Willie Lee Morrow, a trailblazer in Black hair care, passed away in his San Diego home at 82 on June 22. Morrow, a firm believer in hair as a form of self-expression, is credited as the first person to manufacture plastic Afro picks in the United States and developing the chemical curl process we all know as the Jheri Curl. Morrow’s daughter Cheryl confirmed pneumonia as the cause of death, according to the Washington Post.
The son of sharecroppers, Morrow started cutting hair around age 12 in his Alabama hometown. He created a makeshift barber chair out of a tree stump. In 1959, Morrow relocated to San Diego, where he established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the Black hair care industry.
After publishing “The Principles of Cutting and Styling Negro Hair” in 1966, the U.S. military approached Morrow about creating a program to train stylists to care for Black hair. Around the same time, he began developing a chemical curl process for Black hair. The product, launched as the Tomorrow Curl, gained mainstream success after a 1977 rebrand, where the name changed to the California Curl. The line took off when Jheri Redding, responsible for Redken and Nexxus products, developed an adaptation of the product most folks know as the “Jheri curl.”
If all of that wasn’t enough, Morrow also created the combs and hair dryer attachments stylists use to straighten Black hair. He founded San Diego’s first Black radio station as well as The San Diego Monitor newspaper. A successful businessman, Morrow used some of his fortune to support the civil rights movement.
In 400 Years Without a Comb, a 1973 book Morrow published about the history of Black hair care, he stressed the importance of hair as a form of self-expression. “Hair is the basic, natural symbol of things people are or want to be everywhere, and the social-cultural significance of hairstyle should not be underestimated,” he wrote.