In Beauty Shop, a hit 2005 comedy film, Queen Latifah plays the ambitious yet sensitive hairstylist and owner of an Atlanta salon where women hang around the shop well after their ’dos are done to banter, trade barbs, bicker and bond.
At Sybil’s Maison de Butè, a beauty salon in the Bunche Park neighborhood of Opa-locka that was opened in the 1950s by cosmetologist and hairstylist Sybil Cleare Johnson, the owner played herself: an ambitious, resilient and sensitive business person who helped a community of black women find their own voices and inner strength.
For more than 50 years, Johnson, who died at 93 on June 13 at her Miami home, acted as a “quasi-therapist, adviser, friend, mother-figure and confidante” to hundreds of regulars who came for hair care cut with compassion and life lessons.
Sybil’s “was filled with the cacophony of sounds of African-American women sharing stories of happiness and sadness,” said daughter Juanita Johnson Miller. “Some were wives who were being abused and women who worked really hard and made very little money and were struggling to send their kids to college. Some were working to send themselves to college. Amazing stories.”
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Johnson was the keeper of those stories and uncompromisingly loyal. She has taken with her many secrets she vowed to guard, her daughter said. After all, her motto was a twist on that Vegas adage: ‘Whatever happens in this beauty salon belongs only in this salon.’
“I grew up learning to be a confidante,” Johnson Miller said.
And, oh, was it tempting to dish. Latifah would have had enough stories for a Beauty Shop II, III and even IV if she culled tales from inside Sybil’s, a community landmark that closed after its namesake proprietor retired when she was near 80.
“There were loads of things I heard in that shop that absolutely astounded me,” Johnson Miller said. “My eyes would spread open. Sometimes I’d be in there doing my homework after school and sometimes my books would be upside-down because I’d hear things I wasn’t supposed to be listening to.”
Spill one secret — just one, you wish, but Johnson Miller learned well from her mother.
“She influenced me in so many ways,” she said. “So many wonderful, heartwarming stories about my mother and her generosity to people in this community. She did it in my presence often, but I didn’t know the magnitude to which she was doing it. Folks were telling me how she gave them money, helped out their families, provided safe shelter in battered marriages, helped them seek jobs. She never talked about what she did.”
Johnson was born on the first day of spring in 1921 in Miami’s Overtown to Leonie Cleare and Charles Whitfield. When she was 2, her mother died while giving birth to a second child, a son, who died within a few days. Overwhelmed, her father left the toddler behind with family and friends. The next eight years were difficult. Countless moves, abuse, hunger, hard labor, her daughter said.
By 10, someone in the “Overtown village,” remembered that Johnson had a grandmother and family in the Bahamas. There, she found family support, schooling and the faith that would sustain her for generations.
“My mother died when I was 2, and throughout my life, I’ve had a lot of people praying for me. After my mother died, I was raised by ‘the village’ — a lot of different, caring people,” Johnson said in a 2011 Miami Herald column on the occasion of her 90th birthday. She was being honored by her children and church, Holy Family Episocopal.
Herald columnist Bea L. Hines said she was going to miss “a wonderful person” and cherishes her memories as a customer of that salon. “It was like a social circle.”
Johnson returned to the States at 16 when her father, then living in West Palm Beach, sought her return. She later surmised that his motives may have been self-serving as he needed her financial help to run the household.
Nevertheless, Johnson had blossomed in the Bahamas, enrolled at Industrial High School in West Palm Beach, graduated in 1938 and two years later met and married her husband, Thomas Oscar Johnson. The couple remained married until his death in 1974 and had three daughters: Brenda, who died in infancy, and Juanita and baby sister Thomasena who was born 18 years later when Johnson was 40.
Both survive Johnson, who joked that she was like a grandma to all of the other children at Thomasena’s birthday parties and school events. She is also survived by seven grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
In the early 1950s, Johnson pursued her career in cosmetology by completing a vocational program at Sunlight Beauty School in Miami and opening her salon. Along the way she became active in civic organizations.
In 1971, she was the first black woman appointed to the Miami-Dade County Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Commission by then-Mayor Stephen P. Clark. Johnson, and friend Esterlene Colebrook, were co-chapter organizers of the Miami Cupidettes Club in 1973, a civic, service and social organization that named a scholarship in Johnson’s honor. She was also a founding member of the Opa-locka chapter of AARP and its second chapter president.
“She was a very gracious woman and … in 1991 she fulfilled a lifelong dream to take my sister and me on a trip to Europe,” Johnson Miller said. “She was so excited. As a little girl she remembered seeing pictures of people on steamships and reading stories of people who went to Europe. This was a very special trip.”
Services will be at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Holy Family Episcopal Church, 18501 NW Seventh Ave. in Miami Gardens.