Lillian Allen has a lifetime of stories -- all colorful

Oakland woman's tales follow her from Alabama farm girl to Hill District hairdresser to world traveler

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

Editor's note: This story appeared March 9, 1997, on the cover of the Sunday Magazine section.

Crispus Attucks, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. Du Bois - they're all integral parts of black history.

So is Lillian Allen.

She's a Pittsburgh beautician you've probably never heard of. And she's far from being history just yet.

But she's lived such a span of it, seeing how her grandson is a Secret Service agent and her grandfather was a slave.

She's no less an interesting character.

She was born when driving meant a horse and wagon. Yet, at nearly 88, she still has that, well, sexiness that emanates like Chanel No. 5 from photos of her in her voluptuous 30s. She loves to recount how a Gambian diplomat, upon meeting her, asked her to make love and become his second wife - and she was 67 then.

A prude she is not. Her jokes could make much younger faces turn red.

At the same time, she's active at her church, where women say she's the best-dressed. She attributes that to smallness - the church's and her own, since she's worn the same size for 15 years. In the living room of her West Oakland house, she has an ab roller, and she uses it.

In a room off the kitchen are different kinds of rollers and the rest of her "beauty salon," where she does what she did in the '40s and '50s as owner of the pre-eminent black salon in the heart of the Hill District.

Now she works much less and travels more, to places like Katmandu, where she's off to this spring.

She also spends many hours at her word processor, writing stories like the one she recently sold for an anthology to be published this fall.

If you had the pleasure of reading her other stories, you'd see how she's used her days like George Washington Carver used peanuts - with as many remarkable results.

"I've lived," as she puts it, "a lot."

Some old customers don't like the uphill walk from the bus routes on Forbes and Fifth avenues to Lillian's house on Robinson Street. Ring the bell and she comes to the door with her graying dog, which she explains used to be all black, so her daughter named her "Ghetto."

That's Lillian - getting right to a story. Sit down at the kitchen table and she'll tell you many more, with that easy beautician chattiness and the timing of a comedian.

She was born Lillian Griffin on April 20, 1909, on the 300-acre cotton farm that her father worked (after his sister had inherited it from her husband) near Auburn, Ala. Auburn College was there, but then it was for white men only. Lillian writes in one memoir that "no colored girl ever ventured out alone in fear of being gang raped and nothing would be done about it."

Adultery was a theme in her life from the time she was a baby, since her father, like so many local men, had an "outside woman." When her mother found out, and that he had two outside children, she was so distraught she died of a stroke. Lillian remembers the polished brass trim on the horse-drawn hearse. "I was 4 years old."

She and her four siblings were cared for by another aunt who lived on the farm. Then, when Lillian was 6, she came to Pittsburgh with her Aunt Sweetie, whose husband was among the wave of Southern blacks who were recruited for Northern factory jobs during World War I.

He worked at J&L Steel. The three moved into a five-room North Side apartment, which got smaller as they took in other arriving blacks. Lillian slept on a cot in the kitchen. The boarders slept in shifts.

The three later moved to the Hill District, and her aunt became a grill cook, but Lillian's school days here lasted only until she was 14. The reason was, she was home alone after school. "They both worked, and I was sorta well-developed," she says, unabashedly indicating her figure. "They said, 'Uh uh.' "

They sent her home to Alabama.

By then a city girl, she hated it.

"The way they talked, I didn't even understand what they were saying," she says of her rural clan, which grew to include five half siblings. She recalls being told to gather "liwood." It took her a while to decipher it as "light wood," as in kindling to light the stove.

She dreamed she was someone else. "I also dreamed of getting away."

When she was 17, she did escape, moving back in with her Pittsburgh aunt and going to work.

What kind?

"Domestic," she says, as if you should know. "What else?"

Then, a black woman could always find "house work."

Even as a servant, Lillian wasn't servile, and so she had plenty of escapades. She discovered one family's little girl was filching from her purse. "Imagine me working for $6 a week and her taking my change." After the girl took an embroidered handkerchief and Lillian had to bring in the box to prove it was hers, Lillian took one of the girl's mother's. Then she quit.

A new employer wrote on a piece of paper, "Can you read?" Lillian, indignant, wrote out her reply - in Spanish. "I quit her, too."

Racism soils some memories like the smoke dirtied the train car right behind the steam engine - the car reserved for black passengers traveling south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Lillian, naturally upbeat, prefers to recount her wonder, as a 12-year-old on her first solo Christmas trip home to Alabama, at watching snow fade into frost fade into flowers.

She stood up for herself. Once in the '30s when a counterman refused to let her eat her sandwich and pie inside Ray's Bakery on Market Square, she threw the lunch in his face, cursed him and stormed out in tears. Even she was surprised that no one called the police.

That happened during the half-day a week she had off from "house work." For fun, she continued her childhood habit of reading everything she could, and she wrote stories, too. While working for a Swissvale doctor's family, she'd write up in her attic room. That is, until one day, when the wife - thinking her husband had more than an eye for Lillian - found her notebooks and tore up every one.

Lillian was left with her vivid imagination. Still it was no fun to toil as a maid for the middle class. "I never got a chance to get the rich rich," she says, and that's what she'd wanted - to wear a uniform and take cruise ships to Europe with the upper class into whose houses she peeked along Millionaires' Row. "I wanted to get their manners and culture and all that because where I was from, they didn't have any."

Despite the barriers of the times, Lillian never believed she couldn't have whatever anyone else had. And so she worked - hard.

When Kaufmann's department store began hiring black maids in addition to elevator operators, she took a job cleaning the fourth floor - lamps and hats. At that time, she says, a black woman couldn't try on a hat unless she bought it.

Later she got a job as dining room help at the Salvation Army's Evangeline Hotel. She would help serve lunch, then have a break before returning to serve dinner.

In the afternoon, she decided to go to trade school. "What are you going to do with your time? So you don't waste it, you go to school."

As fate would have it, she picked the La Salle Training School in Beauty Culture, where the instructor, Mrs. Wynonna Graves, taught black students to do hair of both white and black clientele. A black beautician couldn't work at a white shop then, but she could work in a black one.

Lillian didn't even want a career in hair. "I wanted to teach people to have a beautiful body," she says, recalling the celebrity ads even then for aerobics. Alas, that trend hadn't yet hit Pittsburgh. She sighs.

"I was always ahead of my time."

She got her state beautician's license in 1938, then her instructor's license. She later completed a University of Pittsburgh program to teach vocational classes in the public schools, but her instructor said no local school would hire a black.

Instead, she went to work "doing heads" - at the Modern Beauty Salon on Centre Avenue. She'd work all week and on Saturday evenings, take a train to outlying towns like Beaver Falls. Black women would gather at one house, and she'd do hair all night and the next day. Sunday night she'd ride home and collapse into bed. Mondays, beauty shops were closed.

Meanwhile, in her 20s, she'd gotten married - to Eugene Allen, who was one of the first blacks hired at the state liquor stores. Together, they bought a building at 1615 Centre Ave., moved into the upstairs apartment and remodeled the storefront, using lumber her father shipped up from the farm.

Around 1944, Lillian achieved a dream, by opening the store as her own salon: "Your House of Beauty."

The salon was so fine that Internal Revenue Service agents came sniffing around. And before long, it was the talk of the town. Or at least of the Hill, the bustling center of black commerce and culture.

Black entertainers might perform Downtown, but they stayed at hotels on the Hill. Lillian's famous clients included Little Richard. They didn't include Diahann Carroll, because she dropped in when Lillian was styling a regular customer, who archly refused to let Lillian even shampoo the actress until Lillian finished with her.

At the peak, Lillian had a more than a dozen women working for her, and they were open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. or later.

Little Richard notwithstanding, most black customers in those days wanted their curls pressed flat. In an ad in the April 1952 "Movin' Around Town," the salon introduced "Repella," a "guaranteed harmless water repellent press."

The magazine named the salon "Business of the Month," and raved about it: "The shop is modern and pleasant, providing every comfort. The color scheme of aquamarine and chartreuse is cool and restful, fluorescent lighting throughout."

Lillian was described as "attractive and dynamic" and "constantly seeking new methods to beautify our women. She is a pioneer in her field, and is responsible for many new and helpful methods for keeping milady lovely. Mrs. Allen herself is the 'Guinea-Pig,' testing new methods on her own hair, which is lovely. Her latest boon to womanhood is a water repellant treatment for the hair, combined with a lacquer - it is really a combination that every girl is seeking."

Lillian looks back matter-of-factly. "I was kinda big at the time I was big. But you know what people say: You go from sugar to sh--."

Her marriage took that downturn. Lillian realizes she probably worked way too much, but, "People - they want their hair done."

That was no excuse for his womanizing, she says. So, "I threw him out."

That was in 1953. That year, she decided to hit the road, too - big time. She left her 4-year-old daughter, Carolyn Marie, with Aunt Sweetie and left her top employee in charge of the shop. Then Lillian headed for Alaska.

"I just threw my husband out and I had to get away," she explains with a shrug. She knew a client who was living in Fairbanks, where the woman's husband, like other blacks, was making good money in construction.

Alaska wasn't even a state yet. And that was important, because her Pennsylvania cosmetology license would be accepted there.

With her friend's help, Lillian moved into a cramped duplex. In the living room she opened what the local newspaper, the News-Miner, credited as "the first fully equipped licensed beauty shop for Negroes in Alaska." Lillian made her own curtains out of surplus parachutes.

During her six months on the frontier, she had even wilder adventures. "One thing that happened that I'll never forget is that dancer with a snake," she says, but that's not a story we can share here.

Another is how one night, thinking she was, like the previous resident, a prostitute, several men tried to talk their way into her apartment. Lillian kept her poise, telling the ringleader, "If you want a cup of coffee, I'll hand it out the window."

As on the Hill, prostitutes were some of her best customers. Upon learning Lillian was returning to Pittsburgh, some of them tried to stiff her for all the fancy styling she'd done. But Lillian got the law after them and got her money, just before catching her ride toward home - the cruise ship S.S. Alaska.

Back at Your House of Beauty, Lillian strove to stay on cosmetology's cutting edge - entering competitions, holding charm clinics. When a Downtown modeling school wouldn't accept her and other black women, she negotiated with the owner to hold a special class just for them at night.

In 1960, divorced from her first husband, she married again, to a one-time Olympic track hopeful and Tuskegee airman who made a good living as a tire salesman.

Unfortunately, she says, he also made a lot of time with the ladies.

Lillian: "I threw him out, too."

Actually, she'd foreseen trouble with the marriage, which she entered into partly so she could buy a grand Highland Park home. Alas, "You had to have a man, even if he wasn't worth a damn."

Their moving there had scandalized some white neighbors, but Lillian wanted to get her daughter out of the Hill, which was going downhill with drugs and violence.

She moved the salon around some, too. After her separation, Lillian had to sell the house, but she kept the shop open until Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. She'll never forget the rioters' wild eyes. "I just stood in the doorway so they knew (the business) was black. They set everybody else on fire."

After she sold that place, she re-established a shop on Fifth Avenue. But that building was caving in, and no one would loan a single black woman the $100,000 she figured she needed to transform it into her fantasy: a full spa.

"I was always ahead of my time," she says, "and it didn't help me."

And that's the condensed version of how she wound up on Robinson Street, where she's lived and continued to do hair for the past 17 years.

Lillian tells it much better.

Just ask her customers, some of whom have been coming to her for decades. In Margaret Fisher's case, because of her health, Lillian goes to her in East Liberty (taking ACCESS, since she doesn't own a car). Margaret's had Lillian do her 'do since 1945, and their relationship has grown into more than business.

Margaret not only enjoys the vicarious thrills of Lillian's tales, "I like her as a person. She's got a heart as big as outside."

Just ask people who were in the creative writing classes Lillian took - more or less on a lark - about seven years ago at Community College of Allegheny County.

Or ask any of her fellow 55-and-older participants in OASIS' Scribes writing group that meets twice a month on Kaufmann's 10th floor (furniture). When Lillian's there, she's "the spice of the class," says the instructor, Beatrice Ries Hicks.

In fact, Lillian's first stories were so racy, Hicks ran them past OASIS Director Anita Lopatin to make sure it'd be OK for Lillian to read them aloud. Lopatin recognized the treasure, and the Scribes have been enjoying her stories ever since.

"She tells it like it is," says Hicks. "You can't put her stories down. I've laughed, I've cried . . ."

Hicks also has become a friend, and says she can't find the right words to describe Lillian. "She's just very, very special. She's lived a very colorful life."

Lillian says she didn't realize that until she got back to writing, which she'd taken up as a cure for the loneliness she felt as a girl. Decades later, the stories just rushed out.

One of the first she shared with the Scribes remains Lillian's favorite. It's "My Adventure in Africa," in which she recounts her trip to Senegal in 1976 - early in what became her world-traveling hobby. It was on the last day she noticed the tall handsome stranger, who turned out to be an undersecretary in neighboring Gambia. They wound up in his hotel room, where she gracefully rejected his advances. Most of them:

"I felt the hard muscles under the silk shirt," she wrote. "His body smelled of Old Spice and Turkish cigarettes . . . A moment later, he was kissing my eyes, my throat, even my hands. I wondered if I had bad breath! Much later I learned that Africans don't believe in mouth kissing as an expression of love."

As you can imagine, that perked up the other seniors in the group.

"I am not prissy," Lillian will tell you, after she tells you a dirty joke or reads you an off-color poem.

(In fact, a few years ago, she decided to take a shot at standup comedy, and had two tapes made of her telling jokes. Carolyn says, "One was X-rated, one was, like, PG." Anyway, Lillian sent them out, and the Jenny Jones show called, but when they asked her to tell clean jokes, Lillian couldn't think of any.)

Nonetheless, folks back her up when she says she's not a "nasty person." In fact, she's been nominated to be an elder at her Friendship Community Church just up the street. She's very religious "inside, not outside," she says. "You can't tell me what the Lord won't do for you."

Her daughter, Carolyn Gray, who lives upstairs, calls her "the black Mother Theresa" for all the people she helps and gives money to.

"So many people have taken advantage of her," Carolyn says. "But she's not bitter because of it."

In fact, what her daughter loves most about her "Mama" is her unstoppable spirit. "She's an adventurer."

It was through her job at USAir that Carolyn helped her start traveling. Now, on the annual trips they take for Lillian's birthday, she can hardly keep up with her. And Lillian can hardly remember every country she's visited - certainly more than she ever dreamed. She's filled her home with souvenirs, including fancy outfits, like a Greek goatskin coat, that she loves to show off.

"She's very vain," quips her daughter, who's used to being dissed for not dressing up.

Besides traveling, writing and doing hair, Lillian audits a writing class one night a week at Pitt. Sometimes she helps out with the black heritage room there.

Her current dream is to get her stories published, but so far, she's gotten mostly rejection letters. "If I could put all the stories together in a book, I would love that. But nobody wants a book."

One of her stories is to be in a book, and with some good company, including Alice Walker. The anthology - "Men We Cherish: African-American Women Offer Praise and Appreciation for African-American Men" - is to be published in September by Anchor Books. Lillian contributed "My Special Agent," which she wrote about her grandson, Ronald Layton, a Secret Service agent in Philadelphia.

She's being paid $100, which isn't much. But it's a start.

Lillian's stories, and her life, are rich in material about black experiences, ranging from sharecropping to civil rights. But Lillian isn't the kind of person to dwell on race.

Ask her, if she had to do it over again, if she'd want to be black or white, she answers "White," immediately and directly. "I was a very ambitious woman. Who knows where I would have ended up?"

Yet color doesn't matter to her as much as it matters to some people. She had no problem when her grandson married a white woman (in Montana, no less), but one of the woman's relatives seemed to when she maneuvered away from Lillian during a family photo. As she later wrote, "I was smiling inside. I wanted to say, 'Lady! Wake up to the smell of delicious coffee! America is changing!' "

In that memoir, "Three Weddings and a Christening," Lillian also muses on her great-nephew who married a Pakistani girl, his sister who married a white man and the christening of that great-niece's biracial baby. "My niece confided that God had been so kind to her in giving her such beautiful grandchildren," Lillian wrote. "I only hope that America will be just as kind when it comes asking (people their) nationality, that biracial will be added to the list."

Indeed, as she noted when she spoke at OASIS' Martin Luther King Day program earlier this year, it's not easy to say what's black and what's white. Just look at the photos on her living room wall, of her father's father, who was part black and part American Indian, and his wife, who was American Indian and white.

So really, Lillian is just an integral part of history, no color attached. But again, she's not history just yet.

As she concluded "Three Weddings and a Christening," "Someone admonished that I should take good care of myself. I assured them I would. I have to live long enough to see what is happening to my multicultural family." She's often amazed by all the changes she's seen.

"I find life to be glorious," says the woman who looks forward to waking up in the morning and feeding the birds in her steep back yard. The birds look forward to it, too: One cardinal bumps his head on the window until she comes out.

Lillian can't wait for the new experiences yet to come.

She remembers, when she was a book-devouring teen-ager, reading about some rich people on a train trip who, in the fancy dining car where blacks couldn't then go, breakfasted on "honeydew melon."

Lillian had tasted cantaloupe on the farm. But from that moment, she just had to taste honeydew. And she did.

"These are the kind of things you have to find out," she says, in what is her philosophy of life. "I wanted to know about everything."



You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here