This small brick building, located just a few blocks from the King Center in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn district, holds a surprisingly rich history. The Hilliard Street storefront was home to one of the last licensed Madam C.J. Walker beauty salons in Atlanta, and before that to WERD, the first radio station in the United States owned and operated by African-Americans.
When stylist Ricci de Forest took over the space in 2004 he already knew about the connection to Walker—her name painted on the window made it hard to miss. Starting in the early 20th century, Walker’s hair care products and stylist training program brought her great success. She is often lauded as America’s first black woman millionaire. Though the last of Walker’s salons closed in 1981, de Forest had seen the original storefront that remained in Atlanta and was interested in the space. “I wanted to attach her legacy to my business,” de Forest told CNN.
A few years after he moved into the building, de Forest learned about its connection to WERD. Established in 1949, WERD quickly became a fixture for the city’s African-American community. The radio station offered a platform for jazz and blues musicians as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Sunday sermons. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was next door, and King’s office shared a wall with the radio station. It’s said that when King needed to make an announcement, he would tap the ceiling of his office with a broomstick to get the disc jockey’s attention. The station was sold in 1968, and the building eventually became home to one of Madam C.J. Walker’s Beauty Shoppes.
Today, the space operates as a museum and event space, as well as an active hair salon. A portion of the building is dedicated to Madam C.J. Walker, including hair tools from the 1940s and 1950s that were discovered in the old salon space. Another part is dedicated to WERD, and thousands of vinyl records decorate the walls. De Forest has also curated a collection of historic items for the space, such as Jim Crow-era signs and vintage cameras.
Preserving this space is one of the many ways that Atlantans have honored Sweet Auburn’s history and ties to the U.S. civil rights movement. While celebrating the past, de Forest also looks to the future—he often invites local artists to perform at the museum, and hopes that the space will inspire future generations.