Elizabeth Johnson lost her hair from scarlet fever as a child. She had to wear a rag on her head and other kids picked on her. Her grandmother, a hairdresser, created elixirs and concoctions to help grow it back.
Those creations worked. And not only did her hair grow back, but like a compass, it pointed Johnson in the direction of her lifelong career path.
After more than 60 years — and at 87-years-old — Johnson is still doing hair, specializing in corrective hair growth. And after all these years, Johnson doesn’t have any current plans to retire.
“I still love it. I do. I really do,” Johnson said as she rested her head in her palm and gazed off while at her shop recently.
Liz’s Place, her current shop, which a deed shows she’s owned since 1973, is one of the oldest Black-owned businesses on Pennsylvania Avenue, once the heart of Baltimore’s Black entertainment and business scene.
A laminated four-page resume on the wall of the salon, next to a “boss lady” plaque at her workstation, lists a press and curl, Jeri curl, highlighting and haircutting as Johnson’s specialties. They are all noticeably old-school, but classic styles.
It’s easy to pass the royal blue awning outside Liz’s Place when driving down a busy Pennsylvania Avenue toward North Avenue because so many businesses have closed over the years.
Johnson stays on Pennsylvania Avenue because she likes the neighborhood and thinks she has earned enough respect from people that the shop’s little corner stays quiet and safe enough for her to run her business.
Seated across from an article in the display window in her shop about Madam C.J. Walker — one of the first Black women to break barriers in the beauty industry — Johnson talks with the impatience and “say what I want” assertiveness of an older person who has been around awhile and learned some things. It’s all touched with a lot of humor.
Johnson, a widow, has had four husbands and is not ashamed. Someone once fumbled her taxes, so she learned to do them herself. She’s made big donations to her church because “if you don’t give God his part, the devil will take it all back.”
Delores Smith has been getting her hair done by Johnson for at least 30 years.
“You get very content when you find something that you’re satisfied with, so you stick with them,” Smith said
The women recently recalled the restaurants, stores, clubs, movie theatre and beauty shops that once made Pennsylvania Avenue vibrant. They have watched each other’s children grow up and start building their own families.
Smith is close enough with Johnson to share opinions about her business. For one, she needs more technicians, Smith said. She remembers when a receptionist once greeted visitors at a desk. The shop has more of an open floor plan now, with mostly empty, glossy black shampoo bowls and workstations with mirrors.
Smith thinks Johnson’s lasted so long because she’s also active outside of work. Johnson used to hold food giveaways and volunteered at a salon inside a senior living community. She picks up her older clients if they need rides to their appointments and takes them back home.
“Most people treat old people like they’re not important,” Johnson said.
Donna Brown, whose worked in the shop for the last few years, said several of Johnson’s friends and clients have died, but “at the end of the day, she shows who she is. She’s a pillar.”
Johnson comes in three or four days a week, making her own schedule. Lately, she’s had to call out because she didn’t feel well or she’s achy from carpal tunnel syndrome or from standing and walking too long.
Anyone who wants to work for Johnson has to follow some shop rules: no smoking, no profanity and no coming into the salon with anything “hot” or stolen.
“I think that’s why we survived on the avenue this long is because we didn’t play no games,” Johnson said.
Johnson has the highest credentials in cosmetology. A homegrown cosmetologist, she graduated from Carver Vocational Technical High School and got her beautician license from Angelo Beauty Academy in 1959. She received her master’s and doctorate from the National Institute of Cosmetology. Throughout her career, she’s helped nurture the next generation of hair stylists.
Johnson says she knows she’s “not going to be here forever” and that she has to step back at some point. She wants the Lord to keep her “well enough to get these people licensed or out the front door.” She’s helped hundreds of people pass the state board and get their footing in the industry. But she doesn’t want students to just learn how to do hair. They need to know how to run a business, too.
Because of her age, Johnson recently put the shop in a relative’s name to keep it in the family. Her kids and grandkids aren’t as passionate as she is about hair, but someone will have to run the day-to-day when she finally retires her hot comb, she said.
Johnson isn’t alone in working through her later years. The number of people 75 and older in the labor force is expected to grow by over 90% in the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Carly Roszkowski, AARP’s vice president of financial resilience, said older people stay in the workforce for practical reasons, such as making a living or learning new skills. Others seek meaningful jobs.
Johnson said she couldn’t imagine doing anything else professionally, but when she’s not pressing or cutting hair she likes to sew, travel and cook — especially salmon.
Patricia Womble, originally from West Baltimore, said she’d driven past Liz’s Place many times without knowing it was open. Johnson’s voice and tone, filled with reassurance, drew Womble in earlier this month after she explained that her hair was coming out in clumps. Before ending the call, Womble told Johnson, ”Well, you’re stuck with me now.”
Womble likes the old school press and curl with a brush out, and Johnson was the perfect person to do it. The first time Womble got it done she received plenty of compliments, she said. Leaning back in a chair behind Womble, Johnson smiled, remembering how much Womble hugged her after seeing the finished product.
As Johnson slowly put the hot comb through a lock of hair, creating a small puff of smoke, a young woman entered through the front door.
“Do you remember me?” the woman asked, identifying herself as Latierdra Sanders, a former resident of the area. Johnson scrunched her forehead and squinted her eyes as she put the hot comb back into the heat.
Sanders told Johnson that she worked at the beauty salon a decade ago when she first got her cosmetology license. She moved back to the Sandtown neighborhood and wants to work at the shop again.
“Let’s talk on Thursday,” Johnson said, thinking about the possibility of welcoming back yet another beautician.
Sanders said she loved when her grandmother sent her and her cousin to the shop to get their hair done. But entering the shop that Saturday, she saw the place was more cluttered and empty than before.
“I just always remember going in there and just seeing pretty women everywhere,” Sanders said, adding that the women filled the place with laughter, joy and love.
Johnson said the shop needs fixing. The floors aren’t the linoleum that she wants and the whole place is due for its fifth or sixth renovation. Ideally, she’d like to buy a property next door to expand. Still, she proudly claims the salon.
“This is a business. It might look like a junky business, but it’s a business,” she said.