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Telling history through hair: Almeta Clyburn's impact on Sumter honored in short documentary

Almeta Dizzley Clyburn opened a beauty salon in 1950. Now, her legacy of creating safe spaces for Black women is being honored with a short documentary.

SUMTER, S.C. — A producer is trying to tell history through hair by exploring the significance of a beauty shop in Sumter. It started in the 50’s with the goal of empowering Black women. 

"This is your grandmother's story. Just tell it. And that changed everything," Dia Clyburn says about the advice she got from a friend. "Because it is. This is her story and I'm really, really glad to tell it."

This opportunity to share about her grandmother's legacy came when Michaela Angela Davis wanted to produce a documentary about her grandmother, Almeta Dizzley Clyburn.

"At Clyburn's you can, you can feel Almeta in the space. There's still old hot combs and beautiful old chairs and so it still has this feeling of history but there's young women and they're still getting their hair pressed," Davis explains. "And it still holds that same community anchor, you know, beauty shops, churches, there are certain places that just really create community and particularly for women, and particularly for Black women, beauty shops are still safe places."

In 1950, Almeta opened a beauty salon.

"She would bring young ladies from the rural areas, — Bishopville, Camden, you know, Kershaw County — have them live with her for a little while she puts them through beauty school, and then she would encourage them to open their own salons, back where they live," Clyburn tells me. "So she allowed her legacy to continue to to grow."

She would also create hair products designed for Black girls and women and give them out to people in her community while fostering a safe space in her salon.

"Beauty shops are places where women, Black women particularly, raised money for the civil rights movement, raised money for colleges, developed skill sets, safe places in the community, and they are still that," Davis says. "Clyburn's is probably the most vibrant example of that."

This weekend, Davis is premiering a short documentary about the shop's legacy.

"It is a precious little gem of not only the story of Sumter, but the story of how women build spaces that build community that create leaders," Davis details.

Loretta Way has been working at the shop for 52 years, starting alongside Almeta. She says the founder would have been proud to see her granddaughter continuing that legacy.

"She talked to me about a lot of things that she wanted to see happen, and those things are happening now. It's happening now because people are knowing what she was trying to accomplish," Way smiles. "And it makes me feel good because I was a part of it."

That documentary will be premiered at Morris College on Saturday at 11 a.m. Then at the Sumter Resource Center on Sunday. Along with AARP, Davis will host the screening of "Something about Sumter: Almeta's Story."

"This is Women's History Month but let's be clear, women keep families together, keep communities together, keep the country together," Davis laughs about the larger message behind the short documentary. "And so this is just a real celebration and an illumination of that."

And while that history is being highlighted, Dia Clyburn says she's working everyday to keep her grandmother's legacy alive. 

"We try our best to encourage the young ladies who come in here, young or old. You know, we're we love our college students," Clyburn shares. "We encourage everyone to you know, learn a trade and to go to college and to you know, just be superior at who you are, you know, as a young Black woman."

Part of Almeta's purpose, Way says, is giving back to the community. It's a trait the beauty shop still tries to continue.

"[Almeta] taught us to reach out to other people in that same manner. You see someone that needs something that may not be able to afford it," Way says. "So she instilled in us to reach out and help someone else. And you know, make them feel good about themselves."

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