Long before hairdressers, stylists and unisex salons; long before Vidal Sassoon and Kenneth; ages before blow dries, chat rooms and psychobabble, there were beauty parlors where women gathered for a shampoo and set while expressing their opinions to anybody within earshot.
Gossip? Of course. Remember “Steel Magnolias” and “The Women” where ladies got the lowdown with their perms?
Mostly the beauty shop throbbed with the pulse of a community.
No different in West Southern Pines of the 1950s, where cosmetologist Dorothea “Dottie” Griffin lifted her customers’ spirits while broadening their outlook at the House of Charm. She was a fixture, an admired community matriarch and activist during the decades when segregation ruled and West Southern Pines was a self-contained area with its own stores and restaurants, service businesses and entertainment venues, schools and churches. Griffin marched, she rallied, she encouraged voting and when necessary, she spoke up for those who could or would not. Her mantra: “Let’s see what we can do about this bad situation. There’s no sense in setting around and complaining.”
Paying it forward came naturally. Griffin helped Kim Wade start her beauty business. Wade’s early commitment to the community resulted, years later, in making the video “Jim Town: A Documentary of West Southern Pines Doing Business.” Wade is now president of the Civic Club.
Dottie Griffin – the second of 14 children brought up in South Carolina during the Depression -- died on July 27, three days past her 100th birthday.
“She really wanted to get there,” says civic leader, educator and friend Cynthia McDonald.
And she did.
On the evening before Griffin’s funeral, McDonald and Dottie’s daughter Sheila Griffin, 67, reminisced.
“Talk in the beauty shop wasn’t all gossip,” says McDonald. “She taught people how to help their children, how to freeze tomatoes. She promoted education, participated in protests and walks even when she wasn’t feeling well.”
Griffin was a life member of NAACP which, McDonald says, “Cost a lot of money.” Because of Griffin, McDonald rose to the leadership of West Southern Pines Civic Club, NAACP and other organizations.
Griffin’s pound cake was legend, McDonald says. “She baked it for scholarship fundraisers but never revealed the secret ingredient.”
In addition, Griffin was known for slipping a “piece of money” into the pocket of someone collecting for a good cause. “Don’t tell anybody,” she would whisper.
Sheila Griffin has special memories of her mother.
“My mother loved my poems,” she says. “She took me to Sandhills (Community College) to learn how to live (independently). Whenever I think of a poem I will remember her.”
Dottie cared for Sheila’s special needs throughout childhood and adulthood. Family members recall how the devoted mother worried about Sheila’s care after moving to St. Joseph of the Pines. Sheila now lives in a group home; a kind volunteer drove her to visit her mother several times a week. Sheila has two brothers, one a physical therapist and one a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Armed Forces.
“Dottie stayed current with the news – she was up-to-date on political things,” McDonald says. “She’d lay into young people if they didn’t vote.”
McDonald acknowledges that, early on, Griffin was a woman ahead of her times. But perhaps not, since the time to protest injustice and spread kindness is always now.
“My mother taught me to wear nice clothes to church, not jeans like people do now,” adds Sheila. “She was so sweet.” Dottie shared her respect for a good appearance by giving clothes and free hairdos to women in need.
Dottie Griffin wasn’t the only strong woman to emerge from West Southern Pines in the hundred years that began with the 19th Amendment (1920) granting voting rights to women, continued with the Civil Rights Act (1964) and culminated in the election of the first African-American president. By sheer will, she might have lived the longest.
On a warm Saturday morning about 80 people – most too young to remember the House of Charm on North Stephens Street – came together at First Missionary Baptist Church for a celebration of Dottie’s life. Some were relatives, including her 90-year-old brother, who traveled from Washington, D.C. Others, current West Southern Pines civic leaders. Two caregivers from St. Joseph spoke of Dottie’s kind nature.
Daughter Sheila Griffin read a poem written for the occasion. The music vibrated with life. The Rev. Joshua Haire, who knew Griffin since boyhood, exuded praise:
“What a gal! She was a respected beautician, a good-looking lady who never had a bad hair day. She loved music and the color purple. That smile could charm the best out of anybody.”
Now, only a handful of residents will remember burgers from the Five Points Cafe, the Mack Shack, Miss Adelaide’s Store and Dr. Ross’ home office. Gone is the era when summer nights were spent sitting on the porch talking to neighbors and sipping Red Rock strawberry soda from Hainesworth’s while children played kickball in the street, or collected lightin’ bugs.
West Southern Pines changed in 1970 when the previously non-zoned town was designated residential. As grandfathered businesses closed new ones could not replace them. The younger, more mobile generation moved away for college and career opportunities, some made possible by civil rights legislation.
Dottie Griffin not only watched this happen, but participated both up front and behind the scenes, always impeccably dressed, not a hair out of place.
Haire, raising his eyes heavenward, sent her off with “Thank you Lord. You left this lady here a long time. She was a good Christian, a good woman.”
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com