“To interview me, you have to spend a day. There’s too much here,” said June Terry as she flipped through the heavy pages of one of her many photo albums. “I tell everybody, don’t come and stay half an hour because you’re wasting your time and half of mine. There’s too much history here.”
Walking into June Terry’s midtown Manhattan apartment is like stepping into a time capsule of 1960s black culture. She’s a woman who has seen it all and done it all, and she has photos, artwork, and memorabilia to prove it. The self-professed jack-of-all-trades has worked as a nurse, a banker, sales person, a designer working primarily with African prints, a costume maker, dancer, and world traveler. She shares fond memories of black life in Washington D.C. where she grew up before integration became a reality. While many of us have read about Black Wall Street, Terry recalls it first hand.
But it was when she modeled her hair in a single ad campaign for a product called Raveen Au Naturelle featured in Ebony magazine in 1968 that she became a noted symbol of Afrocentric black culture. Her barber, Bob Keyes (who does her hair to this day), asked her to be a part of the ad. He gave her the usual: a fluffed out fro complete with a widow’s peak. Once the ad came out “The First Lady” of natural hair is what she was dubbed. It was a title she earned despite the ad since she had started the process of going natural since the early 1950s.
We spoke to Terry about what inspired her to go natural before most women, why she feels integration killed the black community, and the reason she considers herself a queen.
BCB: What’s the secret to you being so vibrant at this age and at this stage in life?
JT: I just celebrated my 85th birthday June 12th. As the oldest of 6 children, I had to do things that most kids that age did not do. I grew up in segregation in Washington, D.C. I helped my father with his business, which was a tailoring business, so I learned how to sew by 11 years of age. I did men’s clothing. During World War II we cut down Eisenhower jackets, which were very popular in that area. We lived in a house but it had no running water really and no bathrooms, but we adjusted to the situation. Living in segregation was like living in an African village. We went to schools with all black teachers, which was fantastic because they taught us to be who we were. We had to excel in everything, like handwriting. My handwriting is better than any young person today. We had to sit erect, we could not cross our legs a certain way, you had to keep your feet flat on the floor and you had to be sitting upright even when you were sitting in your classroom. We had to share. That’s the beautiful part of being black then—sharing. You lived in a community and everybody shared, no one starved, no one needed any clothing, or a pair of shoes. If our shoes got to small we passed it down to another person who needed it for their child. If they needed a coat and I had more than one, you passed it down. So it became a real tight tight village, and I didn’t see this until I went to Africa and we went to different villages and saw how people shared. You went to this village, then that village and you saw how the make up was. I said, it was the same thing we’ve been doing all along but didn’t know.
I loved that life and I am so sorry we integrated. Everybody says, ‘why would you feel that.’ Segregation, it gave us some closeness that we need—the faith, the understanding, the security that we need. No one bothered us. You never heard of a child being attacked because we were segregated. It was just beautiful. Everybody looked out for each other.
I cried when we were integrated. I was a part of the movement. I was in, you name it, every organization. I went out my house everyday to fight. I used to tell my kids if I didn’t get back, call your grandmother or something like that. I thought what we were doing was fighting to be equal. We really wanted equality. They never gave it to us to this day. As soon as we integrated, they knew where we lived, what we do, and everything. During segregation they couldn’t figure us out. All they know is that they saw well dressed black people. ‘How did they get to dress like that?’ I had leggings that had buttons on it. Leather leggings. White people didn’t have that because they couldn’t afford it. It was what we called, ‘Poor white trash.’ When they called us Negros, we used to laugh. My father always said we are Africans. He made us say that everywhere I went in this world. I never was a negro, I never saw a land that said negro land or anything like that.
I did tailoring making men’s suits and coats that normally a boy child would do. Then I said I wanted to do ladies dresses and things. It was just so fun that you can go downtown and buy some fabric, which was like, $.75 or $1 a yard, and a print of whatever you wanted. I made my first skirt it was little apples on it. I made a broomstick skirt.
The stores downtown on 8th street, you could not go into those stores. You can look in the windows, which was beautiful for us to look in windows and see how people dress and say, ‘oh my God. Look at what that white lady got on.’ But in our brains we knew how to keep that image in our minds and go home to make that dress. We would put our little hats on our heads and our little white shoes in the summer time. I still have crochet gloves, lace gloves, I got leather gloves, and that’s what you did.
BCB: So there was a sense of pride?
BCB: Do you feel like that went away once integration happened?
JT: It was different for the dressmaker who was making dresses in her house for years. Everybody ran down to the white man’s store. ‘We don’t want Ms. Ann dress no more, we go downtown to buy a dress.’ So all the black restaurants that cooked up the good food, they started decreasing because everybody went downtown and ate in white restaurants, which they had to wait for days to be served. You didn’t know if they spit in the food or not. But they were like, “I gotta go down to Mr. Charlie restaurant now. I ain’t going to Ms. Ann restaurant no more.” That type of attitude. It was really bad. They still stayed in the black neighborhood. They tried to survive but they couldn’t survive. We were like Tulsa. This was Black Wall Street. I don’t know if you heard of the place.
BCB: Yes I have.
JT: That was really a true story. That’s how it was in Washington too. You lived in a black neighborhood, you went to a black school. You didn’t see white people. They never came to our neighborhood unless they came to pick up their maid or something. Eleanor Roosevelt was the only white person who would come to the neighborhood during Christmas time with a truck of toys to give us. I remember she came one time and gave me a white doll. I gave it back to her. Having a white doll to me represented, ‘this is what your life would be, taking care of white children.’ I knew I was never going to do that unless I was a schoolteacher. I found a white doll one time and I painted her black with black shoe polish [laughs]. My mother said, what did you do that for? I said, I want to make her pretty. She said, who told you black is pretty. I said, mother black is the most beautiful thing in the world. She could never forget me saying that but I always let her know. The blacker you are the prettier you are and I just believe that to this day.
BCB: When did you become a legend for your hair? When did that start?
JT: It really started in Washington. We had long thick hair. We used to get it pressed. Every Friday and Saturday night we went dancing. Oh boy that’s when they had live bands. So in the early 60s I’m on the train sweating and my hair was just so thick, I could feel it rising. I saw my reflection and said, wow, that looks like a werewolf over there. I said, ‘oh my god, that’s me.’ I went right to my brother who is a barber and had him cut my hair. [he was hesistant]. I told him, please cut my hair. I went out and bought a bottle of red wine. We were drinking and I begged him to cut my hair. I wanted to be natural. Although I wore it in the natural state, we pressed our hair. I never had a chemical in my head. I remember as a child I saw a picture of an Ethiopian. I remember her hair was almost like this, pulled down in the front. I went home and I tried to do that but I had this long hair and it was thick. I told my mom, when I get grown I’m going to cut my hair. So I sketched a picture and told my brother to cut it like that.
Every night I would put it in little curls and everything, so when I picked it, it stood out nice. That was about 1961, ’62, ’63. I was the first person who started going natural.
One year I said I can’t take this no more. I’m going to lose my job. Then there are days they want you have long hair. So he cut it in 1967. Then 1968 I wore and African dress. I worked in a bank. We always had to wear suits and be very tailored. That day I wore an African dress to the bank. Everybody was shaking my hand telling me it was nice working with me. I went against the dress code. Then the Vice President of the bank called me to his desk. He looked at my head and said I love it. Why don’t all black people wear their hair like that? Why do they want to look white? Then he said, ‘that dress, where did you get that dress from?’ I said I made it. He said, ‘you made that? Oh my God, can you make my wife something like that? We have to go to an international party.’ So I made his wife a long dress.
BCB: When did Ebony Magazine feature you in the ad that made you famous?
JT: 1968 that photo came in EBONY magazine. This guy name Bob Keyes, he was at the Harlem Y. We went into a studio. He’s the one that cut everybody’s hair in the photo. At 135th street, the Harlem Y, that’s where the barber shop used to be. Everybody knew him, all the stars and everybody who was somebody came there to get their hair cut. When I came there to get a hair cut, there would be people standing outside just clapping as I walked out. People had started to wear their hair natural then, but they had never seen this style [afro with a widow’s peak].
He was 19-years-old when I first met him. I was doing this show at the renaissance ballroom. This little young man came up to me. He said I would like to comb your hair. He said I’m a barber. So he gave me his card and he came in the dressing room and he picked all of our hair and sprayed afro sheen on it.
EBONY approached him to do the styles. They did two pages, front and back. Then the other page was with the men, front and back. Richard Roundtree was in that group. Then they came after me because all these wig makers wanted to make a wig to look like my hair. But I refused because they offered me 1% and they were going to make millions. That ad went all over the world. Every country I went to they saw it and they recognized, that’s the lady in that magazine. We were in Buffalo and they had a huge sign and then they had my face circled and all the other girls all around. It was fantastic but it hurt too because with all that money EBONY made, I only got paid $200. That was in 1968. I must have been 39 going on 40. Around then, people would look at you and say, ‘Hey, you with that afro. It ain’t gone last long.’ Even my mother said, ‘Well when are you going to press your hair.’ I said, mother never. She would get angry with me and say, ‘You can’t keep no job wearing your hair like that.’ Then I said, well then I just have to make my own job. That’s when I started my business making clothes.
The minute I would get off the plane people would be like, ‘I know that lady, she’s in this magazine.’ When I went to Ghana in 1971, they were just getting EBONY book. When I got off that plane in Accra there were so many people staring at me, it was frightening. I said, ‘I know that’s not true what they said about how they cook people. Why are they staring at me like that?’ then the little kids knew. They shouted, ‘that’s the lady, that’s the lady, hey!’ That sound went all around and everybody just stopped and looked at me. I just stood there. First I almost started crying. Then I started smiling. It was the most exciting and the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me. But then it was sort of sad too because with men, everybody was trying to hit on you because they thought you had money. It was interesting because I encouraged a lot of people to go natural.
I never thought of a different style. I never wanted anything that isn’t what I am. People would ask me to color it. When my hair was grey, guys would say you would get a lot of dates if you color it black or brown. I’m not dying my hair.
Some jobs said the couldn’t accept my hairstyle because it was too tall, and if I wore it at an inch it would be alright. I said no I just have to take them to court and I did. Then when I won, I didn’t want the job anymore. I just wanted to let them know that you can’t tell a black woman the way she should wear her hair.
BCB: How do you feel now seeing so many young girls wearing their hair natural?
JT: I praise them. Really I praise them every time I see them.
BCB: You refer to yourself as a queen.
JT: Yes, Queen Ferandun (an African name given to her).
BCB: Why is that so important to you?
JT: I just feel that in ancient times we were all kings and queens. And through slavery, it was the way we carried ourselves. The endurance, the pride that we had, keeping the family together, we worked soil and land, we were growing things, and we passed this off to your children, this ability to take care of your children. The way I grew up, we knew everybody on our block. We knew everybody in the neighborhood. I took on this queenly thing. Even when I worked in a bank I asked for a special chair. So the manager said, ‘Why do you want that chair?’ I said, ‘Well I’m a queen, I have to sit higher than others.’ He looked at me and hurried up and ordered that chair, like, is she crazy, we’re going to get her that chair [laughs]. If you really put yourself out there and make people respect you, they will.
Click through the gallery above to see more photos of June Terry and pictures from her personal collection.