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Photography by Leeshia Lee. Audio by Kyle Vass.
In 2019, Matthew Moore was a ninth-grader at Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley, West Virginia, where he was benched from the basketball team when the head coach said his dreadlocks were not "neat" enough for the team's standards.
That night, when Moore's mom, Tarsha Bolt, showed up at the game and discovered her son wasn't on the court, she called him. He explained why he was in the locker room. Bolt told him to meet her outside. In the backseat of her car, her son began the arduous process of combing out his locks. But that didn't sit right with Bolt.
Bolt took her family's story to the internet, where she described the cruel decision her son faced to change his hair or give up a sport he loved. Online, countless others sympathized with the pain of having their expressions of culture—their Blackness—policed at school and work.
Bolt didn't want others to lose opportunities, or to feel the sting that her son felt.
Now, she's at the forefront of a grassroots movement to end hair discrimination in West Virginia and beyond, spearheading the "Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair" (CROWN) Act, in a state where Black policy is not the top priority for majority-white Republican lawmakers.
Senate Bill 850, submitted simultaneously as House Bill 2698, would expand the definition of race in the Fair Employment and Housing Act to include protections for hair texture or hairstyle—including protective styles commonly worn in the Black community like dreadlocks, twists, Afros, and braids.
In March, Bolt spoke passionately to a crowd of 150 people at the West Virginia Capitol to push lawmakers to pass the CROWN Act. She reminded the crowd that her son should not have felt compelled to hastily remove his locks moments before a game to keep playing his favorite sport, nor should anyone sporting hair styled in locks or protective styles face such discrimination.
"Whose definition of neat?" Bolt asked the crowd. It was a rhetorical question. No one needed to say "white people." No one needed to explain the ways white beauty standards uphold white supremacy. The people gathered at the rally understood.
Among those gathered stood the bill's lead sponsor Delegate Danielle Walker, with her armed security guard, wearing a bulletproof vest she purchased in response to death threats she had received before attending a 2020 Black Lives Matter rally in Kingwood, West Virginia. Walker's presence served as a visualization that Black bodies, Black hair, and Black Delegates require protection in West Virginia.
The rally took place when there was still hope that the 2021 CROWN Act could be signed into state law. The bill has since stalled out in committee, meaning it didn't even make it to a vote. Meanwhile, a bill to protect the state's confederate monuments was ushered quickly through the process. The state joins 25 others where a version of the CROWN Act has been considered but not yet passed.
West Virginia's ongoing struggle to end hair discrimination provides a lens to understanding white supremacy's deep conditioning and how natural hair as a policy issue touches the 65,925 Black people in West Virginia.
On March 25, State Senator Rollan Roberts, the chairman of the committee that pulled the bill on the last possible day for action, published a video chastising advocates of the CROWN Act, alleging his secretary received many phone calls from "angry people [who] screamed and cursed and demanded that the bill be passed." He said those who called in favor of the CROWN Act were "narrow-minded."
The West Virginia 2021 legislative session began with former Delegate Derrick Evans' resignation as a member of the West Virginia House. He made national news for entering the U.S. Capitol with the insurrection mob, was arrested, and is facing four federal charges.
It ended with a message from West Virginia's Republican supermajority which columnist Phil Kabler described as saying: "If you're not a white, Christian heterosexual conservative, you're not welcome in West Virginia."
In between these two harsh realities sat the shining opportunity of the CROWN Act.
While advocates promise they will be back for the 2022 Legislative session, they are also looking beyond the Capitol to make change. The West Virginia University Student Government has offered a resolution in support of ending hair discrimination. Advocates hope this strategy will spark resolutions from West Virginia's 43 colleges and universities and spark a wave of institutional support for natural hair.
Other activists have been working with city councils across West Virginia. This is a strategy the nonprofit West Virginia Fairness has used, advocating local ordinances that prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, and public spaces for any class of people, including sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, and public spaces.
While state Fairness legislation has failed for the past two decades, advocates hope that by working through local ordinances, discrimination on hair texture and protective hairstyles (braids, locks, twists, dreadlocks, afros) to non-discrimination clauses.
So far, cities like Charleston have offered anti-hair discrimination resolutions. Morgantown has passed an ordinance against hair discrimination too, with Beckley, where Bolt's son was told his hair wasn't "neat," is next in the queue.
In a brief alley-oop intended to impede that progress, Senator Robert Karnes' tried to sneak in new language into the House that would prevent cities from enacting or enforcing local discrimination laws. Luckily, what was known as the 'Karnes Amendment" in House Bill 2500 was defeated, and advocacy groups are seeing success at the local level.
Five women in particular, all of whom attended that March rally for the CROWN Act, have begun leveraging action in state and local government to enact anti-discrimination protections through local ordinances.
Following the rally, I met up with some of them at The FAB House, a Black-owned hair salon honoring the tradition of hair care through hair education. Kerry Ann Wilkinson, the Jamaican-born salon owner, said her clientele is predominantly Black men and women with a growing segment of parents seeking Black hair education.
The FAB House conversation was intimate, where the women shared feelings of joy in a moment of quasi group therapy—much needed in the wake of a global pandemic, exhaustion, and political disappointments like the Legislature blocking the removal of Confederate monuments, and banning transgender athletes.
Danielle Walker, Myya Helm, Takeiya Smith, Jennifer Wells, and Charkera Ervin shared personal hair stories, their entry into the political landscapes of West Virginia, their role in the CROWN Act's beginning where they hope it's headed.
Jennifer Wells, 47, is an organizer supporting Black-led Southern movement work. She is a New Orleans native and current West Virginia resident.
"When you start peeling this issue back, this is like the iceberg hitting the Titanic. This is just the peak of something deeply rooted, that is dark, and that is very large. We're talking about economics; it's political."
Takeiya Smith, 27, is a youth a racial justice organizer for Young West Virginia. She is a native West Virginian.
"In 2012, when I was a new adult, my girlfriend and I would talk about when it was time to look for a job, we'd be like, 'OK, what are you going to do with your hair?' We knew we could not have braids if we were going to go job hunting. We quickly figured out that we had to navigate and conform because we didn't have the resources or the connections to be our true selves."
Delegate Danielle Walker, 45, is serving her second term in the West Virginia Legislature as a Democrat representing District 51 Monongalia County. She was born in Louisiana—but, as they say, got to West Virginia as soon as she could.
"We had no idea. We got intimidated by knocking on somebody's office. Well, guess what massa—I don't need a key and I don't need an invite, because I'm coming in. 'Cause you're not the master of this, and you hold no key. This is the people's house."
"I'm not going through the back door. And I don't have to pass a brown paper bag test. This is the same energy we need to keep, you know, the same energy that we keep in the Black community when something goes wrong among ourselves."
Charkera Ervin, 35, an organizer for Our Future West Virginia and a student of Howard University Law School. She is a native West Virginian.
"There was an attorney who spoke at the Morgantown city meeting when he was advocating for their passage of it, and he said, 'I've had people call me about discrimination issues, and I told them we couldn't do anything about it. We couldn't file anything because we don't have a law.' We don't always hear about those stories, because the venue in which people usually come and be heard, which is the courts, can't be heard. People think it's not an issue when the fact is, no one's been allowed to tell their story."
Myya Helm, 21, is a student at West Virginia University and an advocate for racial and criminal justice. She is a native West Virginian.
"A lot of this does go back to racial conditioning. White supremacy literally engulfs every aspect of political, social, economic—literally everything in the United States."
"It's important to acknowledge that that is where the fight begins. Whether it's in our households, re-educating and unlearning, and relearning—or whether it is telling white people directly to their faces that this is white supremacy, this is a symptom of white supremacy and I'm not going to deal with it—that's why we need these conversations."
With all its challenges, West Virginia is uniquely positioned in a national movement without much national attention.
While no lobbying groups opposed the CROWN Act, lawmakers certainly did.
The impeded CROWN movement in West Virginia represents yet another example of racism in America.
Look into the windy back roads of West Virginia, and there you will see those fighting against the cruelty of white supremacy racism and those seeking to hold onto any symbol of fleeting power, even if that includes controlling the hair on the heads of West Virginia's Black citizens.
What makes these changemakers' stories extraordinary is the courage it takes to stand for justice where so few Black voices are represented and with few resources other than their intelligent determination, powerful voices, and hair.
Leeshia Lee is a graduate of West Virginia State University. After an 11 year stint as a radio personality, she decided to pursue her writing career, self publishing two books and turning one into a stage play showcasing local raw talent. Lee has two community initiatives focusing on inspiring youth to not let their environment determine their futures. FairyBossMothers and GameChangers are in their third year as a community project. Lee is the mother of two children, Dashanti and Markel.
Kyle Vass is a freelance journalist based out of West Virginia. His work in photography and audio reportage range focuses on accountability, international politics and character driven narratives.