ANNAPOLIS – Renee Fitzgerald has been going to Madame Walker’s Braidery in Suitland for the past year to have her hair braided.
It takes seven hours to complete the cornrows that Fitzgerald favors.
“I wear braids so that I don’t have to keep getting relaxers,” Fitzgerald says. The shoulder-length style usually lasts for two months.
Her experience is not unique. African American women have been braiding each other’s hair for years. But as the popularity of this ancient style has increased in recent years, entrepreneurs have moved from their living rooms into salons.
Shops have cropped up throughout Maryland, leading to confrontations between braiders and the State Board of Cosmetology, the agency that regulates beauticians. Braiding is not currently included in the definition of what it means to practice cosmetology, yet braiders are required to be licensed by the state.
On Wednesday, braiders faced with prosecution for operating without licenses appealed to the House Economic Matters Committee for relief. What started out as a hearing on a bill granting limited licenses to braiders quickly turned into an appeal for the deregulation of the industry.
Board requirements include 1,500 hours of training in an approved beauty school or two years as an apprentice in a licensed beauty salon.
These requirements present several problems for braiders. With tuition ranging anywhere from $4,000 to $8,000, they find beauty school both expensive and irrelevant.
“You can spend 1,500 hours in a course which costs thousands of dollars and come out without having learned one thing about braiding,” said Taalib-Din Uqdah, founder and executive director of the American Hairbraiding and Natural Hair Care Association.
Uqdah owns a braiding salon in the District of Columbia and said his employees earn an average $15,000 annually for just four days of work per week.
The association has been in the forefront of a nationwide movement to fight the application of traditional beauty license requirements to hair braiding industry.
In conjunction with the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, the association has sued several states to keep them from prosecuting unlicensed braiders. They have been victorious in New York, California and Florida.
In Maryland, members of Uqdah’s association have been cited for operating without licenses, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $100 and/or 30 days in jail.
“I want to make sure the committee knows that these individuals have been threatened with prosecution,” Uqdah told lawmakers.
“When the wolf is at the door, you’ll take whatever relief you can get.”
Uqdah then read testimony delivered last year by Harry Loleas, deputy Director of the Department of Occupation and Licensing.
Testifying during a hearing on a similar bill before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, Loleas conceded that the actual scope of health and sanitation involved in hair braiding is not significant enough to require state regulation. Last year’s bill died in committee.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Del. Nathaniel Exum, D-Prince George’s, asked what it would take to allow braiders simply to practice their craft.
Loleas replied that deregulation would require changing the language of the law.
This year’s bill would establish a specialty license allowing braiders to operate salons and take on apprentices, which unlicensed braiders are not able to do legally.
The bill’s sponsor called it a “natural link” to welfare reform, saying that this burgeoning industry could provide jobs to get citizens off the dole.
“We are asking people to find employment after two years [on welfare],” said Del. Adrienne A. Mandel, D-Montgomery. “We should really look at this bill as way to help people get opportunities for training and employment.”
Uqdah echoed Mandel’s sentiments. “If the state removes the entry level barriers, I can get a certain segment of the population back to work,” he said. Loleas, in an interview, said the state will hold off on prosecution of unlicensed braiders until the Legislature has acted on this bill. But at the request of Exum, the bill may be amended to accomplish simple deregulation. -30-