- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

JACKSON, Miss. - To hear one side tell it, African hair braiding is an art passed down through the generations, a form of expression that shouldn’t require any bureaucratic licensing.

To hear the other side, it’s a practice that needs to be regulated so braiders will learn about sanitation to prevent the spread of scalp diseases.

Mississippi legislators are being asked to untangle the issue this year.

State law requires licensing by the state Board of Cosmetology, and the board wants to keep those requirements in place. One legislative proposal would lift the licensing requirement but make braiders register with the Department of Health.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses, which has 5,000 members in Mississippi, is joining several braiders in asking lawmakers to lift the licensing mandate and encourage entrepreneurs.

Margaret Burden of Tupelo wants to braid for a living but said the state licensing requirements are an obstacle to her and others.

“To me, it’s not just about hair braiding. It’s about economics,” Miss Burden said. “My goodness, they talk about wanting to take women off welfare, women needing to get jobs and pay taxes. This is a way to do it.”

Valorye Whittaker, who has worked as a licensed cosmetologist in Mississippi for two years, said braiding is a part of her business. She said she braided hair before getting her license, but at the time she didn’t know how vulnerable hair can be when it is pulled and stressed.

“I did not realize until after I got my education that I could’ve damaged someone permanently,” said Miss Whittaker, who wants to keep the braiders under the Cosmetology Board regulations.

Current Mississippi law says a braider must hold one of two licenses. One is a cosmetology license, which requires 1,500 hours of education in everything from salon management to hair cutting and styling. The other is a wig specialist license, which requires 300 hours of education in how to fit, style and care for wigs.

Miss Burden is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed last year by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice. The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of Mississippi’s regulation of braiders. No trial date has been set.

The institute said Arizona, California, Kansas and Maryland exempt hair braiders from cosmetology licensing and Michigan has a voluntary licensing system. In a press release, the institute said Washington state “recently interpreted its laws so that braiders do not fall under the cosmetology regulations.”

The question of deregulation is popping up in other states, including Tennessee. State Sen. Steve Cohen, a Democrat, said he has filed a bill this year at the request of a constituent who braids.

“The cosmetologists want to keep the hair braiders down,” Mr. Cohen said. “It seems like it’s a justice issue. It’s not a health and sanitation issue. It’s control. It’s power.”

In South Carolina, Gov. Mark Sanford in December vetoed a bill that would have required hair braiders to have 60 hours of training. They now need 1,500 hours of cosmetology education.

Mr. Sanford, a Republican, said either requirement is “absurd” and the attempt to mandate 60 hours of training was “designed to protect the financial interest of folks in the cosmetology industry, not the safety of people getting their hair braided.”

The Mississippi House last month passed one version of a cosmetology bill that would remove licensing requirements for people who braid, twist or add extensions to hair without chemicals or dyes.

The state Senate altered the bill last week, voting to make braiders register with the state Department of Health and be subject to sanitation inspections. The compromise returns to the House for more debate.

State Sen. Hillman Frazier, a Democrat, says he is listening to arguments on both sides of the issue but favors minimal government interference. In his travels across the state, he said, he never heard of an outbreak of scalp diseases because of braiding.

“You could find a reason to license any group if you want to,” Mr. Frazier said. “You could find a reason to license shoe salesmen because they could cause athlete’s foot.”

Mr. Frazier said his daughter, a freshman at Jackson State University, saves money by having her hair braided by a friend who is unlicensed but is putting herself through college by charging a few dollars a head to do cornrows, twists and other styles.

Sydnia Townsend of Jackson, who is working as a head page for the Mississippi Senate this year, drives three hours north to Holly Springs to get her hair twisted once a month. She has been going to the same unlicensed stylist since 2001.

“It’s hard to find people who work with natural hair,” said Miss Townsend, 22, who sits for six hours at a time to get her hair redone.

Like many other Mississippians, she found her natural hair stylist through word of mouth. Many say hair braiding and twisting is a sort of underground economy, with work often performed in homes.

Mr. Frazier said allowing people to practice natural hair care more openly could create more taxpayers in a state that is struggling with its budget.

Melony Armstrong of Tupelo — another plaintiff in the federal lawsuit in Mississippi — said she earned a wig specialist license after being told that was what she needed to work as a professional hair braider. But she said the curriculum had nothing to do with braiding.

Miss Armstrong said she perfected the art of braiding after years of practice. She also took a weekend course, but it wasn’t offered by the state Board of Cosmetology.

Miss Armstrong has operated her own salon, Naturally Speaking, since 2000. She said she wants to hire more braiders, but she can’t find any who have the time or money to earn a cosmetology or wig specialist license.

“Other people are in the predicament I’m in,” Miss Armstrong said.

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