She Made Beauty Her Business

In 1943, Marie and Isaiah Edwards arrived in Seattle from Topeka, Kan., to work at Boeing. They found Seattle's Central Area sadly depressed. There was a high rate of unemployment and a pervasive feeling of hopelessness. But let no one underestimate the power of individuals committed to change.

``I was working the swing shift at Boeing so I had my mornings free,'' Marie Edwards explained the other day. ``I felt that black women must have a better opportunity to earn money. I decided the beauty business was a good way, so I studied, then apprenticed with Ruth Whiteside who had a beauty school at Seventh Avenue and Jackson Street. When she retired and decided to move back to St. Louis because of her health, I bought her school in 1946.''

Renamed the Marie Edwards Beauty School, and moved to 23rd Avenue and Jackson Street, the school became the focus of her 35-year career. Edwards taught her students to shape hair, but she also taught them how to shape lives.

She may not have been on the list of African- American heros President Bush cited earlier this week in his observance of Black History Month, but Marie Edwards' name would appear on plenty of local lists.

She's been honored at home and nationally for her contributions. Mayor Norm Rice declared a ``Marie Edwards Day'' last fall. And the Central Area Chamber of Commerce, founded by one of her former students, honored her with a special award for creating employment for African Americans.

In the '40s, ``. . . my school was the only beauty school for blacks north of San Francisco,'' Edwards said. ``I guess from 1,200 to 1,500 men and women graduated from it.''

DeCharlene Williams, who owns DeCharlene's Beauty Shoppe and Boutique, is one of those graduates. She also is the founder and president of the Central Area Chamber of Commerce.

``Marie has been a tremendous influence on my life and my career,'' said Williams. ``I graduated from high school when I was just 16 and nobody would hire me. I was terribly discouraged. She took me into her school and encouraged me by telling me I could be a role model for the city. I passed the state board examinations by the time I was 18. Just about every black salon owner in the city attended her school.''

Williams, in her booklet, a ``History of Seattle's Central Area, Volume I,'' says of Marie Edwards: ``She often gave speeches of encouragement and motivation . . . she and her students went into the jails, the youth centers and the women's prison to `beautify' hair. However, Marie always went one step further and talked to these women about taking control of their lives and learning marketable skills.''

In 1947, Edwards persuaded the state Department of Social and Health Services to let women receiving public assistance enroll in her school. She provided scholarships.

Then she found that the beauty salons wanted to hire people with experience, not students right out of school. So Edwards opened three salons - one in Bremerton, one in Seattle's Mount Baker District and another on Jackson Street in the Central Area - to give her students that experience.

By 1962 she was named Outstanding Beautician of the Year by Theta Nu Sigma, a national sorority of black beauticians. In 1964, she was the keynote speaker for the National Beauty Culture League at a convention in San Francisco. She also founded the Northwest Black Beautifiers/Cosmetologists in the '60s.

Several of her former students made a mark on the community.

Odessa Brown, whose name graces the Odessa Brown Children's Clinic, became a community organizer while she was still studying at Edwards' school. Her dream was to open a clinic where anyone in need could receive free medical attention. Brown died of leukemia in 1969, but not before laying the groundwork for the clinic, which opened in 1970.

Marie is not the only person of note in the Edwards' family. Her husband Isaiah was the state's first African-American delegate to a national Democratic convention, helped found a youth baseball league, worked with city officials on a proposed training program for minority firefighters, and worked at the state level to outlaw use of the choke hold in Washington penal institutions.

When the pair celebrated their 50th anniversary last summer by renewing their wedding vows at Mount Zion Baptist Church, the Rev. M.K.Curry, son of the minister who married them, flew out from Chicago for the ceremony and a number of city and state dignitaries attended.

Marie, 77, retired from the beauty business eight years ago; Isaiah retired from Boeing five years ago - ``after 40 years without missing a day,'' his wife said proudly. They continue to live in a spacious and comfortable home - near Garfield High School - that was built with their own hands.

The most rewarding part of her career?

``Training the students, seeing them develop and the successes they have made.''