Call her flamboyant. Call her ambitious. Call her confident. DeCharlene Williams has defied the odds in running a business in Seattle's...
Call her flamboyant. Call her ambitious. Call her confident. DeCharlene Williams has defied the odds in running a business in Seattle’s Central Area since the 1960s.
In her beauty shop at 2108 E. Madison St. — where the clientele is about 75 percent black and 25 percent white — shelves, corners and closets hold colorful wigs, hats and fur-trimmed dresses that create a kaleidoscope of couture.
Dotting the walls are plaques and certificates of appreciation from local government, civic groups and elected officials, including one she received last month from Blacks in Government for “accomplishment in advancing Black progress, especially in the areas of civil rights and community and economic development.”
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When people doubted her ability to run a beauty shop, she worked extra jobs to keep it going. When most of her friends and neighbors opted for conservative dark hairstyles, she wore hers blond, or red, or purple, or pink.
For all her independence, however, Williams doesn’t claim to have gone it alone. Instead, she credits her longevity to the power of prayer and the support of her community.
It began with a dream
As a toddler, DeCharlene — then just Charlene — moved from Texas to Portland with her mother, who took a job in a shipyard. Williams said she was about 4 when she began to have a sense of what she’d like to do in life.
“When I was a little girl I had a dream that I always wanted to be a businesswoman and own my own shop, my own beauty shop. I loved to do hair.
In her own words
“I came from a broken home, my mother was ill and I had a stepfather who was not a very good stepfather and so I started off working hard. I started working when I was 10. I received my first Social Security card in 1956. I was 13 years old, and I still have it. And I look at it. I refer back to it.
“And ever since I got that card I said, ‘Boy, I have to work.’ So I started working, picking beans and strawberries, and I enjoyed that. It’s hard work but I always said that all the hard work you do, just put love in it and you’ll begin to like it.”
Occupation: Owner/operator of DeCharlene Beauty Shop & Boutique and DeCharlene Beauty & Barber College.
Background: Born in Texas in 1943, came to Portland at age 2, moved to Seattle as a teenage bride in 1959. Opened her first beauty shop in 1965; founded the Central Area Chamber of Commerce in 1983; wrote a history of Seattle’s Central Area in 1990 and added a second volume in 1996.
Family: Married twice. Mother of Anthony Williams of Bremerton and Rita Green of Seattle. Grandmother of seven.
Moving to the big city, Seattle
At 15, she married a Marine corporal seven years her senior, telling him she was 17. When he moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, she followed, and the city took her by surprise.
“When I first got up here I was kind of afraid because I was kind of close-knit to my mother. My mother was sick at the time, and I didn’t want to leave Portland to come to Seattle, and I thought Seattle was a big place. Ooh, it was big.
“See, in Portland I was in an area on the northeast side and it was more black and that was more my surrounding. And then when I came up here it seemed like there were less black people.
“My husband told me about Edison, Edison Technical School here [now Seattle Central Community College]. I couldn’t go to Garfield because I was married; even though I was a teenager I couldn’t go there. So I had to go to Edison, and my husband paid for my education.”
First salon: 3 chairs, 3 jobs
After getting her high-school diploma in 1960, she attended Edwards Beauty School, graduating in 1961 and passing her state beautician exam on her first attempt. After several years of work at other people’s shops, she felt ready to make a big step…
In her own words
DeCharlene Williams recalls opening her own salon. (1:03
“I opened up my own salon in 1965 at 2501 East Union and I worked three jobs to finance myself because I was a divorcee at that time and you couldn’t get a loan, and I figured a loan you’d have to pay back so I worked three jobs. I worked at Fircrest [caring for developmentally disabled children] and Seattle Tennis Club [as a waitress] and I did hair. I worked all three of those jobs and I was a mother of two.
“I opened with three chairs. I had a lady named Tommie [Sander] work for me and a woman named Odessa Brown worked there, and you know the Odessa Brown Clinic? That was the lady that worked for me … and she said, ‘Charlene,’ she said, ‘You’ve got to be a very, very good manager and very personable. So we’ll do well here, but you have to manage everything well and make sure you pay your bills and we’ll be fine,’ so I did.”
(Odessa Brown, mother of four and advocate for better health care for Central Area children, died of leukemia in 1969 at 49. Named in her honor, the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic was opened in 1970 by Children’s Hospital & Regional Medical Center.)
Some weren’t sure she’d make it
Williams knew the road to success wouldn’t be easy, and some people had no hesitation airing their doubts.
“They were skeptical because I was black and never had experience and you know, being black you don’t have the financial backing. And people tried to discourage me from running a business because they didn’t have very many women in business at that time.
In her own words
“I put my creative ability to work and opened up a cute little shop and it was purple and gold — purple, gold and white.
“I didn’t have money to advertise, so I would go around and knock on the neighbors’ doors and let them know I was there and opened a shop and come get their hair done, support the shop in their community.
“I was discouraged because the telephone man came in and he said, ‘Oh, you’re not going to make it here.’ He says, ‘I put a new telephone in this location, it seems like every six months I’m bringing a new phone out here.’ He said, ‘So you won’t make it here for some reason.’ So I told him that remains to be seen. I think I would make it.”
An unconventional approach
Williams surprised people not only by staying in business but by her creative — some would say outlandish — approach to style.
“Black people wasn’t wearing frosted hair at the time, and I started them wearing colors like red and blonds and that kind of thing, and they were all afraid to wear hair coloring. For some reason they thought it was strange and you would be condemned for wearing streaks and color in your hair.
“And then I started wearing colored hair. And the color that I was wearing was pink, purple, green and blue — I wore colors like that that match my clothing and, oh, everybody in town talked about me because I wore pink and purple hair. And people would come just to look at it, and then that brought me customers.
“And then people would say, ‘Can she do anything else outside of this pink and purple hair? I would like my hair done but I don’t want no pink, no purple, no blond in it. Just a regular straight hairdo.’ So I started doing it and they said, ‘Ooh, it’s the best that I’ve had.’ And the key to my work, and it still is today, is a good shampoo. And I massage the scalp.”
The Afro: symbol of black pride
In the latter part of the 1960s, with the civil-rights movement gaining momentum nationally and in the Northwest, popularity among African Americans grew for a hairstyle that was also a cultural statement.
In her own words
“The Afro came in 1967 and it came in because blacks were fighting for our civil rights and self-respect and it was an identity thing. James Brown had made a song, you know, the singer James Brown, who said, ‘I’m black and I’m proud. I’m black and I’m proud.’ And he said that’s what you tell people.
“This was during the time when we was going from a Negro — they used to call us Negroes — to being Afro-American.
“So we were trying to change the identity of black people, and we had Martin Luther King out there. He was trying to make people give respect to black people and get it so that black people could go to a restaurant and sit at the counter and stuff.
“Stokely Carmichael came to Seattle so I got an opportunity to present an Afro hairdo to the Black Student Union up at Bellingham. … So we went up and did a fashion show and we had different Afro hairdo styles there so people could see how you wear an Afro hairdo, because at the time people were getting their hair pressed and waved and that kind of thing.
“So I helped promote the Afro hairdo. It was a way that we cut the hair and we washed the hair and we would put it on curling rods and we would just pick it out, y’know, to make sure it stayed kinky-like.”
In 1968, Williams moved to her present shop, spending $35,000 for the building which had housed a barber shop, beauty parlor and real estate office. But inner-city crime, a police-payoff scandal and pressure she feels was prompted by people with other plans for her property extracted a toll.
“They would just come in sometimes and just vandalize my place, just tear up everything in here like break up my chairs, furniture, throw stuff all over everything to try to discourage me. And I would clean it up, pray and keep going.
“What kept me going was prayer. People in the community would come — I had an older lady came and said she had a gun and ran some people out of here because her mother used to buy all her hats here. And it was the community that kept me in business here because they wanted me to stay here. Love of the community. That’s the only way I was able to stay here.”
A chamber is born
In the 1980s, serving as a member of Mayor Charles Royer’s Small Business Task Force, Williams founded the Central Area Chamber of Commerce to help neighborhood businesses seek solutions to common problems. Her connections to the Royer administration also helped her land a grant to write a short book on the area’s history, plus a business directory and a calendar of community events.
“There was so much crime in the area. There was a lot of drugs and the merchants that we had were like distanced between each other …
In her own words
“So I formed the chamber in 1983, and Charles Royer helped me. He had a staff person that worked with me. Out of forming it, I came up with an idea that we needed a youth pride program because we had a lot of children that was not working and the children were selling drugs, and I said if you give them some money they will not sell drugs, because most of the people in this area were low-income people.
“So we would hire them, we would train the children on a sense of pride, a sense of pride in the neighborhood, and I said if they start cleaning it up they won’t put all this junk and stuff on the ground. Which was good, and that’s what happened.”
Neighborhood in right direction
Across the street from her shop these days is a Starbucks and a new Safeway store, emblematic of a positive direction she feels the area is taking.
“Madison right now is on its way up. I prayed for this day to come. I stuck in here and hung in here.
In her own words
“We have all races of people in here and that’s what I wanted, a mixture of people … I see a growing community, a neighborhood that can become a community.
“What I hope that the developers would understand the prices on the rents are a little too high. I hope they’ll understand that they’re going to have to lower the prices so we can get people in and get them filled up.
“But we have some good things coming in this neighborhood. We have Boeing [Employees’] Credit Union. We have a bank across the street. We have a supermarket which we lost way back in the ’60s. Up the street we have some nice stores up there, health-food stores and that kind of thing. So I see that it could be a good people’s place.”
Grandchildren: pride, optimism
Despite progress that has been made on civil-rights issues, Williams doesn’t expect things to come easily for her seven grand-children, ages 9 to 19.
“What I tell them about race is, ‘Love everybody.’ I don’t teach my grandchildren about race. I teach them about individuality … I teach them to be their own self … stay focused on what they want to do and find their niche in life and work it.
“We have not won the battle in race, we still have a race problem here. [But] if they know who they are and plan their work and work their plan, then you just override it. I’m black, and I wasn’t expecting no one to give me something. I know that the only way you can get something is you have to work for it.”
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org