Nobia A. Franklin, black beautician and entrepreneur, was born in Cuero, DeWitt County, Texas, in 1892. Sources give the name Ira Franklin as that of her father, but her mother’s identity remains unknown. Very little is known about Franklin’s childhood experience, except that she began experimenting with hair as a girl, styling the hair of friends and neighbors in the rural cotton-farming, turkey-raising community. Nobia Franklin married W. L. McCoy on June 7, 1907, and they had a daughter named Abbie. Franklin retained her maiden name and even gave her daughter the name Franklin, indicating a separation and potential problems in the marriage. According to biographer Julia Kirk Blackwelder, Abbie did not see her father that often. Nobia Franklin nevertheless continued to pursue her career ambitions.
Sometime in the 1910s, she moved from her rural community to nearby San Antonio, Texas. Eventually Franklin opened a thriving salon in her home. The young woman not only styled hair but also developed cosmetics for her growing clientele. Modeling herself and her business after beauty moguls Sarah Breedlove Walker [Madame C. J. Walker], Sarah Spencer Washington, Annie T. Malone, and Anthony Overton, Franklin sold self-manufactured hair tonics, creams, oils, bleaching agents, straitening combs, shampoos, powders, rouges, and lipsticks.
Beginning in the 1900s, black beauticians as well as inventors experimented with chemicals and creams to modify the composition of Afro-textured hair. At this critical juncture the African American hair care and cosmetics industry became a multimillion-dollar arena for African-descent Americans of the United States. The industry also transformed African American hairstyles nationally by promulgating the idea that straightened hair was more professional, cleaner, neater, and physically appealing to the eye. Successful and enterprising, Nobia Franklin marketed her products to attract residents, which allowed her to expand her fledging operations. She opened a beauty shop in Fort Worth in 1916. Expanding her business, Nobia Franklin opened the Franklin School of Beauty Culture (see FRANKLIN BEAUTY SCHOOL) and a manufacturing center that complemented the salon. The emerging entrepreneur in 1917 relocated her businesses from Fort Worth to Houston. Her products sold, although sales never brought her the kind of commercial wealth and popularity enjoyed by leading professionals in the budding arena of black hair care. Now calling herself Madame N. A. Franklin, the ambitious young woman, according to Blackwelder, taught her beauty students “the Franklin way.”
In 1922, in hopes of capturing a larger clientele as well as securing better opportunities for her adolescent daughter, she followed others to Chicago. She also groomed her daughter to take over the business someday. In 1927 the pair formed the N. A. Franklin Association of Beauty Culture to institutionalize her product line among nascent sales agents. The association not only trained women in hair styling and management techniques but inspired salespeople to inculcate good morals, respect, frugality, timeliness, and Christian uplift. The pair especially encouraged the sales representatives to establish salons and sell her products. To no avail, Franklin’s designs never reached the success of her predecessors and contemporaries. For one, Chicago had its share of black hair consultants and enterprises, including those entrepreneurs who succeeded in these initiatives. Competitor Marjorie Stewart Joyner, for example, managed several Madame C. J. Walker salons and some two hundred beauty schools, ultimately opening and marketing her own enterprises nationwide, including a hair curling/straightening machine. Second, even after moving to Chicago, Franklin chose not to patent her products, therefore never garnering a national following.
Like Madame Walker, Nobia Franklin employed excellent protégés. She employed an enterprising high school student named James H. Jemison of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Abbie, who graduated from high school in 1926, developed a fondness for the tall, good-looking Jemison, who graduated from Wendell Phillips High School the following year. Their friendship blossomed, and Jemison soon became Franklin’s son-in-law. Nobia, perhaps due to failing health, turned over control of the business to daughter Abbie and son-in-law J. H. in the early 1930s. Jemison kept efficient records, followed instructions, and planned for the business’s future success. Unlike other men in hairdressing, Jemison enjoyed hair styling and developed a national reputation for his efficiency and longstanding interest in the cosmetology arena. Ultimately he took the helm of the salon and beauty school in the early 1930s and made the college into to a regional success.
On October 30, 1934, the first African American southern-born beauty operator to relocate north for expansion purposes, Nobia A. Franklin, died in Chicago. The family buried her back in Texas, in her birthplace of Cuero. Abbie and James Jemison then relocated the business to Houston. The revamped business, however, only had a beauty school. The Jemisons closed the hair salon and manufacturing house. The move benefited the Jemisons during a time when cosmetology schools increasingly trained aspiring beauticians as licensed practitioners in cosmetology. The Franklin Beauty School, while not the only one in the state, grew to become the largest in the South by World War II. Without Nobia A. Franklin’s vision, Franklin Beauty School would not have come into being.