Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.
By Nichelle Gainer
Rose Morgan and her friend Oletha White were driving from Chicago to New York in White’s brand-new 1938 Ford when they began crossing the George Washington Bridge. Morgan looked up and saw the skyline full of tall buildings and asked, “Is that New York? People live in those buildings?”
White answered yes to both questions and Morgan was intrigued. Sure, Chicago had tall buildings, but they were mostly in the Loop. New York looked like it had tall buildings everywhere.
White was a dancer, and she and Morgan, a gifted hairdresser, were going to the city to see the actress Ethel Waters, who wanted Morgan to style her hair. Waters had been very impressed with the job Morgan had done once before, during an engagement in Chicago, and had invited the young hairdresser to New York to work her magic again. Morgan was charmed by the city and decided she had to move there.
“I had never seen people dressed up like these people were dressed up. Their hair was beautiful. Everybody was just gorgeous,” she said in a 1988 video interview for the Schomburg Center. “I said, ‘Oh this is the place for me.’ ”
In less than five years, Morgan went from renting booths in other salons to opening “the biggest Negro beauty parlor in the world” as Ebony called it in its May 1946 issue. Rose Meta House of Beauty, which grossed more than $3 million in sales in its first few years, became a fixture in Harlem. It went beyond hair care, offering skin care, massages and other services that were rarely available to black women at the time, and women traveled from all over the country to go to the salon.
Morgan was born in Edwards, Miss., in 1912, one of nine children to Winnie (Robinson), a homemaker, and Chapple Morgan, who rented land on a cotton plantation in Mississippi before moving the family to Chicago, where he worked in the hotel business.
She said that she had always been inspired by her father’s business sense and that as a young girl she cut flowers out of crepe paper and went door-to-door with her friends.
“We sold them for five cents a bunch and I would give them a penny on a bunch so, I was in business at the age of 10,” she said.
The experience also helped her realize that “I’ve always had a great imagination and I could do things with my hands.”
She started styling hair for friends and neighbors at 12 and by the time she was 16, she was making enough money to drop out of high school with confidence, despite warnings from her father. “I decided that I wasn’t going to let any grass grow under my feet,” she said in the 1988 interview.
Her father insisted that she get a job, so she started working in a laundromat, shaking sheets. After the first night, she had a hard time raising her sore arms and decided that laundry wasn’t for her and went back to doing hair full-time. Clients would arrive at her house at 5:30 or 6 a.m. to get their hair done before work. Once her customer base grew, she attended cosmetology school to get her license.
She arrived in New York with $500, enough to rent a booth in a salon for $10 a week.
The salon was in Sugar Hill, the fabled enclave of rich and famous blacks of the day, and word spread quickly about Morgan’s technique. She was known for using less hair product to achieve a softer, bouncier feel for hair that could turn out stiff in the wrong hands.
Before long, she realized she would need her own space. Around the same time, she had met a new friend who owned a dress shop on 142nd and Seventh Avenue. “I said, ‘Do you use your kitchen?’ She said no, so I rented it, took the stove out and put in two booths, one for myself and one for another girl,” she recalled in a 2002 oral history for The HistoryMakers. “That’s how I really started working for myself.”
She expanded her business once more after meeting Olivia Clarke, a skin care specialist with degrees in biology from Virginia State College and New York University. Clarke suggested combining her scientific knowledge and skin care expertise with Morgan’s hairdressing prowess and the women struck a deal. Morgan sold her a third of the business and they began scouting for a location for a bigger full-service salon. They found it when they came across a property on Sugar Hill that had been vacant for nearly two decades and was said to be haunted.
On May 6, 1945, she opened the salon with a grand ceremony in which the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., newly elected to Congress, cut the ribbon. The “haunted house” became a Rose Meta House of Beauty, spanning five floors with more than 30 employees working as hairstylists, massage therapists and skin care specialists. By 1955, the salon was renovated again, with an expansion that included a dressmaking department, a diet and body department and a charm school to teach etiquette. Rose Meta (pronounced MEE-tah) was an oasis that signaled elegance and calm for black women in a world that was, for the most part, accustomed to being pampered by black women.
“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.
Eventually decades changed, styles changed and Morgan’s salon went out of fashion.
“When I saw the ending coming, I sold,” she said.
Some years later she returned to Chicago, where she died on Dec. 16, 2008. She was 96.
“I never denied myself of anything,” she said. “I traveled all over the world. I did all the things I wanted to do.”