Making 'Hairstory': Benia Davis
His mom and dad married at 17 and 21, respectively, and had 14 children. Benia Davis, one of those 14 children, knew he did not want to make the same choices as his parents, like having numerous children. In fact, he wanted none. He decided to focus on a career, but he didn't know which career yet.
It was Mississippi in the 1950s. His dad's family worked hard, but not in a job anyone would call a career. His mom's family knew all about career choices; when Davis announced he wanted to be the best, he was sent to live with one of his aunts, a privilege none of his siblings received. His mom told him to study hard since that was the only path to success. He wanted to make women look good, so even though it wasn't considered a masculine field to enter, Davis studied the cosmetology field.
He knew he wouldn't win if he used Black models for a competition, so he switched to white models and proceeded to win. He developed a following and became the first African American stylist with a white following. Cosmetology was not a popular field for Black people to enter in the South, but Davis persisted and became certified in 1971. He had become an integral member in the white world of cosmetology. But the road wasn't an easy one.
His friends and family members asked why he worked on white but not Black people. He didn't want to explain his reasoning. He was excited to be accepted in the creative field, and the white people accepted him for his pure talent. He had fallen into a specialty field where his creativity stood out. "I loved to make people look beautiful.
He joined the Association of Cosmetology, which was intended for white people. In 1968, he took the test using all white models. He was then invited to be on a panel discussion as the only Black person. As life would show what patrons in the field thought, a Black critic publicly said Davis "didn't think like a Black person." "Sometimes you have to go out of your comfort zone to get the education you want. I had always wanted to be the best, and I did what I knew I had to do to become known in the field. I experienced jealousy from my own race, so I welcomed the clients who accepted me. Even my own brothers gossiped about me."
Davis advises people to find their passion and be committed to moving forward. He opened his own salon, Benia de la Coiffures International, and was the first African American to become licensed. He then became the first style director teaching all state members, and the first and only Black person to achieve the highest rank of the Official Hair Fashion Committee. Davis has served as a judge for numerous competitions and is still adding to his lengthy list of firsts. After more than 40 years in the field, he is still an active director of cosmetology for Macy's. His work can be seen throughout the pages of top magazines and style competitions for Ms. Black America and Ms. Black Illinois. As an active 85-year-old who looks 50 and works daily, he is not thinking about retiring any time soon. He knew what he had to do and did it, and he is still winning.
Email LindseyNovak@yahoo.com with all workplace experiences and questions. For more information, visit www.lindseyparkernovak.com and for past columns, see www.creators.com/read/At-Work-Lindsey-Novak.