When Courtney Marshall asked us why it’s so hard for black women to find a decent haircut in New Hampshire, we invited her to join us to find the answer. The resulting story won a regional Edward R. Murrow award.
Two years later, we’re revisiting Courtney’s question to see if anything has changed, both for her and in the state.
When Courtney Marshall learned that her hairstylist was expecting a child, she had mixed emotions. Marshall was happy for her, but she was also worried. She decided it would be wise to find a back-up option, just in case.
“I’m in a state of emergency. I do not want to have to cross state lines to get a haircut,” said Marshall.
Marshall hoped for a stylist near where she lives in Exeter, but she knew it would be a challenge to find a salon with experience working with black women’s hair.
Listen to "You Asked, We Answered: Where Can a Black Woman Get Her Hair Done in NH?" The story originally aired in 2018.
Jeanne Chappell is the owner of the Keene Beauty Academy and serves on the New Hampshire Board of Barbering, Cosmetology, and Esthetics. In 2018, she said that she thought that the state licensing test needed updates to be more inclusive, but added that changes to that exam can take a long time, maybe up to ten years. So far, Chappell said that no progress has been made.
But there have been other developments. In 2017, Governor Sununu signed HB82, a bill that eliminated licensing requirements for hair braiders. The bill meant that hair braiders no longer need a formal education to practice their craft and run a business -- a significant because many beauty schools don’t even teach hair braiding.
It’s a craft that a lot of hair braiders learn informally, picking it up from their families.
“I started braiding hair when I was really young, I wanna say about ten, twelve,” said Shaquwan’Da Allen. “My sister was the first person I practiced on, besides the doll.”
As NHPR reported in 2017, Allen was one of the advocates for the bill. This February, she opened the commercial location of her business, Rootz Natural Hair Shop in Manchester.
On a recent Tuesday, her client Sandra Watkins (she goes by Sandi) came in to get her hair done before a trip to visit her mom in Georgia.
“I just want to walk off the plane like I own that airport,” said Watkins to Allen, explaining her vision for the cut.
Watkins has been Allen’s client for about three years, but she’s lived in New England on and off for about twenty years. She shared some hair horror stories, including an occasion at a hair salon in Boston. Her stylist ordered chicken for lunch -- and ate it, while styling Watkins’ hair.
“Finally, I just said, ‘Ma'am, I don't want that chicken in my hair...’ and then she got an attitude because I made her stop, and so when she went in to [do] my hair, she was really pulling at it, and it really hurt,” said Watkins.
Eventually, Watkins found Allen. She said Allen really listened, knew what they were doing, and she never ate lunch while she was in the chair. It was a relief, in more ways than one. In the past, her hairdressers would braid her hair so tight that it hurt, to the point where Watkins couldn’t sleep.
“From the first day that she did my hair, I was able to get a good night's sleep after having braids. That was something new to me,” said Watkins.
Allen has been braiding hair out of her house since November 2018, but her new shop in Manchester wouldn’t have been possible before HB82 passed.
“I would have had to go through a whole bunch of headaches and debt to get to this point. The bill passing was a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful blessing… that I could ever have asked for,” said Allen. “Before then, when I was looking for cosmetology schools, I was like, that's a lot. I can't afford another loan.”
“It helped people, mostly black women, get from under working for somebody else to being able to work for themselves,” said Anthony L. Harris, Allen’s partner and her business manager at Rootz.
The new shop space feels “amazing,” according to Allen, and lends a lot more legitimacy to her craft.
“It allows me to be a professional braider in a professional setting… this is no longer my house,” said Allen. “I’m worth just as much as a salon stylist is… A lot of times, when you’re in the house, they don't want to pay you what you're worth, but now I’m in a professional setting. What can you say?”
Allen has clients in four states. She and Harris are working on converting an RV to a mobile hair studio, to be able to go to her clients where they are.
It’s hard in general to find a good hair braider, but, according to Watkins, “it’s worse in New Hampshire… it’s definitely not friendly to women of color.”
Watkins said she’s happy for Allen and her growing business, but she’s also worried about losing her stylist.
“I'm grateful for it. I want to be part of her journey, and I will follow her wherever I can… but I know she'll take off and at that point, where will my hair be?” said Watkins.
After a couple hours in the chair, Shaquwan’Da put the finishing touches on Watkins’ hair - and judging by the look on her face, Watkins is happy and ready to own the airport when she gets off that plane.
But while the braiding bill helps people like Allen, Courtney Marshall doesn’t wear her hair in braids, so this bill change doesn’t really affect her.
“I have not found a new hairdresser! It’s really sad,” said Marshall. She’d considered trying out Donny Smith, the barber we interviewed at Black Cat Studio, but he left the salon before she could schedule an appointment.
“I’m at the point where I’m like… do I need to go to school to learn how to do my hair?” she said, laughing.
While Marshall still loves her hairdresser, she still only has one option.