Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Dennis Seid reports, “Melony Armstrong left Friday for Atlanta to consult with and to be part of a movie written and directed by an Oscar nominee.”
The movie, “Freedom Hair,” is about Armstrong herself and her fight more than 20 years ago to pass a bill in the Mississippi Legislature to lift what were, at the time, a host of restrictive regulations for those who wanted to braid hair. That bill eased the restrictions on teaching hair braiding. Since its passage in 2005, more than 6,000 jobs and business owners in Mississippi alone have been created.
That kind of growth within the industry wouldn’t have been possible without Armstrong’s grit and determination. She refused to settle for the status quo, and she refused to take no for an answer.
“It all started as me wanting to pursue braiding and wanting to be an entrepreneur,” she said. “I looked around my community and determined what we needed.”
At the time — in the early 1990s — Armstrong had to travel to Memphis to get her own hair braided. So she decided she could learn to braid hair and eventually open her own salon in Tupelo. She went to Atlanta to learn from a master there, and became the first professional hair braider in Mississippi in 1994.
“I started in my home, but after doing that for a while, I realized I wanted to take it outside my home,” he said. “There was a need and a demand, and also it wasn’t a good idea to have strangers in my home all the time.”
But that’s when her entrepreneurial spirit hit a wall after she contacted the Mississippi State Board of Cosmetology to see what it would take to hire and train others in hair braiding.
The board at the the time required hair braiders to complete either a 1,500-hour cosmetology curriculum or the 300-hour wigology license program.
“What was surprising was that I was told I would be learning nothing about braiding because it wasn’t taught, but I had to get the cosmetology license because that was the law at the time,” Armstrong said. “It didn’t make sense. I only wanted to braid hair, I didn’t want to do cosmetology.”
The board offered a less restrictive wigology license — even though it knew of no one that taught the course. Armstrong was told if she could find a cosmetology school that taught a wigology class, she could obtain her license the way.
“We went searching all over the state looking for school that taught wigology,” said Rev. Kevin Armstrong, Melony’s husband. “We found a school on the coast, but how could she do that driving back and forth?”
Melony asked Creations School of Cosmetology owner Carolyn Bowen Young in Tupelo if it could teach the course, but Young said she was unable to do so because she didn’t know how. Armstrong would call back every few months, but was politely turned down.
Finally, in 1997, Armstrong was told by Young that she had found a book that could be used for braiding.
“They put her in a room by herself because nobody else was taking it or would know what was going on,” Kevin Armstrong said with a laugh.
After four months, Melony Armstrong had to take the wigology test in order to get her license.
In 1999, she opened Naturally Speaking, a natural hair and skin products salon. Business exploded, and it got to the point that Armstrong needed help and wanted to teach others.
“I thought, since I had my wigology license, I could mentor others,” she said.
That wasn’t the case.
“The Cosmetology Board said, ‘Nope,'” she said.
The board said anyone else who wanted to braid hair had to get a cosmetology license. The wigology license was eliminated after Armstrong had received hers.
“It was unfair for others with the skill to have to go through all this,” she said.
A friend told Armstrong about the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law fir. With their help, she filed a lawsuit against the Board of Cosmetology, claiming its licensing requirements were unfair an unconstitutional.
After the Cosmetology Board began to introduce its own hair bill, Armstrong dropped the lawsuit and filed her own bill. With the support of local officials and legislators, a bill was signed by Gov. Haley Barbour in April 2005 that deregulated hair braiding.
Braiders now pay a $25 registration fee with the Board of Health and complete an application instead of spending thousands of dollars for a cosmetology license that didn’t even teach a single course on braiding.
Armstrong’s successful effort to pass the hair bill has in turn inspired similar successful drives in several other states.
The movie isn’t Armstrong’s first time on screen. She’s been the subject of a couple of documentaries and has been featured in Essence magazine.
She won’t star as herself in “Freedom Hair” — that role will be portrayed by Simona Brown, who starred as lead in the Netflix limited series “Behind Her Eyes.” Armstrong will have a cameo in the movie as a nurse.
The movie is written and directed by Oscar nominee Dianne Houston. Armstrong will be an executive producer of the film that will take at least five weeks to film.
Meantime, Kevin Armstrong is busy helping to get a bigger space open for Naturally Speaking. The 2,200-square foot building offers nearly three times the current space and falls in line with the success that Armstrong has had.
“I am a living witness that what someone told us: ‘Without a dream, you cannot have a dream come true,'” she said. “So have a dream, and follow your dream.”
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