Hoodoo and Hairdo: The Remarkable Story of Madame Hightower
The year was 1925 and thousands of African-American women throughout the South had found a specialized line of cosmetics that catered strictly to the African-American community. Golden Brown Chemical Co. of Memphis Tennessee was the premiere manufacturer of such great beauty products like Golden Brown Hair Dressing, Flowers of Liberia perfume, Golden Brown Talc Powder and dozens of other products. Golden Brown advertisements were not only prominent in the South but were soon placed in many of the nation’s black newspapers from the Chicago Defender to the Philadelphia Tribune. The company’s ads promoted an alternative for products for the African-American community. Ads promised that Golden Brown products helped one woman clear her complexion so much that it helped her win the most wonderful husband in the world. And why wouldn’t they?
You see Golden Brown cosmetics was started by an African-American woman named Madame Mamie Hightower. Madame Hightower was the exemplary example of small town woman makes it big. She started out with very little but rose to run a multi-million dollar company even in the face of racism in the South. Hightower’s image was depicted in many of the company’s ads and promotional works. Her graceful and lovely silhouette demonstrated to her customers the proof that her products were quite sufficient in bringing out the beauty in African-Americans.
Golden Brown began to build quite a reputation as a friend to the black community. In 1925 the company sponsored a national Golden Brown Beauty Contest which invited women of every race to participate for fantastic grand prizes including 5 free trips to Atlantic City, 48 genuine diamond rings just for runner-ups. The grand prize winner of the contest received a brand new Hudson automobile. Madame Hightower was truly pushing for black women in America to stand proud and display their beauty. She is quoted in an ad as saying “ I will not be content until I find the most beautiful girl of our group in America”.
Soon Golden Brown cosmetics were becoming popular outside of the South with new customer bases in areas like Chicago and New York. Golden Brown cosmetics were taking off and Madam Hightower would continue to speak to her fans through her ads and even an advice column that the company would run in many newspapers. The good Madame would build racial pride as she would encourage women “You are judged by your personal appearance, the race is judged by you”. It seemed that the Madame truly wanted women to have a sense of pride and accomplishment. This despite that fact that strangely many of the ads for the company featured African-American women turning light skinned and European as they used the company’s products.
Golden Brown really seemed to be in touch with the community as Madame Hightower opened a beauty salon on Beale Street in Memphis. Operating out of the ‘boulevard for black America’ as it was once known, Golden Brown became a trusted name in African-American products. Golden Brown began to proclaim about Beale “Handy made it famous with his blues, Madame Hightower immortalizes it with her incomparable beauty preparations”. Ads came to feature an array of beautiful women known as the ‘Famous Bobbed-Hair Beauties’. The ladies were commonly featured as being customers of Golden Brown cosmetics. Readers could order color photographs of the ladies who featured in the musical Shuffle Along which played first in Harlem and then later Manhattan.
In 1926 a trusted secret of the company came out. Madame Hightower released an ad where she shared about a gift her Aunt Nancy gave her that she believes brought her luck and ultimately financial success. Described as a ‘Ma-Jo Luck Bag’ Hightower’s Aunt gave her a magical object that was soon credited with bringing about the formation and success of the Golden Brown Chemical Co. Even better was the fact that the Madame was offering these bags to her customers as a way of continuing the relationship of preserving African-American culture in the South. The bag was deemed so authentic that one ad describes it as an ‘Algerian’ Ma-Jo Bag. This description took a nod to the reputation of Algers Louisiana that had become legendary as a place to find hoodoo related objects and services.
According to their ads Golden Brown cosmetics were now being offered in over 12,000 drugs sales throughout the U.S. Pharmacies from the white communities were carrying a line of products now being used by black and white customers. Madame Mamie Hightower’s dream was coming to fruition. The world would know her products.
In March of 1929 a single piece of paper would change this forever. A Chicago based African-American druggist who operated the Douglass Pharmacy opened his mail to find a formal letter from the Golden Brown Chemical Co. of Memphis. The letter obviously meant for white pharmacists and cosmetic shop owners described the addition of the lucky ‘Ma-Jo Bag’ now being offered by the company. The letter proclaimed “The average darky will be very glad indeed to get one of these dyed-in-the-red Luck Bags”.
The letter was sent to the attention of local newspapers and then nationally to black owned newspapers. Many in the black community wondered “How could Madame Hightower allow this?” Sadly, she couldn’t.
Madame Mamie Hightower did not exist. Not as a CEO of a company, not as a woman who received a magic luck bag that changed her life and sadly not as a rags to riches role model. Mamie Hightower was the wife of Zachary Hightower, a janitor and porter for Golden Brown Chemical Co. The company was set up as a ‘dummy company’ by the white owned Hessig-Ellis wholesale drug company and employed 35 African-American employees. In an attempt to cash in on the success of other African-American cosmetic companies Golden Brown began to feature ads recruiting African-Americans as sale agents. In October 1947 the company was charged with misrepresentation in connection with the promise of ‘free goods’ for sales agents. Another incident targeting the black community…
Even in her death announcement in October 1927 the Madame Hightower ruse was still being promoted. Deemed as an ‘internationally known beauty culturist and philanthropist’ Hightower was credited as being the ‘originator of the famous Golden Brown Beauty Preparations’.
The legacy of Madame Hightower and the Golden Brown Chemical Co. tragically is one of many incidents in Memphis hoodoo history involving racism and the exploitation of the African-American community. Hoodoo in Memphis was first feared, then suppressed then exploited. But through it all the practices and traditions rooted in African soil survived and flourished in the Mid-South.