Edith Wilkins was the owner and proprietor of The Wilkins School of Cosmetology, which trained young African American women how to offer cosmetology services. Her cosmetology school was renowned throughout Ohio even though Edith Wilkins was not originally from Ohio. Edith Wilkins was born in Plumville, Arkansas, in 1893 and attended Poro College of Cosmetology in St. Louis. She also attended the Academy of Beauty Culture in Cleveland and Molar College in Chicago. In 1918, Edith and her husband George moved to Cleveland with their two daughters as part of the Great Migration.
In Cleveland, Edith certainly found fertile ground for a beauty shop and beauty school because Cleveland in the years to come was a magnet for tens of thousands of Black women who continued to flow into the city from the South for the next forty years. In other words, there was a growing market for haircare due to a growing population in Cleveland. In 1918, she operated her first beauty shop out of one room in her home on old Pine Avenue near East 30th Street until she acquired a larger space at East 43rd and Outhwaite Avenue. She stayed at this second location until 1924 when she moved to a larger more upscale beauty shop at 3812 Scovill Avenue. She then moved to East 40th and Scoville due to the eastward movement of African Americans in Cleveland and her business needed room to grow once again.
When Wilkins first started the Wilkins School of Cosmetology on the first floor of the Phillis Wheatley building in 1936, she inherited a previous beauty school: Cora Washington’s School of Beauty Culture. Her school drew students from in and outside Cleveland. Some students even came from Canada, Africa, Cuba, and the Caribbean to study at Wilkins School of Cosmetology. For those who lived outside of the Greater Cleveland area, Wilkins ensured that the young women had a safe place to stay while they attended school. Safety was of the utmost importance because for many of the young women in Wilkins’s program, this was the first time that they were away from home and living on their own. Edith Wilkins was so concerned for her students’ welfare that she would occasionally cover a student’s tuition, as well as room and board if the student could not afford it. At first, the young women lived and worked in the Phillis Wheatley building. The Phillis Wheatley was not only a prime location for these young women because it was in the same building as where they were working, but it also had older female residents who could act as role models for them.
Edith Wilkins opened more salon locations in the late 1930s. In 1937, she opened the 7820 Cedar Avenue location with eight beauticians and in 1938 opened the 12113 Kinsman Avenue location with three beauticians. Even after she started the Wilkins School of Cosmetology in 1936, she continued to operate a beauty salon on Kinsman. Some of the most talented women who attended the Wilkins School even obtained employment at Wilkins’s salon on Kinsman.
The Wilkins School in the Phillis Wheatley building helped women find employment and housing, but the school was not affiliated with the Phillis Wheatley for the totality of its history. In the early 1950s, the young women who attended the school of cosmetology were staying at Faith Hall, which may have been a residence hall with some connection to the nearby Lane Metropolitan Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. It is possible that there was a change in room accommodations for students because Edith Wilkins moved her cosmetology school in 1946 to a building, she owned at 2112 East 46th Street.
It is evident that the 2112 East 46th Street location had some people stay the night even if they were not students at the cosmetology school because this location is listed as a tourist home and a beauty parlor in the Green Book. In June 1959, Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife Coretta Scott King spent the night at the cosmetology school because she was going to discuss the importance of nonviolence, as well as her husband’s work registering African American voters in Montgomery at St. John A.M.E. Church. Even the most famous African American travelers like Coretta Scott King were often excluded from staying at well-known hotels. While there were many advertisements for the Wilkins School of Cosmetology in the Call & Post, none called specific attention to room rentals through the school. This could suggest that many in the community spread the word that there were rooms available. It was also common for Black travelers to contact a Black minister to find a place to stay the night, so it is possible that Coretta Scott King was able to arrange accommodations at the school through the pastor at St. John A.M.E. Church.
Edith Wilkins was not only dedicated to providing an excellent education for young African American women but was also dedicated to ensuring that women who attended the school and travelers to Cleveland had safe housing. The Edith Wilkins School of Cosmetology was an important fixture in Cleveland because it gave Black women an avenue to become financially independent. Many of these women went on to not only work at Edith Wilkins’s salons but also opened their own salons. Moreover, the school provided much-needed housing accommodations for Black women whether it be through their early affiliation with the Phillis Wheatley, at Faith Hall, or at the school itself. Edith Wilkins School of Cosmetology made a name for itself in the Green Book, as well as in Greater Cleveland.
Green Book Details
Wilkins School of Cosmetology appears in the Green Book from 1941 to 1951 under the category Beauty Parlors. The first address listed is “Phillis Wheatley Bldg.” In 1951, the address is changed to 2112 E. 46th St. Duplicate entries at 2112 E. 46th St. are listed as “Wilkins” from 1947 to 1955 under the category Beauty Parlors, and as “Mrs. Edith Wilkins” from 1947 to 1967 under the category Tourist Homes.
- “Annie Malone and Madam C. J. Walker: Pioneers of the African American Beauty Industry.” National Museum of African American History & Culture. nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/annie-malone-and-madam-cj-walker-pioneers-african-american-beauty-industry.
- “Authorized Beauty School Opens at Phillis Wheatley.” Call & Post. November 17, 1934.
- “Bus Boycott Leader’s Wife Talks of Faith on Visit Here.” Plain Dealer. June 28, 1959.
- “Display Ad 10 — No Title.” Call & Post. November 16, 1946.
- “Display Ad 11 — No Title.” Call & Post. August 27, 1936.
- “Display Ad 13 — No Title.” Call & Post. March 6, 1948.
- “Display Ad 15 — No Title.” Call & Post. October 28, 1950.
- “Display Ad 16 — No Title.” Call & Post. July 14, 1956.
- “Enroll Now.” Call & Post. August 6, 1936.
- Knaggs, Rebekah. “Wilkins School of Cosmetology.” Cleveland Historical. clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/868.
- “Mrs. Edith Wilkins Marks 25 Years as Beautician with Public Reception.” Call & Post. May 27, 1944.
- “A Person You Should Know.” Call & Post. June 6, 1942.
- Photo, Washington. “Photo Standalone 9 — no Title.” Call & Post. October 2, 1943.
- Pieters, Lurlena. “To Edith Wilkins, Beauty is More than Skin Deep.” Call & Post. June 15, 1974.
- Walker, Susannah. Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007.
- “Wilkins School of Cosmetology Holds 10th Annual Graduation.” Call & Post. June 22, 1946.
- “Wilkins School Girl of the Week.” Call & Post. March 4, 1944.