $60,000 on the show. The IRS quickly seized Louis’ share of the prize money but couldn’t touch Morgan’s $30,000. Nonetheless, Louis quickly went through it. By 1957, after two years of marriage, they agreed to separate and eventually the marriage was annulled. According to Sondra Kathryn Wilson in her book “Meet Me at the Theresa,” where Morgan lived from time to time, the marriage ended when Louis “refused to have children with her.”
Her next marriage to attorney Louis Saunders was equally brief.
It should be noted that when Morgan started her business in Harlem, she had a partner, Olivia Clarke, who specialized in scientific body treatments. Customers could get their hair treated and their bodies massaged.
From the very start, Morgan encountered criticism that her hair processing was a denial of her Black racial identity—a notion she refuted. To her, there was no such thing as bad and good hair. “Hair textures vary from race to race and type to type,” she told a reporter from Ebony magazine, “and it is wrong to classify one kind as ‘better’ than another. It’s all in the way you care for the hair. All hair is bad if it isn’t well-styled and groomed.”
Morgan recognized the desire of many Black women to beautify themselves with no intention of trying to be white or to deny their Blackness. She obviously knew what she was doing because her business grew to become one of the largest Black-owned companies in the nation, enhanced by her venture into a line of cosmetics and general diversification.
Next, she invested time and money into developing fashion shows, anticipating the galas and events promoted later by the large Black fashion magazines. Thousands attended her shows at the Renaissance Casino and Rockland Plaza.
“All the girls loved the shows because there was nowhere else they could show themselves off like the high-fashion models,” she told Essence magazine. The profits from these events and the sales from the salon gave her the opportunity to expand her operation, even to Europe, where she sailed on the Queen Mary to advertise her products.
In several profiles on Morgan, she is cited as a founder of Freedom National Bank, New York’s only Black commercial bank. Jackie Robinson, in his memoir “I Never Had It Made,” discusses his relationship with Morgan and the bank. When he was investigating the bank’s solvency, he confided in Morgan to give him the intimate details about the bank.
“Rose can cut straight through the niceties to the heart of the matter,” Robinson wrote. “I had not asked her to do anything to help me in my investigation, but I certainly am glad that I chose her early as a confidante.”
Eventually, the bank folded, and Morgan, by 1972, began a new business that greatly expanded her House of Beauty, providing full service to Black women, including a wide range of beauty treatments from head to toe.
Morgan was living in Chicago in 2008 when she died. She was 96.