Athens is home to a plethora of businesses tailored to the needs of Ohio University students. From restaurants to pharmacies, OU students have the ability to access many resources while still staying close to campus. Despite all the positive assets of the community, there is a severe lack of services and products for people with Afro-textured hair.
Black students and faculty often have to alter their hair styles and routines to the limited supply of products and services Athens offers.
Ohio University alumna @universityhairbraider on Instagram is a 2019 graduate who learned to braid after having to wear headscarves and other protective hairstyles to avoid the hassle of traveling all the way to Columbus for services during her time at OU.
“It’s something … very frustrating when I went to school here,” she said about the lack of access to braiders and stylists in Athens.
Although relatively new to braiding, she was able to hone her craft while in Athens and now works at a salon thanks to her initiative to learn how to braid. She still services people in Athens and offers box braids, faux locs, passion twists and Sengalese twists.
Just like @ohiouniversityhairbraider, London Greer is one of many Black students at OU who have adapted to the absence of resources and services. Greer, a fifth year studying chemical engineering, also learned how to braid during her time in Athens. She knew the seniors she relied on were graduating, and she said she felt she needed to fill that place. Greer learned from her predecessors to ensure the services would continue to be available.
Experimentation was key for Greer when it came to learning how to take care of coarse hair without the access to traditional products. Greer and some others sought out alternative resources that were easier to obtain, like foods from the dining hall.
“If you went to the dining hall that day, and they had avocado or something like that, we took the avocado and made a mask with it. It taught me to be more versatile with how I take care of my hair” —London Greer, an fifth year student studying chemical engineering
“We experimented with deep conditioning, putting Walmart bags on our heads because we don't have the hooded dryer (and) getting more familiar with making concoctions in our room for a hair mask,” Greer said. “If you went to the dining hall that day, and they had avocado or something like that, we took the avocado and made a mask with it. It taught me to be more versatile with how I take care of my hair. That definitely was my first inclination that I need to learn how to do my own hair.”
Although Greer can do all types of braids, she usually does box braids and twists. Both styles can be good for hair health and are relatively easy to maintain. She braids for all genders and said it is common for males to seek twists if they are growing out an afro.
Greer said she likes to think of her skills as a service rather than a business.
“I take payment in multiple different ways,” Greer said. “For instance, if my friend just wants two French braids going back, I'm like, ‘hey, just grab me sushi one day.’ I'm not going to make you send me $40 when I'm going to spend it on sushi anyway … I try to be flexible with who my clients are and who I’m servicing because I know we’re in college. And that was the point of offering up my services … to make it accessible to college students.”
Both Greer and @ohiouniversityhairbraider have used their skills to make protective styles more accessible to the community, but many key products are still missing from the shelves of Athens.
“It was disheartening to go to Sally’s and not see anything for people of color,” Greer said, referencing Sally Beauty, a chain beauty store located on East State Street.
Chaise Brown, a freshman studying psychology, agrees with Greer. Brown buys most of her products from Walmart, but the chain often falls short when it comes to providing hair care products for people with curly, coarse or coiled hair.
“I’m lucky because I use the most basic ethnic hair care ever, Cantu, so I can find that,” Brown said. “But half the time they don’t even have the one thing I need … I’m not going to use a hair mask everyday.”
Greer believes that in order to mend the problem, the Athens community needs to focus on being more welcoming and encouraging to local Black-owned businesses.
“I say that because it's really on the Black business owner to come down to Athens,” Greer said. “Just because Athens may not look as diverse doesn't mean that there isn't diversity in the student population.”
Students are not the only ones who have had to adapt. Just like the people they teach and interact with, staff and faculty also have a limited supply of products that dictate their hair routine and style.
Tamika Williams, the assistant director for career and diversity, equity and inclusion, has lived in the Athens area for five years and has made sacrifices when it comes to taking care of her hair. She has leaned on the services of students in the past in addition to making the drive to Toledo to get her hair braided.
“I would drive three and a half hours to go up, sit for another three hours, and then travel back,” Williams said. “I’m sitting down for 12 hours a day just to get my hair done.”
Williams said she is appreciative of the opening of Sally’s on East State Street, as well as the products available.
“Sally Beauty was a really good addition,” Williams said. “Prior to Sally’s, I would stock up when I went home.”
Williams said she is able to opt for products that are more available, when necessary.
“I can get away with using products that can be considered more traditional white hair care products,” Williams said.
She is unable to experiment with dying her hair as well.
Students have the option to rely on each other when it comes to seeking services like braiding or flat ironing, but some faculty do not have the same options.
“I would drive three and a half hours to go up, sit for another three hours, and then travel back. I’m sitting down for 12 hours a day just to get my hair done.” —Tamika Williams, the assistant director for career and diversity, equity and inclusion
Vanessa Morgan is the assistant director for diversity and inclusion programs at OU, and she has experienced disappointment regarding the resources available in Athens, as well.
“There’s literally no one to do my kind of hair for me,” Morgan said. “I have tried before. I went to a salon on Court Street … and I left with my hair in a big afro because they just don’t know how to blow dry my hair … I had an event, imagine that. So I had to quickly get back home and … figure out what I had to do to my hair if I went to my event. There is no one who can really do anything professionally for you.”
Morgan runs the Being Black in College Program, a program that connects Black students to resources on campus and in Athens. She realized that many students of color don’t have access to the hair care products they need, so Morgan and the organization created a drive for hygiene products and hair care products in early June 2021.
“We just ask people to bring the donations that are specific to people of color,” Morgan said. “We put it out there before Juneteenth last year and we advertised it and asked people to bring a donation to the events and people were amazing and they brought stuff.”
The donation station is still available in the Office of Multicultural Success and Retention, located on 31 South Court St. Students may come and go as they please and take what they need free of charge.
Navigating a lack of access is nothing new for Black students and residents in and around Athens.
Marcquis Parham, the interim assistant director of the Career and Leadership Development Center, came to Ohio University in 2002 as a football player.
“When I came to Athens, I learned how to manage and maintenance my own hair,” Parham said. “There were no barbers at the time when I got here.”
Parham said there were two typical options people had to choose between to care for their hair: Either care for it yourself, or drive long distances to get proper care and products. However, Parham chose another option.
“I just stopped cutting my hair altogether, which did not alleviate the problem,”Parham said.
Five decades prior to Parham, students were also facing issues with accessing hair care. Past Black students also had to adapt to limited supplies and services.
Soulful Bobcats: Experiences of African American Students at Ohio University, 1950-1960, by Carl H. Walker and Betty Hollow, features 18 autobiographical excerpts written by Black students and alumni. The accounts present a time in Athens history when the Black community was small, but students banded together to support one another. Throughout the decade, many Black students experienced varying degrees of prejudice, sometimes resulting in physical violence.
The Black students of the ‘50s and ‘60s broke down many barriers. They were the first Black students in OU history to be awarded athletic scholarships, the first to organize Black sectors of Greek Life and the first to star in theatrical productions.
As Black students began to enroll at OU at a steadier rate, there was an increasing demand for someone who could cut curly and coily hair. Although there was a well-known Black barber in Athens at the time, he refused to cut Black students’ hair until the shop closed.
Ohio University President from 1945-1961, John C. Baker, arranged for a barber to be made available to Black students. Unfortunately for these students, the barber was a car ride away in The Plains.
“When I wanted a haircut, I was told by some other colored students that in order to get our hair cut, we had to go to Mr. Thompson’s house out in The Plains,” Lester Nelson Carney, an OU student from 1952-1953 and 1957-1959, wrote in Soulful Bobcats.
Alice Jones Rush graduated in 1957 with a teaching degree, but while at OU, she had to navigate doing her hair herself while living in student housing.
“Being a black young lady in the dormitory was difficult at times because it was hard to keep our hair neat, clean, and straightened. During those days, black women used straightening combs. We would roll up wet towels at the door of our rooms so that the odor of ‘hair frying’ would not permeate the hall,” she wrote in Soulful Bobcats.
A year below Rush, Ejaye Johnson Tracey also spoke on the efforts Black students would take to style their hair, and she said that Black women who lived in the dorms hid their straightening combs from their white dorm mates.
The testimonies from former OU students are reflective of the time period they lived in. However, present-day OU students face a similar barrier today. Students like Greer and employees like Williams are still making the drive to access hair care resources and services because the community they live in does not provide them. Access to hair care is a privilege, and many Black residents still have to fight for that privilege.
According to Parham, little accessibility to essential hair care products and services is just one of the factors that leads to lower retention rates in the Athens community for both students and professionals. He said there is a lack of needs being met at the fundamental level.
Although mending these complex problems takes time, Parham believes there is a step the university can take when it comes to making Athens a more appealing place to live for people of color.
“I believe as an educator and as a stakeholder here at the university that there is no reason why we have not had the discussions around creating a cosmetology program,” he said.
Parham said that hopefully graduates from a program would feel inclined to stay here and open their own business to create a long-standing measure that would help make services more accessible.
Although the barrier of students not being able to find suitable shampoo may seem simple, it is rooted in a deeper problem. Many Black students and faculty, past and present, feel Athens and OU need to better serve the needs of people who make up the minority. Parham said the obligation of providing services and resources should not fall on the individual, but rather the community as a whole.
“They definitely have a responsibility to create fundamental change from the top down,” Parham said.