The incredible true story of how one man refused to submit to the racist state rulings about black people and their right to choose how they wear and care for their hair.
For people who didn't live in Minnesota prior to 1995, you may not even realize that the following statement could even be truthful and factual, but it is. The idea of going to a hair braiding salon to get your hair braided was ILLEGAL. You see, before The Braid Factory opened in 1995, there were no exclusive hair braiding salons. Not that people hadn't had that idea, or even tried to open them, but they were deemed illegal. A person would have to open a typical licensed and regulated hair salon, including all the associated plumbing, licensing requirements and restrictions. So, for generations, in Minnesota, Black women (or men) who wanted to get their hair braided would have to find their own personal braid stylists. They would have their hair braided in someone's home, or illegally, in the back of someone's beauty supply store. The idea of an actual professional marketplace was as illegal then as a marijuana store would be today. For black men in Minnesota, it was even worse. They literally didn't have this hair style choice. In Minnesota, if you were a black man with braided hair, it likely meant that you were in (or recently released from) jail. Children also rarely had reasonable hair braiding options, as the combination of finding someone to do it, and scheduling the time was simply too complicated. In fact, throughout the battle between The Braid Factory and the State of Minnesota, hair braiding was often compared to the narcotics industry. (I still have much of the paperwork to prove it) At the same time, in many other states, the style of hair braiding was increasing in popularity. States like Georgia, Maryland, Illinois, Michigan and Florida, had literally hundreds of successful hair braiding salons. All black owner enterprises catering to a near exclusive black clientele.
It was a decades long battle of wits that pitted a 26 year old idealist entrepreneur (that's me)
against literally every agency of the state of Minnesota, led by then Attorney General Skip Humphrey. The Dept. of Commerce, The Dept. of Economic Security, the Dept of Revenue, the state police, the local police, even the INS (which is what they called the immigration agency in those days), and the Dept. of Cosmetology got involved, just to name the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Every agency tried in vain to issue court ordered cease and desist papers. Temporary retraining orders, injunctions and more. But rather than give in to the weight and pressure of this oppressive conspiracy, I decided to follow the advice of someone I had met, and had learned to view as a kind of mentor.
Before I ever opened The Braid Factory I travelled to Atlanta, Chicago and Washington D.C. to meet with and learn from existing hair braiding salons. Having literally never seen one in my life, I wanted to know what they looked like, what they did, who went there, what they charged, what they paid their styists, how they set up their salons, essentially, I wanted to know everything. In Washington D.C., I met a man named Taalib-Din Uqdah. A truly gifted and influential businessman, who will end up going down as a true civil rights pioneer and champion for the rights of black people. Just as The Braid Factory is directly responsible for the current impressive and substanial professional hair braiding marketplace that now exists throughout Minnesota, Mr. Uqdah is perhaps more responsbile for the nationwide growth in understanding and acceptance of this concept. (you can read a detailed report of both Taaalib-Din Uqdah's efforts and the culture of African hair braiding and it's connection with African-American culture of hairstyling by clicking on the button below...)
In short, Mr. Uqdah explained to me that the most effective manner in which I could ever challenge the state's unjust position, would be to simply open The Braid Factory in "bold defiance of the law", and that my friends, is precisely what I did. And let me tell you, while it was ultimately successful, it was not without some considerable personal consequences. Due the position of the state, I wasn't able to accept any salary or profits from the business. One of their first threats was to fine me for every client we served. In short order, they had official fines on the books against me in excess of a quarter of a million dollars. Due to the outrageous cumulative fines, fees and penalties, I wasn't able to own any property. (homes, cars, etc.) I was even denied a driver's license for almost 10 years. Imagine how difficult it is to own and manage 3 locations without a driver's license. The Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, all this time, The Braid Factory was quickly becoming the most popular exclusive hair braiding location in the entire country!!!
(to access this file, you'll need to enter your library card...)
While I often claim that it was my determined will and defiant attitude that kept The Braid Factory open and successful, the truth is, it was always the incredibly understanding and supportive clients and the professional and dedicated staff who worked there that actually made the difference. Let me recount one single story that I'll never forget. The State Police came into our W. Lake Street location. They had all the necessary paperwork and authority to arrest me and shut us down. However, the women who were in the salon that day, literally stood up, blocked their path and refused to allow them entry into the salon. It was one of the most inspiring acts I've ever personally witnessed. Something I can only guess would be akin to watching Rosa Parks refuse to move to the back of the bus. I'll never, ever forget it, and women...truly, not just clients, but champions, like these are the reason why this year, The Braid Factory is celebrating 25 years as the area's most popular hair braiding salon.
The Braid Factory was never just a for-profit business. It was developed as an opportunity for immigrant women to find a way to take part in the economic marketplace of our city. At the time I opened The Braid Factory, my mother and her friends had founded a non-profit organization to help immigrant woman propser in America. Whether that meant finding work, becoming citizens, finding better housing conditions, obtaining healthcare, English language skills, or anything else. WISE (the Women's Internatonal Self-Reliance Enterprise) was a self started operation of love that only sought to assist immigrant woman in creating better lives. As such, they were looking for ideas on businesses, when I suggested that they take advantage of their natural and cultural hair braiding skills to open up a salon thaty exclusively braidied hair. Something that currently didn't exist and would almost certainly be very popular. I honestly didn't plan on starting it and managing it myself, but rather, writing up the business proposal, help to obtain financing and assist someone else in starting it up. But, despite my genius plan, no one would offer any financing. So, In an effort to prove it's viability, I started it myself, with nothing.
That's right. The Braid Factory, which grew to 4 locations in the first 3 years. That has lasted for 25 years and is still the most popular hair braiding salon in the area, began with NO MONEY whatsoever. How did I do that you ask...? Well, we advertised first, booked hundreds of clients through the first 90 days, and then opened with the plan to collect the money and pay as we go. Only a business that could guarantee a high level of immediate success could ever pull off a trick like that, but that's exactly what we did. Our Yellow Pages ad was timed out to run first and bill later. (For you young people out there, you can google yellow pages and find out what that was...) Our 3 year rental agreement was contingent on receiving the first 3 months for free. (the landlord expected us to be remodeling for the first 3 months, but we just opened right away, and remodeled at night...) We opened much earlier than expected and so we already had revenues coming in by the time the rent was due. We poured all the money back into the salon and opened up a new location in North Minneapolis and then in St. Paul, all the while bringing on new staff and creating new methods of advertisng and publicizing ourselves.
On the outside The Braid Factory was popular and growing. All the while on the inside, I was persoanlly fending off every branch of the state that was doing everything they could to get me to close down. After several years, I realized that they were never going to actually enforce these court orders, probably because they knew all along that they were in the wrong. They understood that if it became public that the state of Minnesota was oppressing black people and denying them the right to choose their hair style, well, even back in the 90's that would have been a very negative image. So, in a sense, it was always just a bluff. They thought by fining me, by harassing me and finally by arrestng me and putting me in jail (I served about 40 days in the County lock-up in Plymouth) they would convince me to simply give up and give in. But I never did. During this time, I tried to hire lawyers to help us out. Steven Belton, a family friend and an advocate for the rights of people of color advised me to close down. "you can't just defy a court order Michael John...", he told me. Keith Ellison, who was just a defense lawyer at the time, bailed out when he felt the weight of the entire state of Minnesota against us. "I thought it was just traffic offenses...I didn't know the Attorney General had it in for you. I can't help you", he said. (and then forced me to chase him down for four months to get a return of my original retainer...) Lawyers were simply confused and bewildered that this was even happeneing. They frankly couldn't believe that there wasn't more to the story. Finally, sometime in 2004, a man named Lee McGrath from the Institute of Justice swept in to save the day. His organization had solved this problem in other states and knew precisely how to approach it and how to resolve it in our favor.
By this time, I had had enough. On one hand, The Braid Factory was essentially safe. We were too big to stop now, and I didn't have to protect the salons, the staff, the clients or even myself from the police or the courts on a regular basis anymore. We had called their bluff, and they backed down. Technically, they still had the opinion that what we were doing was illegal, and that I was essentially, a criminal. But at least they also finally recognized that they couldn't do anything about it. One the other hand, I had taken some very personal defeats. I had basically not been making any money for the 8+ years while I was fighting with the state, in fact, I had borrowed money and had only the salon to show for it. I decided that the time was right to move on. I gave The Braid Factory to the stylists. (Yes, you read that right. I gave it away...for nothing. Not a dime, not a %, no future considerations...nothing...) I also made myself available to continue helping them regularly as the stylists transtioned into an ownership role. Luckily, part of The Braid Factory operation had always been to train the stylists to become independent owners. That's why The Braid Factory staff had already branched out to open several other hair braiding locations, many of them popular in their own right. Global Braids in St. Paul, Gigi's Braid Factory in the Midtown Global market, and many, many more African hair braiding salons throughout the metro area from Burnsville, to Brooklyn Park. From Savage to St. Cloud and even in several other states. This was the original intent of the idea and all plans had come to fruition. While support from the state would have made life easier, and allowed us to be even more successful, I couldn't be more satisfied with the results.
It's one thing to open a business with no money and have it work out. It's another to grow to having multiple successful locations. It's still another thing to create an entire industry and marketplace where before there was none. It's still another to accomplish all that while the state itself was constantly persecuting you and using their unlimited powers to close you down. 25 years after the first cease and desist order was filed with the courts, we have neither ceased nor desisted, and on top of everything else, that fact should give everyone inspiration to know that being morally right always means more than being legally right.