Willie Morrow, Inventor of the Afro Pick and Leader of the Black Community, Dies

Whether Willie Lee Morrow invented hair care products, founded and ran local media, or taught haircut techniques to the military, he was remembered as someone who always worked to uplift the black community in San Diego and beyond.

The hairdresser, chemist, entrepreneur, author, inventor Afro pick and hairdressing pioneer Jheri curl died on June 22 at his home, surrounded by his family. He was 82 years old.

Cheryl Morrow said Wednesday that the salon her father started in San Diego in 1959 and the hair products he invented in the 1960s and 1970s came from his desire to serve the black community by making resources available in their neighborhoods.

In this undated photo, Willie Morrow demonstrates his hairdressing techniques.

(Cheryl Morrow)

Initially, Willie Morrow offered his hair care services, then expanded his hair products business and used the profits to start a radio station and newspaper in the same commercial building as his hair-related businesses. Media companies provided community engagement and affordable advertising opportunities for small business owners.

“He just believed that the community was the source of the economy,” said Cheryl Morrow. “That you shouldn’t have to step out of your own community for the resources and wealth you needed. It should be in your community.

“And it just so happens that because of the cultural iconography of black hair, it was such an industrial powerhouse that it funded other things,” she said.

A barber in a suit uses electric clippers on a man with an Afro

The United States Department of Defense enlisted Willie Morrow to teach haircutting and cutting hair in war zones and on military bases.

(Cheryl Morrow)

Born October 9, 1939, into a sharecropping family in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Willie Morrow taught himself the basics of hairdressing and chemistry, then used those skills to lay the foundation for his hair care empire.

In the 1970s, the United States Department of Defense enlisted Morrow to teach haircutting and haircutting on military bases and in war zones. After his military service, Morrow wrote many books on hairdressing and cutting.

He also met and married his wife, Gloria Morrow. They had been married for 56 years at the time of Willie Morrow’s death and the couple had two daughters.

Cheryl Morrow said her father enjoyed growing vegetables and making his own wine, something he learned growing up on the farm.

He also collected objects, including old hairdressing tools. Many items from his collection were displayed in a 2016 exhibit on black hair culture at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido.

Willie Morrow stands in front of a building with the Morrow Publications Office, shaving clinic and barbershop

Willie Morrow used the profits from his hair care business to start a radio station and a newspaper in the same commercial building.

(Cheryl Morrow)

State Assemblyman Akilah Weber (D-San Diego) said Morrow was an inspiration to many.

He “was the embodiment of America’s promise,” Weber said in an email Thursday. “He grew up in a family of sharecroppers in the south, and through hard work and his own ingenuity, he built a multi-million dollar hair care business and a media empire. He embraced his community and became the protector of rare and priceless black art and artifacts. He opened his doors to young entrepreneurs and shared invaluable lessons not only for success, but also for starting over and rebuilding from scratch. He will be remembered for his many inventions and connection to the curl phenomenon and for his devotion to family.

Longtime San Diego radio personality William “Tayari” Howard said he met Morrow in 1970 while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard. Howard was looking for a barber to cut and style his afro, and a local business owner suggested Morrow.

Howard received haircuts from Morrow — “my personal barber, friend and mentor,” Howard said — for the next 19 years.

The men discussed Howard’s interest in broadcasting, which both of his parents had done. Later, when Morrow took over XHRM 92.5 FM, Howard went to work for him.

“His entrepreneurial skills were out of this world,” Howard said Thursday. “Always come up with new ideas to make money and give back.”

Howard called Morrow a philanthropist who also mentored aspiring young broadcasters in the late 1980s.

“Working for the man was a blessing,” Howard said. “I learned a lot from him. I give him credit for mentoring me in a broadcasting career that spanned 50 years in San Diego. He left a really good impression on me.”

Shane Harris, a San Diego-based activist and founder of the People’s Assn. of Justice Advocates, said Morrow’s work helped redefine what was considered “neat” and “professional” when it came to black hair. Black people no longer needed to put their hair up, straighten or braid it to be perceived as having their hair styled and styled — or to be taken seriously, he said.

Morrow, he said, gave black people “the tools they needed to style their hair the way they wanted. But he also worked hard to change the perception in America that natural black hair is something that isn’t “groomed” or “professional.”

Willie Morrow is survived by his wife, Gloria; their daughters, Cheryl and Angela; and many members of his extended family. A memorial service will be held July 15 at Bayview Baptist Church in San Diego. Cheryl Morrow said the family will announce the time of the service and other details in the coming days.

James C. Tibbs