Callie Terrell has been styling hair for more than seven decades in Memphis. Next month, she turns 100 years old and plans to retire — but not by choice. She’s out of a job.
"I'd keep going, maybe to 101 or 102," she said in an interview with The Washington Post. "I love what I do, so why not?"
She does not use a cane to walk or glasses to see. “I’m just old, honey,” she said, not sick.
Terrell, who will turn 100 on Nov. 26, had a shop of her own on the South Parkway thoroughfare in Memphis for several decades until it burned down 35 years ago in what firefighters suspected was arson, she said. Since then, she has rented a booth at Innovations Salon near her home, driving herself to work to give shampoo-sets and haircuts to loyal clients.
"I've lived longer than almost all of them," Terrell said. "And all my friends and family, too. I can't account for why I'm still here. I suppose it's just working and doing something that brings joy."
The youngest of 10 children (she is the only one left), Terrell grew up on a farm in Hernando, Miss., where she learned at a young age to appreciate a well-coiffed head of hair.
Her mother, who had the same name as Callie, wore long, beautiful tresses, Terrell recalled. "She parted her hair down the center and wrapped it around her head. When she unrolled it, she'd let me comb it and play with it," she said.
Terrell also brushed and braided her dolls' hair for hours, dreaming up new styles and adorning their porcelain and cloth heads with ribbons and bows.
“This was before we had black dolls,” she said. “So I had all of these little white dolls with funny-looking hair on their heads. Let me tell you, it was nothing you could put no heat on.”
When she turned 10, Terrell’s dad, Archie Veazy, wanted her to get a good-quality education, so she went to live with one of her older sisters in Memphis, returning to the family farm every summer. After graduating from a segregated high school in 1937, she enrolled in college for a few years, she said, then worked briefly as a schoolteacher before deciding to go to cosmetology school.
"I was good at it,” she said.
In 1939, she married Charles Terrell, who worked as a mail carrier, and in 1945 she earned her beautician’s license. She helped put three daughters through college with her earnings.
"They say I'm the oldest licensed beautician in Tennessee," she said. "Nobody's come forward to dispute that, so it must be true."
In the late 1950s, Terrell opened her own shop — Terrell’s Beauty Salon — on a corner where people often gathered for demonstrations during the civil rights movement.
"Right across the street was a Methodist church were there would be mass meetings," she recalled. "And a whole mess of police would show up.”
Things were so tense in Memphis at that time, she said, her husband used to drive to her shop each night and follow her as she drove home, for safety.
The couple participated “heart, soul and body” in human rights marches, several of which were led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Terrell said.
"I shook his hand and talked to him during the early days of his civil rights life," she said. "I so admired him. He was a godsend."
On April 3, 1968 — the night of King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech — Terrell and her husband were in the audience at Memphis’s Mason Temple. The next day, King was assassinated. Everyone who came to her beauty shop was in mourning for a while, Terrell recalled, so she did what she always did: She listened.
“I’ve seen and heard a lot of things, some good, some not so good,” she said, "but when a lady needs somebody to talk to, I’m there for them.”
She recently recounted her experience of King’s speech and assassination for Spelman College’s oral history project.
Her husband used to ask her why people confided in her all the time. “What is it about that chair?'" he’d ask.
Terrell would tell him: "It's just something that happens at the beauty shop. If people can talk to you, that means they're comfortable.”
When her husband died of cancer at age 59, Terrell’s customers were there for her in turn and gave her the encouragement she needed to keep going. After her shop burned down in the 1980s, she said her heart broke a second time.
"But you have to play the hand that you're dealt, that's all,” she said. “I picked up and went on."
Her customers say they admire her passion and persistence. One loyal client, Felecia Hailstock, 56, found Terrell six years ago and hasn't let anybody else style her hair since.
“I have a headful of white hair, and Mrs. Terrell said, ‘I can make it more manageable; it will be really pretty. Let me try,’ ” Hailstock said. "She does a wonderful job, but more than that, she’s always so caring and compassionate. She asks about my family and talks about her life, and it’s like a history lesson when I’m there. She has wonderful words of wisdom.”
Hailstock said she will miss her twice-monthly shampoo-set sessions with Terrell when she retires in November, and she’s not alone. One of Terrell’s three daughters, Inez Boyd, has relied on her mother to cut and style her hair since she was born 78 years ago.
“Nobody else has ever touched my hair — I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Boyd said. “My mother always did my hair and my sisters' hair every morning when we were growing up. And even though she worked every day, she always took time to be involved in the PTA and in civic clubs.”
Her mom has always been a busy, independent person, Boyd said. Terrell even drives Boyd around town on errands because Boyd has become too nervous to drive herself in recent years
“I’m her chauffeur and hairstylist,” Terrell said with a laugh. “I don’t like sitting around the house all day, doing nothing. I want to jump in the car and go do something that makes me happy.”
Often, that’s styling hair. For more than three decades, Terrell has taken pride in telling customers the truth about how their hair should be cut and styled, she said.
She sighs when she remembers the “Jheri curl” — a glossy, loosely curled look that was popularized in the 1980s by Michael Jackson and other trendsetters.
"I never wanted to do that Jheri curl," she said, "so I didn't. I gave those customers to another operator in the salon. I don't like tacky things. I want people to look realistic and professional."
After 73 years on the job, "I do know a thing or two about what looks good,” she said.
That’s one of many reasons she’s wistful about ending her career.
“I’ll miss my job, and I’ll miss my customers when I retire, but that won’t be the end,” she said. “I’m still going to keep active."
On her 100th birthday, she has plans.
“You’ll see me out driving around Memphis,” she said. “You bet.”