Andrew Dys

Hairdresser lived legendary, impactful life despite being deaf

Mildred “Skeet” Brown in her Rock Hill hair salon in 2001 after her license had been suspended. The law for experienced hairdressers was changed in 2002 because of an outcry over Brown losing her license.
Mildred “Skeet” Brown in her Rock Hill hair salon in 2001 after her license had been suspended. The law for experienced hairdressers was changed in 2002 because of an outcry over Brown losing her license. File, Andy Burriss, The Herald

Fifteen years ago, it took only one person to change an obscure South Carolina law for experienced hairdressers. That one person was Rock Hill’s Mildred “Skeet” Brown.

Yet she never heard her name called after age three when she lost her hearing due to an illness. But Brown never stopped smiling, except for a brief time in 2001 when the state took her hairdressers’ license.

That smiling life ended Christmas Day. She died at age 82 in Hospice and Community Care, family said.

“Skeet’s smile was legendary,” said a niece, Louie Mills. “Her kindness has been known in Rock Hill for as long as she has been doing hair. And that was a long, long time. She started in the 1950s.”

Brown, who operated a hair salon on Hall Street in Rock Hill, was an icon and institution rolled into one.

She started doing hair in 1954 at age 20 -- deaf, but independent.

In 2001, after a mix-up in the process to renew her hairdressing license, the state shut her business down. An outcry from hundreds of people in Rock Hill that reached elected-officials forced a change in the law.

In 2001, one of Brown’s sisters who had handled the licensing process for decades passed away. The renewal notice was missed and Brown’s license lapsed.

At that time any hairdresser whose license expired was required to take a written, oral, and practical test to get it back. Brown was unable to pass the written parts of the test because, as a black, deaf child in the South in the 1930s, she had been afforded very little education.

Brown did not speak and had to do the oral test through sign language and an interpreter. Also, the test to get her license back included other modern cosmetology functions such as nails and skin care, which Brown knew nothing about and did not practice.

State licensing officials gave her temporary reprieves after more than 800 people signed a petition in 2001. Then the late Rep. Bessie Moody-Lawrence, a Rock Hill Democrat in the S.C. Legislature at the time, successfully pushed through a change in the law in 2002. The law was changed to not require oral or written re-examinations for longtime, licensed hairdressers over age 60 with more than 30 years experience who did only hair.

Brown maintained her shop right up until age 80. She retired two years ago, Mills said.

She worked a full 60 years doing hair. It all started with the female students at the former Friendship Junior College, across the street, in the 1950s and 1960s, and then a city of ladies right up through 2014. The college closed almost 40 years ago.

“Doing hair meant so much to Skeet. It was her livelihood and she had so many loyal people who came to her,” said her sister-in-law, Gloria Brown. “What a lady. What a person. She inspired us all.”

Funeral arrangements at Robinson Funeral Home are pending.

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