The Most Important People in Black Hair History
Illustrations: Ryan Melgar

The Most Important People in Black Hair History

From inventors to innovators, we celebrate the cutting-edge men who pushed the tonsorial game forward

Once upon a time, there was the straight razor, and lo it was… fine. Sure, it was better than the sharpened flints and shells that kicked off the barbering game around 5000 B.C.E., but you couldn’t do all that much with it. When it came to your hair, your only real options were Lots or None. But something special happened about 150 years ago: We started to level up in a big way. Since then, Black hair has become not just an extension of our style, but of our very selves.

Given the fact that LEVEL is celebrating Black men’s hair all month long, we wanted to do something to recognize the people who have contributed to that progress — those who have made new tools, cooked up groundbreaking products, and displayed straight-up artistry with their natural-born gifts. So to them, we say: Welcome to the inaugural class of the Black Men’s Hair Hall of Fame. Welcome, you clipper gods and cornrow kings; welcome, you homebrew tinkerers and Black entrepreneurs; welcome, you ambassadors of inventiveness. You may have been honored before, but we promise you it was nothing like this.

S. Henry Bundles Jr. and Henry M. Childrey (1927–2019, 1925–1997)

Inventors of the modern afro pick

Soft as cotton but thick as a bush, the afro was a cloud of outward identity and self-expression during the civil rights era — a wooly crown affixed to the heads of Black-and-proud brothers and sisters who were down for the cause. As such, the politicized hairstyle required a styling accessory that was equally strong, both literally and figuratively. Bundles and Childrey answered the call. In 1970, the Black innovators — CEO and senior vice president, respectively, of hair care company Summit Laboratories — obtained a patent for the afro pick, improving upon a comb with roots in ancient Egypt. The pick’s long teeth were perfect for stretching those unprocessed curls out, at which point folks could pat down a perfectly spherical circumference. Later, Anthony R. Romani helped the afro pick take on its own symbolism when he patented a comb handle shaped like a Black Power fist, but Bundles and Childrey laid the modern blueprint of an iconic hair necessity. And it’s been embedded in Black folks’ naps ever since. — John Kennedy

Julius Erving (1950–)

Elevator of the game — and the afro

In 1972, in the middle of Dr. J’s second season in the ABA, Sports Illustrated wrote a story about the Virginia Squires’ new superstar. The writer mentioned his “net-ripping, backboard-shaking, mind-blowing dunk shots,” the way he “glides and swoops and floats so effortlessly that he hardly sweats.” There were rhapsodic sentences about Erving’s hands, his legs, his preternatural smoothness. Not one word about his hair. Which, on one hand, is good; his majestic afro had nothing to do with his game. But it’s hard to ignore how it factored into the way the good Doctor electrified basketball. Everything was larger than life, higher than gravity, unbound by the conventions of set shots and mutton chops. He took the game above the rim; he took style norms there as well. The afro had emerged as an icon of Black pride nearly a decade before, but to see it on Erving — floating across the court, then rising, rising — was to see the most powerful act of all: beaming that declaration of self into the hearts and minds of fans across the country. — Peter Rubin

Vince Garcia (1986–)

Your favorite baller’s favorite barber

After getting his start cutting heads in his native Toronto, Vince Garcia has spent the last decade becoming the go-to golden clippers behind some of the sturdiest fades in entertainment. After plateauing in his hometown-— peaking when Raptors forward Chris Bosh became his first NBA client — Garcia moved to Los Angeles and two weeks later, found himself etching wild-ass designs into the back of Metta World Peace’s head. Since then, Garcia founded his salon, Grey Matter, where high profile stars like Drake, Kyrie Irving, Miguel, and James Harden have all popped in. But paying it forward has always been a part of the game plan; Garcia routinely teaches seminars at barber’s schools across North America, educating the next generation of barbers looking to get their own clip game up. Who’s up? — Tirhakah Love

Fred Luster Sr. (1929–1991)

Pink-bottle pioneer, hair-care heavyweight

If you’re Black and had hair at any point in the past fiftysomething years, the sight of Luster’s iconic bright pink bottle likely fills you with nostalgia. The universal experience of coating our curls with that mysterious hair lotion places its creator, the late CEO of Luster Products Company, among the legendary presences in the Black hair game. Luster migrated to the Southside of Chicago from Yazoo City, Mississippi, in the 1950s, where he established a modest barber service that charged $1 for cuts and $5 for relaxers. Off the strength of his handmade relaxer and loyalty among the fine folk of Chi-Town, the eponymous brand became a company — and a big one, existing on three different continents by the time of his death in 1991. Still thriving today, the company manages to feel timeless while remaining undeniably adaptable; its history of products reads like a timeline of tonsorial trends, from the relaxers of the ’60s and ’70s to its popular S-curl cream in the ’90s, and Luster’s remains a fixture in bathrooms to this very day. The blueprint for modern-day hair companies isn’t blue at all — it’s pink. — TL

Bob Marley (1945–1981)

Natty mystic, OG locsmith

We know, we know: The late great Robert Nesta Marley has gone from scrappy Trenchtown teen to ska-trio Wailer to reggae icon to White-boy dorm-room staple. But disya nuh babylon ting. After Marley converted to Rastafarianism in the mid-’60s, his ensuing superstardom globalized the appeal of that sect’s Biblically mandated natural locs, and gave it a cultural purchase it never relinquished — and likely never will. Locs are both intrinsically political and indelibly Black, an expression both of inner lion-of-Judahness and y’all-can’t-do-thisness; folks from other races and cultures can’t grow them without involved processes or a trust fund. From hip-hop to sports, they’ve become a mark of the firebrand (not to mention The Fireman). Ras Trent will go back to being a crazy baldhead once it’s time to work at Daddy’s company, but generations of freethinkers know that if keys open doors, locs open minds. — PR

Jheri Redding (1907–1998)

The man behind the ’80s’ signature look

If someone asked you to name the old White dude whose name is inextricably linked with NWA’s legacy, you might say Jerry Heller — and we’d say, “wrong Jerry. Which is actually spelled Jheri. Which actually isn’t his name in the first place.” Yes, an Illinois farm boy born Robert William Redding grew up to invent the Jheri curl, the signature (and literal) drip of both the 1980s and L.A. hip-hop. Redding became not just a hairstylist, but a homebrew chemist, cooking up his own hair products and accessories. Sure, he’s credited with developing the covered hairdryer and creme rinse; sure, he founded or co-founded hair companies Redken, Jhirmack, and Nexxus. But what gets him into the only hall of fame that matters is the lustrous mane that bears his name. Granted, it’s not as simple as that. For one, Redding’s product was formulated for straight hair; he only reformulated it for Black customers after inventor Willie Lee Morrow’s “California Curl” kicked off the loose-curl arms race in the ’70s. For two, it was Pro-Line founder Comer Cottrell who truly found a way to sell the curl to the masses with Pro-Line’s Curly Kit, the first retail product that could create the look. But given how the name stuck, the choice for our inaugural induction was… Eazy. — PR

Snoop Dogg (1971–)

Wearer of infinite hair doggystyles

Before hair goals were #hairgoals, there was Snoop Doggy Dogg sporting the shit out of more styles than you’d ever dare to attempt. The iron man of the mane game (iron mane?) has consistently served up nearly three decades of looks, from blown-out ’fros to slick and neat cornrows to pigtails that stunted on little girls everywhere. What’s commendable, though, is that Uncle Snoop has spent his career flaunting his hair as part of his identity without it ever feeling like a gimmick (nevermind his dreadlocked Snoop Lion stint — that’s just splitting hairs). Those long tresses have never been his calling card à la Dennis Rodman’s intricate dye jobs, but every versatile ’do reflects another aspect of the Long Beach rapper’s multifaceted image. His mafioso days as The Doggfather are characterized by a perm that was laid for the G’s, and his Shirley Temple curls portrayed the smoothest pimp not named Slickback. May his edges hold strong forevermore, fo’ shizzle. — JK

Tewodros II (1818–1868)

The literal king of cornrows

Yes, the inaugural class of the LEVEL Black Hair Hall of Fame contains some world history — specifically, the Ethiopian emperor whose reign from 1855 to 1868 kicked off the age of “modern Ethiopia.” While we weren’t personally there to witness the majesty of his cornrows, they became part of his legend; paintings depicted the emperor (born Kassa Hailegiorgis) lamping with lions and sporting cornrows thick enough to make Shemar Moore’s wigmaker jealous. Modernization is a wild and often bloody process — see: Tewodros taking his own life rather than be taken prisoner by rassclaat British soldiers — but plait-daddies stay fly. Besides, given the fact that Ethiopia remains the only African nation never to be colonized by an outside aggressor, we’d say he passed down a hefty dose of that bravado to his countrymen. — TL

Leo J. Wahl (1893–1957)

Shah of the shape-up, pharaoh of the fade
A whole-ass century ago, all the way back in 1919, Illinois native Wahl patented the first-ever electromagnetic hair clipper. Make no mistake: This was a technological quantum leap from the standard manual clippers of the day, which were basically a pair of jagged blades attached to hinged handles, prolonged use of which would exert the fuck out of your forearm muscles. Pretty soon, Wahl Manufacturing was mass-producing these bad boys, forever changing the precision and efficiency of hair cutting. While Andis and John Oster followed closely behind in the blade game, Wahl led the way in innovation, from battery-powered clippers to those with an attached vacuum for mess-free cuts. In 2004, Wahl clippers even got the NASA seal of approval, helping an astronaut lace himself while in outer space (although, let’s be honest, it was probably a shitty cut). Still, when it’s once again safe to venture out to your barbershop and get blessed with a crisp shape-up or airbrushed taper, pour out a little Barbicide one time for the big homie Leo. — JK

Image text sources: Snoop Dogg, Julius Erving, Luster Sr., Tewodros II