‘Hope after urban removal’: Old City welcomes first Black-owned hair salon

When Shelia Hensley began playing around with her sister’s hair as a child she never imagined she was building a skill set that would form the cornerstone of her future. Those hands would be used years later to open the first Black-owned hair salon at the edge of the modern Old City, just around the block from Knoxville’s Black business district that was ravaged by urban removal decades ago.

Shelia’s Creative Styles, 202 W. Magnolia Ave., opened for business Monday.

Hensley, who was born and raised in East Knoxville as one of six siblings, told Knox News it’s a full circle moment that makes her proud.

“I’m just so happy that all of this came together because it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t planned,” she said. “To be down here near downtown means a lot because there aren’t many of us here. The Lord was behind it and he led me to this location. I just felt in my spirit that this was it.”

Shelia Hensley is the owner of the newly opened Shelia's Creative Styles, 202 W Magnolia Ave. in Knoxville. The hair salon opened Monday.

Her story mirrors that of many young adults who are just trying to figure life out. Her earlier goal of becoming a nurse didn’t pan out. She had to drop out of nursing school and didn’t know what would come next. In 1986, her mother reminded her of the talent she possessed.

“I was already doing hair on the side and doing well with it. So Mama told me, ‘Maybe you just ought to do hair and stick with that.’ So I ended up listening and getting my hair license,” she said.

Hensley attended the former Alma’s Beauty College on Magnolia Avenue and became licensed in 1986. She opened her first of three shop locations in East Knoxville in the early 1990s.

After serving for 37 years in East Knoxville, and faced with needing to find a new location, she found her dream spot during a random drive toward Central Street in search of a new space.

A three-story building at 202 W. Magnolia Ave. had a vacancy that was just what she was looking for, and the owner was ready to hand her the keys. 

“Well, I knew I wanted to be there, but I definitely didn’t know if I could afford it or make it happen. But we ended up making it work,” Hensley told Knox News.

And it wasn’t by chance that Hensley’s cousin, Candace Moore Washington, a successful and experienced project manager with her own firm, was able to play an instrumental role in making the deal happen.

Washington, a native of East Knoxville and the CEO and founder of Cancave Management and Cancave Engineering, a nationally certified minority- and women-owned management firm based in Atlanta, told Knox News that helping Black-business owners make their dreams happen is part of her goal. In this case, that means Washington handled negotiating Hensley’s contract with her landlord, procuring vendors to build out the space, helping with furniture selections and getting invoices paid.

“So that she can focus on what she does, which is doing hair,” Washington told Knox News. “And that’s essentially what my business is. I am her representative, and I work on her behalf. So I talk to the landlord and tell them of issues that we’re having, what I need, what she needs, and then that way she can just relax. I make sure things work in her best interest. I fight all those battles.”

Washington’s firm is based in Atlanta, but she has opened up a location in downtown Knoxville on Gay Street. She says she’s faced many hurdles while trying to grow her business as a Black contractor, but those challenges made the salon the perfect opportunity to begin a portfolio that Washington hopes sets her up for more opportunities here.

Hensley is glad her clientele is excited to come downtown for their hair care needs, and hopes the location will help her expand the business.

The salon specializes in natural African-American haircare, color techniques, braiding and sew-in hair extensions. There is something for everyone, whether it’s a wash-and-go, silk press or styles for children. Hensley said her clients range in age from 6 to 99.

Perhaps the most meaningful part for Hensley and Washington is the reparative feeling that comes from opening near the same place that once took their family’s homes during urban removal. There is free parking immediately across the street, an amenity many customers craved.

The shadows of the past loom large, casting memories of a time when black homes and businesses were displaced. For Hensley and Washington, the salon represents a restoration of not just her family’s history but also the history of the entire community. It’s a space that offers reparation for the wounds of the past, and a canvas upon which a future can be built for more Black business owners to open in the downtown area.

Shelia's Creative Styles, 202 W. Magnolia Ave. in Knoxville, opened Monday.

Family says the salon is a nod to their ancestors after urban removal

Beyond the salon’s stylish interiors and ambiance, the business represents a reclamation of identity. It’s a response to the dislocation of the past and a declaration of the present community’s strength. As patrons walk out with fresh looks and renewed confidence, they also will carry with them the spirit of a salon that’s a symbol of transformation.

Washington recalls the stories her mother told her about when James White Parkway and the coliseum were birthed, ultimately putting a highway through what many Black Knoxvillians remember as home. What is known as Knoxville’s urban removal projects erased Black neighborhoods in the city from 1959 to 1974. It consisted of the Willow Street Project, the Mountain View Project and the Morningside Project.

“My mother, who is part of our family and Shelia’s, lived that. I remember hearing about the highway and coliseum coming into the city and pushing people out. I was little but I knew all about it,” said Washington.

Hurdles for Black businesses in downtown a reality, but hope remains

The landscape of downtown Knoxville, while vibrant and bustling, remains marked by a notable absence of Black-owned businesses. The disparity reflects a broader issue that has persisted for years, with minority entrepreneurs facing significant hurdles on their path to establishing a presence in the heart of the city.

Hensley told Knox News she hopes her business can lead the way for more Black business owners to open and thrive in the heart of downtown like they once did.

Washington knows all too well that the challenges that Black business owners encounter are multifaceted. From limited access to capital and resources to navigating bureaucratic obstacles, Black entrepreneurs like her often confront a system that is not always conducive to their success. The historical legacy of systemic inequality has had a lasting impact, contributing to a lack of generational wealth and limited opportunities.

But she is hopeful.

“Access to capital remains the biggest challenge for African Americans, and as I continue in my work staying current with industry trends while trying to grow my business is the key,” she said.

By addressing the hurdles head on, downtown Knoxville can begin to foster an environment where Black entrepreneurs are empowered to thrive, contributing to a more equitable and vibrant economic landscape for everyone, Washington said.

Angela Dennis is the Knox News race, justice and equity reporter. Email angela.dennis@knoxnews.com. Twitter @AngeladWrites. Instagram @angeladenniswrites. Facebook at Angela Dennis.

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