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Willie Morrow, Black hair care pioneer, has died

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Now we're going to remember a pioneer in Black haircare. William Lee Morrow was from Alabama, but he made his name as a barber in San Diego, Calif., after he moved there in 1959.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In 1962, a family friend returned from studying in Nigeria with a gift - a wooden comb. But where a standard comb has a lot of teeth close together, this one had fewer teeth. They were longer, spread farther apart. It was perfect for teasing out curly hair.

CHERYL MORROW: That comb, African comb from the actual continent - he wanted to make it available in the Western world.

CHANG: Willie Morrow's daughter Cheryl says her father taught himself how to make and then mass produce the comb that everyone now knows as the Afro pick. But it didn't take off right away.

MORROW: It was a slow turn because when you're an innovator, you know, you're first.

SUMMERS: His time would come. The civil rights movement of the '60s inspired younger Black people to turn away from the white aesthetic of straight hair for a more natural look. And the Afro became the rage in part because it was also a political statement.

CHANG: And Morrow had since become an expert on what he called the Afro natural. He wrote books about it. And everyone, it seemed, wanted his know-how and his Afro picks. At one point, he was selling 12,000 a week.

SUMMERS: In 1969, the Pentagon, which was clueless on the subject, hired Morrow to teach thousands of barbers in the military how to style Black hair with a pick, says his daughter Cheryl.

MORROW: He taught how to hold it, how to get the most impact out of it, how to fluff the hair up and then align it and then cut it and then the art of, you know, shaving Black men in the military.

SUMMERS: By the late '70s, the Afro craze was fading. But Morrow stayed on trend. His California Curl products allowed for softer, looser curls. They were copied widely, and eventually what was later known as the Jheri Curl became the hottest style for young Black folks in the 1980s.

CHANG: His daughter Cheryl eventually took over his business, which also included a radio station and a newspaper. She says the hairstyle most associated with her father was a kind of freedom for everyone.

MORROW: Afro allowed even white Americans to just wear their hair down and straight and don't care if they go to the salon.

SUMMERS: William Lee Morrow died last month. He was 82 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "TIMID, INTIMIDATING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.