Cornrow Row

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For 12 years Cornrows & Co. has offered braiding, weaving, and natural hair care in the 4,000-year-old African tradition to women in Washington, D.C. Now the D.C. Board of Cosmetology wants to close the salon for violating district licensing laws. Enacted in 1938, when blacks weren't even allowed in beauty parlors, the laws require proficiency in finger waves and other outmoded hairstyles but ignore the nonchemical hair care now popular among African-American women.

With the help of the Washington-based Institute for Justice, Cornrows & Co. is fighting these rules as a violation of the Fifth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The outcome of the case could set a precedent for challenging licensing laws on constitutional grounds.

The cosmetology board has been hounding Cornrows & Co. because its employees are not licensed cosmetologists. In 1989, it slapped owners Taalib-Din Uqdah and Pamela Ferrell with $1,000 in fines for operating a beauty salon and training program without a license.

Last fall, after the D.C. Board of Appeals upheld the fines, the Institute for Justice filed suit in federal court against the cosmetology board and the District of Columbia on behalf of Uqdah and Ferrell. The suit argues that "the arbitrary diminution of plaintiffs' economic liberty by the imposition of these regulations deprives them of due process of law."

Rather than have prospective employees spend as much as $5,000 for a nine-month training program that wouldn't even teach them how to comb African hair, Uqdah and Ferrell train their braiders themselves in a three-month program that costs $2,400. Cornrows & Co. has trained hundreds of unskilled and unemployed young people in the art of African hairstyling.

"There's obviously a double standard going on here," Uqdah told The Capital Spotlight. "They're willing to take my $30,000 in taxes, but somehow I'm illegal. They're there to protect their own."

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