Atlanta museum honors Black beauty, music pioneers

There are many incredible stories up and down Atlanta’s historic Auburn Avenue. And 30 years ago, Ricci de Forest — known professionally as Ricci International — uncovered one of them by accident.

"Riding around in Atlanta…in my little convertible, I come up Auburn and turn the corner and I glance to my left, and I see ‘Madam C.J. Walker’ on the glass," he remembers. "Slammed on my breaks, parked the car, walked over to the glass window and just started touching it."

The successful makeup and hair stylist says he immediately understood the significance of the name.

"Madam C.J. Walker was an African-American beauty pioneer — early 1900s — that established a system of marketing for her hair care products that went global," he says. "She was a global brand."

Turns out, that little shop off of Auburn Avenue had been a licensed Madam C.J. Walker beauty salon. And several years later, as he searched for a new spot for his own Ricci International salon, that name in the window called out again. So, the entrepreneur got the lease and the key to the building…and much, much more.

"We started stumbling on to beauty tools left here from the 1940s, just scattered about," he recalls. "Each bit of history that I was getting started to alter the direction that Ricci International would take."

And so plans for the salon got a makeover. Today, signs around the space denote it as The Madam C.J. Walker Museum, welcoming in visitors to help honor and preserve the legacies of Black beauty pioneers. The space is also filled with shelves of vinyl albums, paying homage to groundbreaking Black-owned radio station WERD, which went on-air in 1949 and was located in the same building.

And, of course, the goal is also to educate new generations — like Johnathan Sims, who was so taken with the space that he came on board as a partner.

"Because I’m an Atlanta native, growing up and not really knowing about the actual space, I felt like I had missed a part of history," says Sims. "So, once I came inside and actually looked around, it was like, ‘This is a goldmine. A diamond that most of Atlanta and the world needs to know about.’"

A diamond gleaming in the heart of Atlanta — and a name on the window that continues to inspire.

To donate to the museum's mission of preservation and renovation plans in the upcoming year, click here.