Wanda’s on 7th is more than just a beauty salon. To the people who call the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Shaw home, especially longtime residents who have seen gentrification drive away African American-run businesses one after the other, the shop has become a symbol of strength and resilience. It represents maintaining identity and holding one’s ground.
The shop opened at 1851 Seventh Street in 2003 and succeeded for seven years. In 2010, as the neighborhood began transforming, the business and its staff moved up to Georgia Avenue, across from Howard University School of Business. In 2014, they were able to move back to their original location—paying three times as much rent.
At the center of the enterprise is Ms. Wanda herself. Wanda Henderson grew up in the neighborhood and started braiding her younger sisters’ hair at nine years old to help out her single mother. She watched as her neighborhood was transformed by the 1968 riots that ravaged the city after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and though she left the region for some time in her youth, it didn’t take long for her to be drawn back to two things she had always loved: her home and doing hair.
Of course, the journey from cosmetology school to business and community leadership was a long and colorful one. In this two-part interview series, we talked Duke Ellington, the politics of black hair, gentrification, and Gabby Douglas through the interesting origins and vibrant culture of this local landmark.
I’m sure you’ve seen many changes in the neighborhood. Did you ever move?
I did move out of the area. You get older, you move out, but then you still come back to your home. As a little girl I saw the ’68 riots. You saw how property didn’t have any value. You saw a ghetto at one time. And you lived through that. You bring yourself up to another level of saying, you don’t let your community make you—you make your community. In my community, I wanted to grow up and be a part of what was around me.
So I ventured out to vocational school, then college, but my heart was always in hair. One day I decided, in my early twenties, that that’s what I was going to do. I said, “I’m gonna do hair,” and I did that. I made a way to provide for myself.
How did you get started in the salon business?
I worked for Natural Motions, a salon on Georgia Avenue. I worked for Liz Nolan there for eighteen years. I met Dick Gregory. I met Jesse Jackson. We met so many celebrities and stars. Mr. T came through. We were a very high-end salon.
And then one day I decided that I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to work under someone else; I wanted to know what I could do for Wanda. So I branched out and found a location on U Street where I wanted to work. We were on U Street, then U Street started blossoming. This was before the changes really came about.
Being with Liz for eighteen years at Natural Motions, you learn everything. After my second year, I learned how to run the whole business. I was pretty much running her business for her, as a manager. So the experience was there. But you come out, you do your own thing, and you make it work your way.
What was your experience developing your own shop?
The first day I opened my salon I was sweating bullets. I was just so nervous, stepping out on my own, but it was so perfect and wonderful. All my clients came. They set up tables and food and everything. U Street turned out to be a wonderful place. We grew a lot on U Street, but I wanted more visibility, and I wasn’t getting it on the second floor. So I had to find another location.
After looking at a hundred places, I found this one. Seventh Street was not my favorite place to come past during those years, but times had changed a lot. Mr. Robert Dean owned this salon, this barbershop, for forty years. It was already set up as a salon and a barbershop. It had quite a legacy! Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole had their first processes in this salon—the way they had their hair slicked back.
We opened up two floors. We spread it out. So actually we have two addresses: we had 1851 originally, and now we have 1849 too. 1849 was the old Key’s restaurant, so all the celebrities that ever played at the Howard Theatre ate at the Key’s restaurant. It’s a tremendous amount of history in this space here. And I love that. That’s a huge part of me also, to be part of a legacy that so many stars and celebrities and entertainers frequented for haircuts.
What happened to the other salon that had been here?
The owner was elderly. He was 88. Everybody loved Mr. Dean. He just stayed as long as he could until he couldn’t walk. A lot of people had come to him before that wanted the space. He wouldn’t give it to anybody. We had a time! But when he and I finally met, he was so happy to give it to me. We almost had like a father-daughter relationship, because he was a great guy. We talked and we talked about, this is what I’ll do, and this is what you’ll do, and we’ll recreate this thing. And we did, and it was awesome.
Until the day he died we were just close. Mrs. Dean would be like, “We can pick up Mr. Dean and bring him down there, and he can sit with us,” because so many people loved him. It would give him a chance to come back into his space and see people working. It would give him the chance to make him happy and see that it didn’t end. It’s still going on. We’d have lunch, and everybody was just excited. “Mr. Dean is in the salon!” They’d come running down here just to see Mr. Dean.
It sounds like you’ve really carried on his legacy then, because that’s the kind of reaction you get around town too.
People come to me, and they just hug me and say, “Thank you! Thank you for coming back!” and “Thank you for having a nice, quiet, safe place for us to come and get a great service.” They say that.
For some people, it’s important that I’m back and black in the community so they can see people that look like them. They’re saying, as women, no matter what color, “Thanks for being back and being strong enough,” because it was a fight to come back and be strong enough to give back, to prove something in the community, and be in the community.
It is my dream. I wanted to be part of the community here—the old community, the new community, the community that I grew up in for fifty years. I wanted to be the model person. I wanted to be the hero. I wanted to be looked up to by the younger generations, for the children that grew up in the community to say, “Ms. Wanda came back,” and to be encouragement. It means all of those things to me.
“This article first appeared in Folklife magazine, the online publication of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.”