One of the legendary historic houses here in the Hudson Valley is Villa Lewaro in Irvington, built by America’s first female self-made millionaire, Madam C. J. Walker. Orphaned at age 7 and unschooled, Madame Walker went from working as a domestic servant in childhood to extraordinary success and influence by formulating, manufacturing and marketing skin- and hair-care products specifically for African American women. She hobnobbed with the likes of Langston Hughes, Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune and W. E. B. DuBois, became a highly respected philanthropist, trained thousands of women to become independent entrepreneurs and hosted conferences of the Black intelligentsia of the early 20th century in her Italianate mansion.
“I’ve always known about Madam C. J. Walker. She’s an inspiration to me,” says Janice Butcher, who has just opened JBee Beauty Supply in New Paltz. The town’s first and only emporium for beauty products for women of color, JBee represents the culmination of a longtime dream for Butcher, a Harlem native who came to New Paltz as a SUNY student in 1984. “When I first came up here to go to school, I’d have to go back down to New York City to get products or have my hair braided. It was cumbersome,” she recalls. “At that point they didn’t really have anything.”
The problem, for young Butcher and many others, was that products designed for white people’s hair types simply didn’t serve the needs of Black people. “Our hair, when it’s messed with too much, the hair breaks off. That’s because the follicle is smaller, which is what creates tighter curls,” she explains. “My type of hair is naturally dry because the coils are tight.” She notes, however, that “Everyone’s Black hair isn’t dry. After years of knowing your hair, you know what you can and can’t do, because we’re all so different.”
The products that Black consumers wanted, but couldn’t find in stores catering to a mostly white clientele, included many moisturizing treatments, such as what Butcher describes as “real hair grease,” made by Royal Crown, Queen Helene Cholesterol conditioner and another literally called Hair Food. One popular manufacturer was Dax, which made pomade, shampoo and a product for men called Dax Wave, as well as pressing oil: “When you straighten your hair, you need that.” Relaxers were hard to find in the days when white women were mostly getting perms, and most colors and rinses weren’t designed to work with Black hair.
In her youth, Butcher says, “I used to wear my hair in braids, but I couldn’t get hair to braid in.” These additions — which can be either synthetic or more expensive human hair — serve not only to lengthen the braids, but also to help protect own’s own hair from breaking off. The extensions can simply be braided in, or woven, crocheted, sewn to existing hair or even glued in. “I don’t recommend gluing,” cautions Butcher.
To accommodate her underserved clientele, JBee’s carries both synthetic and human hair, instant ponytails (“They’re popular with Latinas,” she says) and dreadlock twists. On the highest shelves are displayed a wide selection of wigs in many colors by manufacturers such as Vivica Fox and Beverley Johnson. “I have to get some grey wigs. They’re hard to find,” she notes as she gives HV1 a tour of the shop.
Butcher makes a point of carrying some of the old “classic” hair care products of her youth, along with newer variations. Brands on display include All Ways Natural, Doo Gro, Murray’s, Africa’s Best Organics, Fantasia IC, Blue Magic, Just for Men, Sanek, New Era, Barbicide, Mane n’ Tail, Dark and Lovely, Lustrasilk and many more. She offers a smaller selection of skin care products as well, including fade cream and lotions, and plans to expand those lines as well in the future. But the main focus here is on, well, manes.
As with the various shades of skin color among people of African American descent, there’s a whole social hierarchy around hair types, Butcher explains. She’s not a fan of people being told, “You have good hair,” because “good” can imply “more like European hair.” “You get judged by your hairstyle,” she says. “I used to wear a wig sometimes when I went on job interviews.” It wasn’t until 2022, when the US Congress passed the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, better-known as the CROWN Act, that discrimination based on hairstyle and hair texture became illegal. Her own youngest son Devin was forced to shave when he joined the wrestling team at New Paltz High School, she recalls.
So, the addition of a beauty products shop to serve people of color in the community represents an important step toward lessening some of the extra daily challenges of “existing while Black.” Butcher, who majored in Psychology with a concentration in Special Education and spent most of her professional career working in human services at the County and State level before taking early retirement last year, has done a lot of work with young people in her life. In 2015, she was inspired to create JBee’s parent company, Brains & Beauty, whose “whole point was to allow women and men and children to realize that they were ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ — to feel empowered.”
Today, she envisions her new shop as “a place for people to heal and be yourself: a safe place, more than just a store.” The motto of the company is “Be Strong, Be Beautiful, Be You.” The walls are painted a soothing shade of orchid, and Butcher keeps the lights low when customers aren’t examining the products. Behind soft draperies is a back room where a cosmetologist takes clients a couple of days each week; Butcher’s collection of miniature elephant figurines parades along one counter where sinks used to be, when this space – part of a suite at 1-3 Henry W. DuBois Drive — was home to Jem Hair Salon.
Outside the door, a poster of Madam C. J. Walker includes a quote from the pioneering businesswoman: “Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come – get up and make them.” Here in New Paltz, a modern-day Madam Walker is blazing a comparable trail. Come on in, say hello to J. B. herself and check out the wonderland of hair care products between noon and 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at JBee Beauty Supply.
A Grand Opening with refreshments and a free gift for the first 100 customers is planned for Wednesday, April 26 from noon to 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/Jbeebeautysupply or @jbeebeautysupply on Instagram.