The nation's largest African-American beauty show turns 70 years old this weekend. A hair product company called Bronner Brothers puts it on twice a year in Atlanta. This weekend’s show runs from Saturday, Feb. 11 through Monday, Feb. 13.
The brand name might sound masculine, but behind it is a league of black women who overcame Jim Crow laws to lay the groundwork for the African-American hair care industry.
The Bronner Brothers International Beauty Show attracts tens of thousands of hair care professionals each year. It offers classes on topics like weaves and straightening, and it’s known for its hair style competitions.
Most of the stylists who attend are black women – and so are most of their clients. But African-American women aren't just the Bronner Brothers' target audience. They inspired this company.
The Bronner Brothers
Its story goes back to the 1930s when Dr. Nathaniel Bronner Sr. came to Atlanta.
His son, James Bronner, goes back a bit further than that to tell his late father's story. He says his father was raised in Kelly, Georgia, and one of his father's earliest memories was running from the family home after the KKK had set it on fire.
"The KKK burned down their home twice,” James Bronner explains, “so, when he came to Atlanta, he only had $20, so he started out delivering newspaper to female clients."
Nathaniel Bronner juggled his paper route and his business classes at Morehouse College. He also spent a lot of time at his sister's salon.
"He, one day, began to take hair products from his sister's salon on his paper route,” James Bronner says. “He looked at his sales and said, 'Hey, these products are selling more than the newspapers.'"
That was the first time a female hair stylist influenced Nathaniel Bronner. He got plenty more inspiration on Atlanta's Auburn Avenue. When segregation laws were in place, that was where wealthy African-Americans went to spend money at restaurants, clubs and hair salons.
“When you came to Auburn Avenue, you had to be sharp,” says Ricci de Forest, curator of the Madame C.J. Walker Museum on Auburn Avenue, which preserves the history of African-American women in hair care.
"You prepared yourself for the experience of walking up Auburn because it was that significant in terms of style and culture," de Forest adds.
That need to look sharp was good for the salon business. Women like Annie Turbo Malone and her student, Madam C.J. Walker, started franchise locations on Auburn Avenue. They were both born to former slaves and became millionaires off their hair empires.
After them came Sarah Spencer Washington. In the mid-1930s, she opened one of her Apex Beauty Colleges on Auburn Avenue. In 1939, Nathaniel Bronner graduated from that school. He was the only man in his class.
"And, I wonder what people thought of him,” de Forest says. “You've got to think. This was the 1930s. You've got a man in beauty school. You know, what was the thinking?"
James Bronner answers that question: “[Nathaniel Bronner] looked at Madame C.J. Walker and the others and saw a boldness in them. He saw them promoting their product. He said, ‘This is what is required to be successful,' so he brought it out of himself."
Through The Years
In 1947, Nathaniel Bronner and his brother, Arthur, founded their company and beauty show. During the civil rights era, the show featured speakers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. These days, it hosts stylists who work for the likes of Michelle Obama and Beyoncé.
James Bronner only has brothers, so men have always led the company. But, Bronner says, “I'm the show director now, but I plan to turn it over to my daughter one day and she will be a female face for that show and the company."
She'd follow a long line of women who made the Bronner Brothers possible.