Joe Louis Dudley, Pioneering Hair Care Entrepreneur, Dies at 86

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Joe Louis Dudley, who expanded a kitchen-table business that he started with his wife at the time into one of the largest Black-owned hair care companies in the Southeast, and who founded schools that trained tens of thousands of cosmetologists, died on Feb. 8 at his home in Kernersville, N.C., a suburb of Winston-Salem, He was 86.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his daughter Ursula Dudley Oglesby said.

In the 1960s, Joe and Eunice Dudley were newly married and selling S.B. Fuller beauty products door to door in New York City. Mr. Fuller — no relation to the venerable Fuller Brush Company door-to-door enterprise — was a Chicago-based Black businessman who preached a gospel of advancement through hard work and who made millions in the days when women were eager to buy cosmetics in their homes.

Imbibing his training and message, the Dudleys took their door-to-door Fuller venture to North Carolina. And when the Fuller company had manufacturing problems, they began making their own products: scalp creams, oil shampoos and pomades that they mixed at home and poured into old mayonnaise jars.

Mr. Dudley stirred the formulas in steel drums with a spatula the size of a canoe paddle. Ms. Dudley typed the labels, and their children screwed on the jar tops after the products had cooled and set overnight.

The Dudley kitchen, Ms. Dudley said by phone, was not for cooking meals.

But they soon moved their operations out of the kitchen. And after a stint in Chicago, where the Dudleys took over the Fuller business, which was floundering, they returned to North Carolina and built their first plant, in Greensboro, adding Fuller products to their own line.

They went on to open Dudley beauty schools in North Carolina, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

They also bought a radio station, a hotel and a travel agency, and built an event center. Like his mentor, Mr. Fuller, Mr. Dudley was a sales evangelist and a man of staunch Christian faith. He recruited local college students to work for him as well as people down on their luck — those who had been incarcerated or who had problems with drugs.

Employees were required to open savings accounts, and sales meetings often began with a song. It was Mr. Dudley’s practice to recast pop tunes into Dudley cheers, as he did with the Donna Summer disco hit “Bad Girls”:

Now Dudley folk know how to build

Know how to build

And they get it done with the strength of will

With the strength of will

We didn’t come to Kernersville to be sitting down

To be sitting down

We came to be the talk of the town

We’re bad Dudley

Bad Dudley

We are big bad Dudley

Beep, Beep

Uh hum

Toot, Toot

Mr. Dudley had set himself a goal of being a millionaire at 40, which he achieved. Over decades, the company’s annual sales reached $40 million.

The comedian Chris Rock once made a pilgrimage to the Dudley factory in Kernersville while making “Good Hair,” a 2009 documentary. He had set out in the film to investigate the mysteries and rituals of Black hair care — and the onerous standards of beauty and race — to answer one of his young daughter’s questions, “Why don’t I have good hair?”

The Dudley Company headquarters was a hub for Black beauty products, and Mr. Rock went there to learn in particular about relaxer, the powerful hair straightener. He was aghast at the economics: a 7,000 pound vat of relaxer, he was told, was worth $18,000.

“If you make enough Black women happy,” Mr. Rock declared in the film, as the camera panned to the Dudley mansion, “you can live like a king.”

Joe Louis Dudley, named for the boxing legend, was born on May 9, 1937, in coastal Aurora, N.C., the fifth of 11 children. His parents, Clara (Yeates) and Gilmer Dudley, were farmers who raised tobacco and sweet potatoes. Their family of 14, which included Joe’s grandfather Ballam Dudley, who had been born into slavery, lived together in a crowded three-room farmhouse. Joe, who stuttered, was held back in first grade at school after his teachers had labeled him, using the cruel jargon of the times, “mentally retarded.”

“Prove them wrong, Joe,” his mother encouraged him, as he often recalled. “Prove them wrong.”

He studied business administration at the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina (now North Carolina A&T State University), a historically Black college. It took him six years to graduate because he was also working for a time in a poultry factory.

Later, living in Brooklyn with an aunt, he saw a smart-looking young man selling beauty products in the neighborhood one day. Intrigued, he bought a $10 kit from the man’s company, which turned out to be S.B. Fuller, and began selling himself.

It was challenging at first because Mr. Dudley still stuttered. Sympathetic housewives taught him how to pronounce the product names, and he practiced at night in front of a mirror until he overcame his impediment. He met Eunice Mosley, a fellow Fuller salesperson, and they married in 1961.

Lafayette Jones, chairman emeritus of the American Health and Beauty Aids Institute, an association of Black manufacturers, said by phone that Mr. Dudley had been “a leader among Black hair care royalty.”

In addition to his daughter Ms. Oglesby, Mr. Dudley is survived by his son, Joe Louis Dudley Jr.; another daughter, Genea Dudley Gidey; his siblings, Elsie Little and William, Cornelius, Mardecia, MacArthur and George Dudley; and three grandchildren. He and his wife divorced amicably in 2000 and remained business partners.

Mr. Dudley won the Horatio Alger Award in 1995, an annual honor given in Washington to, as the organization notes, “leaders who have triumphed over adversity.” Quincy Jones, the music producer, and Don Shula, the longtime coach of the Miami Dolphins, were also given the award that year.

In 2007, a section of the Kernersville factory, where the Dudley company manufactured 90 percent of its products, was damaged in a fire, and then the recession hit. With the help of Ms. Oglesby, a Harvard-trained lawyer, the Dudleys restructured and downsized, and Ms. Oglesby became president and chief executive of the newly-formed Dudley Beauty Corp.

At his death, Mr. Dudley was still working. Ms. Dudley has no plans to retire.



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