Colorado’s First Black Licensed Female Barber

Entering a barbershop, people usually see a business full of men who specialize in cutting and styling men and boys’ hair, shaving faces, and grooming facial hair. Barbering is and has always been male-dominated. In fact, a USA Today article published that only 16% of the 135,000 barbers on record in the U.S. in 2017 were women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Over 70 years ago, the percentage of female barbers was even substantially lower. For the handful that chose barbering as a career, their quest to become a barber was even more arduous, especially for a Black woman. But that didn’t stop Mississippi native Lillian Beckley Wheeler, who boldly faced and conquered the double “whammy.”

Lillian Beckley Wheeler
(1900 – 1999)
(Photo courtesy of Elisa Cornish)

After earning her beautician certificate from Chicago Beauty & Barber College, this remarkable woman, who happens to be my cousin, received her barber’s license in Colorado in February 1943, at the age of 42. Cousin Lillian became the first Black woman to get a barber’s license in the state. She began her career as a beautician but soon changed to barbering full-time; she liked that better. When a news reporter interviewed the 98-year-old in 1998, she revealed, “Using those iron-hot curlers and combs on hair created a lot of smoke and the smoke made me cough. So I quit doing women’s hair and started barbering.” [1]

Lillian was born in the rural College Hill community of Pontotoc County, Mississippi, on July 6, 1900, to Cannon Beckley, a farmer and land-owner, and his young second wife, Eliza Weatherall Beckley. She was Cannon’s second youngest child of his 22 children. Cannon had been born into slavery in 1840, on Rev. William H. Barr’s farm near Abbeville, South Carolina; he, his parents, siblings, and maternal grandmother were taken to northern Mississippi as slaves in 1859. His mother, Sue Barr Beckley, and my mother’s great-grandfather, Pleasant “Pleas” Barr, were sister and brother, making Lillian to be my second cousin twice removed.

Cannon & Eliza Beckley and Family, Pontotoc County, Mississippi, taken in 1900. Eliza was pregnant with Lillian at the time of this photo, according to Lillian’s granddaughter.

Lillian was two years old when her father passed away, and she was told that she was the “apple of his eye.” She was raised in a thriving African-American “village” filled with lots of older siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins who implanted in her a spark to succeed. In an August 2006 e-mail to me from her granddaughter, Frances Farris-Bailey, she wrote, “Family was everything to my grandmother, and she attended every Beckley Family Reunion until she just wasn’t physically able to go.” The Beckley Family has been holding annual reunions since 1957.

At the young age of 15, Cousin Lillian married Thomas Mason Wheeler of Okolona, Mississippi. Two children, Lidell and Mabel, were soon born to them. In September 1924, the young family decided to leave Mississippi. While many Mississippians migrated north to Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, etc. for better opportunities, the Wheelers headed west, to Boulder, Colorado. Thomas’s sister, Lillie Belle, had moved there and advised him that Boulder would do wonders for his asthma.

Thomas and Lillian purchased a home at 1631 19th Street, which was located in Boulder’s earliest Black neighborhood known as the “Little Rectangle.” Having a very small Black population, Boulder greatly welcomed Lillian, and she did hair for most of the 100-plus African Americans there during that time. She became famously known as “Nonny.”

The Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church Victory Mothers Club Social in Boulder, c. 1940s. Standing at rear, (L-R) Esther Crysler (second from left), Sarah Belle Harris, and Lillian Beckley Wheeler, the tallest one in the picture. Lillian’s daughter, Mabel Wheeler Leathers, is seated in the foreground center. (Photo credit: McVey Family Collection, Boulder Public Library, attribution to the Carnegie Library for Local History, Boulder, CO)

Through President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) program, Lillian taught sewing classes for Whites, Mexicans, and Blacks. She also gave sewing lessons to women in her neighborhood. Her skills and the family farm allowed her and her family to survive the Great Depression. She attended Colorado State College of Education, now the University of Colorado, where she studied Home Economics in 1939-41. She taught Adult Education and Recreation at Boulder High School.[2]

Lillian loved her 40-year barbering career. She was also a business owner; she opened Mrs. Wheeler’s Barber Shop in the Dahlia Square Shopping Center in Denver. Now demolished, Dahlia Square, which was built in the 1950s, was once touted as the nation’s largest Black-owned shopping center. In 1998, she told a Denver Rocky Mountain News reporter, “I like pampering with hair and making it look good. I wouldn’t enjoy cutting a man’s hair all off. If I had the dollars from giving volunteer haircuts in hospitals and to sick people at home, I wouldn’t have to worry about nothing the rest of my life. Barbering was an excellent life, and I made a lot of friends.” [3] That year, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb designated a day in honor of her 98th birthday.

An inside view of Lillian’s barbershop in Denver, Colorado, c. 1970 (Photo courtesy of Elisa Cornish)
Lillian Beckley Wheeler (left), barbershop owner, Calvin Dacus, owner of Dahlia Lanes, Alvin Hughes, shoe store owner, and George Taylor, furniture store owner, discuss their ideas for other Black-owned shops with Joel Bernstein, Dahlia Shopping Center Manager, in 1968.
(Photo credit: John Beard, the Denver Post, August 14, 1968)

Cousin Lillian joined the ancestors on November 5, 1999, at the age of 99. She had been retired from barbering for 16 years and had sold her barbershop to Stanley Stewart, who renamed it “Stanley’s Hare.” She had trained him shortly before retiring in 1983. Stewart stated, “When I started working for her, I was working three jobs trying to make it. She told me to quit the other jobs and to work here, and if I concentrated on it, I won’t get rich, but I would make a decent living.” [4]

Lillian at the kiddie table on Thanksgiving with her great-grandchildren, Helena, Elisa, and Carlton
(Photo courtesy of Elisa Cornish)

Her great-granddaughter, Elisa Cornish, shared this special memory, “We called her Gigi, which was short for ‘great-grandmother’. Until I left for college, I saw her nearly every weekend of my childhood. My younger brother, twin sister, and I spent many Saturdays sweeping up hair in her barbershop, and Gigi would treat us to Chinese food or McDonalds. We were so fortunate to have her in our lives. Seeing her run her own business, invest in real estate, and live as a highly self-reliant and confident Black woman definitely shaped and molded me into being self-reliant and confident, too!”

Sources:

[1, 3, 4] The Denver Rocky Mountain News, “Lillian Beckley Wheeler, pioneer female Colorado barber,” Bob Jackson, 10 November 1999, p. 18B.

[2] McLean, Polly. A Legacy of Missing Pieces: The Voices of Black Women of Boulder County. Boulder: University of Colorado, 2002. pp. 42-44.

One thought on “Colorado’s First Black Licensed Female Barber

  1. msualumni

    Melvin, as usual, an outstanding post. I enjoyed hearing yet more little known “Black History,” especially something so outside of what we are used to hearing about. This post is also a master class in how to write a bio about an ancestor, so genealogists take note;).

    Lillian was a gorgeous woman, tall and stately. She is yet another example of the amazing heights that AA’s climbed. Believe it or not, my own great grandmother, Beatrice Prather, also got a certificate from Chicago’s Beauty School! Tell us, did the family members pass to you these photographs? I’m sooooo jealous!
    Robyn

    Liked by 1 person

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