Madam C.J. Walker Museum honors legacy of local entrepreneurs

Ricci de Forest’s appreciation of Madam C.J. Walker’s significance in the black hair care industry led him to turn this salon from an earlier era into the Madam C.J. Walker Museum in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Historic District. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Ricci de Forest’s appreciation of Madam C.J. Walker’s significance in the black hair care industry led him to turn this salon from an earlier era into the Madam C.J. Walker Museum in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Historic District. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Ricci de Forest was breezing up Hilliard Street in his Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce when he saw a sign that made him stop the car and jump out. He was stunned to see the lettering in the window of a red brick building: Mme C. J. Walker’s Beauty Shoppe.

De Forest, a hairstylist who at the time had a salon on North Highland Avenue, recognized the writing as one of the original salons of Sarah Breedlove, aka Madam C.J. Walker, the laundress who amassed a fortune in the black hair care industry. Walker's salons, run by women who had trained as Walker agents, had closed in 1981 but right there in Sweet Auburn stood an unblemished vestige of the woman who helped hundreds of black women become self-employed and support their families and communities with their earnings.

“I was freaking out because I know the significance,” said de Forest, seated in the Madam C.J. Walker Museum which he founded 15 years ago. “Black women back in the day doing hair provided the financial foundation for the next generation. It is empowering. Once you know this history, you are obligated to let someone else know.”

De Forest, 68, would later learn the building also once housed WERD, the first radio station owned and programmed by African Americans, from 1949 to 1968. “I was enraged. How did no one bother to preserve WERD?” he said.

It would take many years, but de Forest would eventually lease the space for his own business and make it his mission to preserve and honor the historical legacy of women who served as financial pioneers in their communities and those who brought music and news to their people. “It is far more important than anything I have ever done,” de Forest said.

“That strip of Hilliard is the gateway to a section of Atlanta that is not appreciated or understood the way it should be,” said David Mitchell, director of operations for the Atlanta Preservation Center. “Ricci is a visionary. He has taken that space and instead of making it boring, has made it engaging to all the senses — sound, sight, smell and vibe. He hasn’t made it singular, he has made it open and he should be applauded for that on multiple levels.”

Madam C.J. Walker came to be recognized as the first self-made black female millionaire, but she was one of several black women, including Annie Malone and Sarah Spencer Walker, who started businesses in the hair industry that would generate sizable revenues and use a model that allowed other black women to earn money in the field as product representatives. Walker and the others were known as much for their wealth as for their philanthropic donations to educational, community and civil rights organizations.

“They were trying to uplift the race,” de Forest said. “The beauty industry has financed a whole culture. They never got the level of respectability as people in professional jobs.”

De Forest hopes his efforts help bring the women the acclaim they deserve. He knows the struggle involved in making a way when there is no clear path. Growing up in East Cleveland, Ohio, Ricardo de Forest (he later went by Ricci) was shuttled through foster homes for at least a decade. Foster care made it easy to get in trouble — he landed in the juvenile justice system as a teen — but it also prepared him to face almost anything in life, he said. When he decided he wanted to pursue a career in fashion, de Forest figured he would fly to Paris, knock on the door at 31 rue Cambon and get a job at Chanel.

It didn’t work out that way, but de Forest did make his own mark in the industry as a makeup artist for Ebony Fashion Fair cosmetics and later as an international hairstylist. When he landed in Atlanta in the early 1980s, he opened his own salon — a haven of style with tools of the trade hanging from the ceiling, mirrors suspended on invisible wires and lipstick red floors — where he served clients until the day when driving past Madam C.J.’s old salon was no longer enough.

When de Forest took over the space, the interior was the same worn-out green as the barbershop next door. The biggest find was the hair tools from the 1940s and 1950s — a pressing comb, a curling iron — that had been left behind. De Forest began curating other period items for the space, including a collection of Jim Crow era signs, other hairstyling tools and old cameras.

When he learned that WERD had been housed upstairs, he set about preserving that as well. Donated albums, some delivered by the truckload, began flowing in from visitors who supported his mission. De Forest continued investing in the space, adding large blow-up images of musicians across the ceiling and a working record player with a hand crank. While he has received some donations and has filed for nonprofit status, he has funded most of the project out of his own pocket.

The museum has been featured in several documentaries and recently made a cameo on “Love and Hip Hop Atlanta,” all of which has helped expose a new generation to the space. Visitors come to the space for special events to engage in intergenerational conversations, something de Forest sees as vital to the museum’s development. Growing up, black people had spaces where they could listen to music and debate the issues of the day, he said. “For a certain generation, they have been robbed. I wanted to make this space that version of what I had when I grew up.”

De Forest watches as museum guests gaze wide-eyed at the images in the space, the wall of thousands of albums, the signs and the tools from decades past. “They are floored with the feeling and the ambiance,” said de Forest. “They take two to three steps and the spirit attacks them.” He is transported as well to that moment, when driving down the street, he saw Madam C.J.’s name on the window and took a turn that would alter his life’s mission. “I realized how significant and selfless were the individuals that came through here,” he said. “What they did is unbelievable.”