At one point in the mid-1970s, a Selma company that created products for Black barbers and stylists had a $3 million inventory, hundreds of wholesalers and a foothold on an international market. The founders of this family business had a commitment to social justice and their community.
Born in Dallas County in 1916, Preston D. Chestnut was a natural salesman. Few people knew the industry better. In 1940, he married Autauga County native Velberta Clay. A gifted stylist, she obtained a doctorate from the National Cosmetology Institute in Washington, D.C.
Velberta Chestnut’s first Selma wig shop and salon came along at an important time for the Black haircare industry. Following World War II, Black women purchased an estimated 4 million wigs annually. Talented wig dressers and stylists like Velberta Chestnut were in high demand. In 1958, her salon expanded to a larger location. A Black Huntsville newspaper took note, calling her “a young woman of charm and personality … putting forth all efforts to keep the ladies of Selma as pretty in latter years as they were at birth and in their youth.”
In due time, the Chestnuts launched their own line of haircare products. With Preston’s knowledge of sales and distribution networks and Velberta’s cosmetology expertise, the Chestnuts stepped confidently into the new venture. They founded Hair Research Laboratories Inc. The august title belied the company’s homespun beginnings. The operation was initially based in the couple’s St. Ann Street home. They recruited Dr. Edward Moore, a Uniontown chemistry teacher, to help prepare the products. It was a Chestnut family affair. They mixed elixirs in the kitchen. Their children filled jars and applied product labels. The Selma couple called their line “Velberta’s Cosmetics of Distinction,” a reflection of the reputation she cultivated over years of speaking engagements on hairstyles and the social arts throughout Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.
The Chestnuts’ devotion to their community extended beyond the doors of their business. Velberta Chestnut taught free beauty classes at the local YMCA. The couple were members of the civic-minded Dallas County Voters League. In the mid-1950s, Velberta Chestnut added her name to a school-integration petition. When their nephew J. L. Chestnut Jr. returned home to become the city’s first Black lawyer, they offered him space inside their Broad Street business to launch his practice. In 1965, a few months after the Selma to Montgomery March, the National Beauty Culturists League named Velberta Chestnut its “Beautician of the Year.” The group also paid tribute to Chestnut’s “devotion to the struggle of liberty, equality and justice.”
As the company grew, Preston Chestnut rejected any suggestion that they move the business away from the Queen City. “Our company was organized in Selma. It will remain in Selma,” he told the local newspaper in 1973. That year, sales revenues topped $300,000, with distributors in 16 states. The number nearly doubled the following year. The expansive laboratory, now located along Broad Street, added a new 12,000-gallon chemical tank.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a revolution in Black hair. The growing popularity of the Afro as a form of both cultural and political expression was, in many ways, a rejection of the haircare products of the past generation. Some companies that had spent years creating products meant to straighten, untangle and tame could not easily adapt to the new trend.
But in Selma, the Chestnuts displayed the nimbleness to not only survive this cultural shift, but to contribute to it. A full-page ad in the Selma Times-Journal in 1974 showed a line of Velberta’s products that ran the gamut of haircare in the changing era, from traditional relaxers and conditioners to Afro-Food, a glycerin-based gel designed to make natural hair more manageable, along with similar products. With the aid of a federal loan, the business prospered, often swelling to nearly 60 employees. In 1976, with distributors in almost every state, the company signed an agreement with the Nigerian government to ship Velberta’s products overseas.
But the successes of the mid-1970s were overshadowed by the declining health of the company’s namesake. Dr. Velberta Chestnut died in July 1978 after a battle with cancer. She was only 56 years old. Preston continued on, though by the end of the decade the company faced growing competition from cosmetic conglomerates moving deeper into the Black haircare market. Companies like the Hair Research Lab struggled to survive.
On a hot summer Sunday in 1983, Preston Chestnut accompanied his nephew to a Greene County church for a speech. During the commute he spoke only of business matters. “He had plans he wanted me to work on,” J. L. Chestnut Jr. recalled in his memoir. “He had a brochure he wanted me to critique. He wore my ears out.” As soon as they arrived back in Selma, Preston brought the brochure over to J. L.’s house. Later that afternoon, back at his home and still hard at work, Preston D. Chestnut collapsed. The 67-year-old entrepreneur died later that day. A new generation of Chestnuts assumed control.
Then came the fire. On August 18, 1987, an electrical issue sparked a devastating blaze that gutted the Hair Research Lab. The highly flammable chemicals on the property contributed to the size and ferocity of the conflagration, which took 30 firefighters more than four hours to contain. The second generation of company leaders was forced to begin anew, this time at a smaller facility along Selma’s Jefferson Davis Boulevard (which was renamed in honor of J. L. Chestnut Jr. in 2009) under the name National Products Corp.
“Your hair is the crown you never take off,” the saying goes. Velberta and Preston Chestnut’s company helped prove this adage for scores of African Americans. Today, the vast collections of the Smithsonian Institution include a jar of Velberta’s Afro-Food conditioner. The company, and the small corner of the haircare market it supplied so well, is part of American history. And nothing — not sickness, fire or time — can remove that distinction.
Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.
This article appears in the October 2023 issue of Business Alabama.