Joyner, Marjorie Stewart 1896–1994
Marjorie Stewart Joyner 1896–1994
Businesswoman, community leader, inventor
A true pillar of her Chicago South Side community, Marjorie Stewart Joyner affected the lives of many African Americans with her altruistic endeavors for most of her ninety-eight years. She worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to combat racial segregation and discrimination. She organized and for six decades directed the annual Bud Billiken parade in the city’s African-American neighborhoods; it grew to become the nation’s largest gathering of its type. She was a close associate of pioneering African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune and became a key supporter of Bethune-Cookman College. And perhaps most famously, she was an important figure in the history of African American beauty culture and the inventor of a permanent-wave machine.
Joyner was born Marjorie Stewart in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Monterey, Virginia, on October 24, 1896, the granddaughter of slaves. She grew up in poverty—only four of the thirteen Stewart children survived infancy—but her father was a schoolteacher who had worked with the famous African American educator Booker T. Washington and harbored higher ambitions. The family moved to Dayton, Ohio, in 1904, where Joyner’s father landed a teaching job in a white school. But her parents divorced soon afterward, and Joyner bounced between various family members.
Her education was frequently interrupted, and when she moved to Chicago to be with her mother in 1912, it was further derailed by cleaning and waitressing jobs. Joyner attended Englewood High School on the South Side, but did not receive her high school diploma until 1935 (she did earn a music-school certificate in 1924). She reaffirmed her faith in the value of education when she went to college as a senior citizen and received a B.S. degree from Bethune-Cookman college at the age of 77. Joyner met her future husband, who later became a podiatrist, when he roller-skated past her home; the two married in 1916 and had two daughters.
Becoming the first African American graduate of Chicago’s A.B. Molar Beauty School, Joyner opened a salon of her own in 1916. Her first customers were white, but the turning point of her career came when she enrolled in a hair-styling class with Madame C. J. Walker, the grandmother of the African American hair-care industry and reputedly America’s first African
At a Glance…
Born October 24, 1896, near Monterey, VA; died December 27, 1994, in Chicago, IL; daughter of George Emmanuel Stewart, a schoolteacher, and Annie Daugherty Stewart; married Robert S. Joyner, 1916; children: Anne Joyner Fook, Barbara Joyner Powell.Education: Bethune-Cookman College, B. S., 1973; Chicago Musical College, certificate in dramatic art and expression, 1924; several cosmetology degrees. Religion: attended African Methodist Episcopal churches; co-founded non-denominational Cosmopolitan Community Church, early 1930s.
Career: Hair salon executive, activist, philanthropist, and community leader. Enrolled inclasses of famed hair-care entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker, 1916; worked extensively with Walker as agent until Walker’s death, 1919; national supervisor for more than 200 Walker beauty schools, late 1910s; later vice president of company; helped write Illinois cosmetology laws, 1924; granted patent for permanent wave machine, 1928; organized first Bud Billiken Parade, Chicago, 1929, and chaired parade committee for decades; organized National Council ofNegro Women, 1935; worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, late 1930s and early 1940s; organized educational trip to Paris for 195 black cosmetologists, 1954; worked extensively as fundraiser for Bethune-Cookman College later in career.
Awards: Honorary Doctor of Humanities degree, Bethune-Cookman College, 1961; named one of Five Outstanding Achievers, National Council of Negro Women, 1990; birthday named Dr. Marjorie Stewart Joyner Day in Chicago, 1990; subject of museum exhibitions atSmithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and at several other major museums.
American female millionaire. Joyner took the class at her mother-in-law’s behest. According to her recollections quoted in Notable Black American Women, Joyner botched a hair styling job she undertook on her mother-in-law: “When I got through with her hair she looked like an accident going somewhere to happen. She said you can’t do anything with my hair, but… I am going to give you money to go down to [Walker’s] class; she is teaching how to do black hair.”
Walker quickly recognized her student’s intelligence and energy and signed her on as an instructor and agent. Joyner helped Walker spread her methods and products across the Midwest, and was instrumental in the Walker Company’s rapid growth. By the time of Walker’s death in 1919, Joyner was a national supervisor for more than 200 Madame C. J. Walker beauty schools. She helped write Illinois’ first cosmetology laws in 1924, and four years later registered a patent on a permanent-wave machine, a device that automated parts of Walker’s hair-straightening procedure. A noted hair stylist herself, Joyner did styling work for such African American celebrities as Billie Holliday, Ethel Waters, and opera star Marian Anderson.
Joyner remained with the Walker firm for more than fifty years, and always credited her hair-styling experience with developing her imagination and her problem-solving abilities. She developed a host of other products, including the “Satin Tress” preparation, the predecessor of the now-ubiquitous hair relaxer. But later in life she broadened the scope of her energies to include more community-oriented and philanthropic endeavors. Part of the reason was that despite her success, she had been touched by the segregation and institutionalized racial discrimination that permeated American life.
“They talk about Rosa Parks having to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama,” Joyner was quoted as saying by the Chicago Tribune. “Well, how would you like to ride all night in a baggage car with a corpse?” she continued. On her way to a speaking engagement in Texas from Cairo, Illinois, Joyner was told to leave the whites-only cars of the train in which she was riding. Since no blacks-only seating was available, Joyner had to ride in the train’s baggage car. Resting her feet on a long box to get comfortable, she was later horrified to realize that it was a casket.
After experiences like that, Joyner was inspired to devote her considerable organizational talents to laying down the roots of what eventually became the civil rights movement. She became an associate of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s, and the two women made headlines by attending an integrated-audience concert by the Bethune-Cookman choir and facing down threats of Ku Klux Klan violence. During World War II, Roosevelt named Joyner to a women’s leadership post on the Democratic National Committee. Joyner was also a founding member of the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. She was acquainted with democratic U.S. presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter.
Many Chicagoans know Joyner as the “Matriarch of the Bud Billiken Parade,” an annual event begun by the Chicago Defender, the city’s venerable African American-owned newspaper, as a benefit for its young delivery carriers. Bud Billiken is a figure in African American folklore who works as a protector of children. Joyner organized the first parade in 1929, and under her decades-long leadership it grew into a central festival event in Chicago’s African American community. Later Joyner became the director of the newspaper’s Chicago Defender Charities, overseeing food and clothing drives and social-agency fundraising. Joyner’s fame spread when she organized a widely reported trip to Paris by 195 young African American cosmetologists to learn new techniques; she had been frustrated at the slow pace at which U.S. beauty colleges admitted African American students.
Joyner was also notable as a fundraiser for Bethune-Cookman College, an institution in Daytona Beach, Florida, that was instrumental in opening up higher education opportunities for young African American women. Much of her time in later years was spent fundraising for the school; the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers, an organization Joyner herself had founded after being cold-shouldered by white trade associations, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars. Joyner gained another patrician admirer in multimillionaire New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, a major donor who helped make possible the college’s expansion, and in the 1970s a residence hall was named after her.
Marjorie Stewart Joyner died of heart failure at her South Side home on December 27, 1994, at the age of ninety-eight. Until her death she went every day to her office at the Defender, and every Sunday to the Cosmopolitan Community Church, which she had helped to found. The Chicago Tribune noted that she had “touched the lives of millions of African Americans.”
MacDonald, Anne L., Feminine Ingenuity and Invention in America, Ballantine, 1992.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Book II, Gale, 1996.
Chicago Reader, September 11, 1992, p. 9.
Chicago Tribune, December 29, 1994, p. Chicagoland-11.
Jet, January 16, 1995, p. 54.
Mothering, Summer 1994, p. 98.
—James M. Manheim
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