This astute Pine Bluff entrepreneur owned a clothing store, beauty parlor, and beauty school all while designing women's attire, manufacturing her own hair products, and showcasing her talents across the country.
Image Credit: RootsRevealed.com - Melvin Collier
Martha “Mattie” Ella Danner was born on May 13, 1873, in Panola County (Como), Mississippi, to United States Colored Troops Civil War veteran Edward Danner, Sr., and Louisa Bobo Danner. Martha was the youngest of four daughters among the Danner’s ten children. According to Martha’s biography in her 73-page booklet,, Book of Introduction of Improved Method in Beauty Culture; Mme. Hockenhull’s System, “She received her early training from the public schools of Panola County. Her mind was both artistic and scientific from childhood. Her first impression was to become a fashionable dressmaker. At the age of nine, she could cut and make garments perfectly. She was exceedingly studious during her early life, and most always stood at the head of her class. Having left the public school, her friends insisted that she engage in teaching. They finally prevailed upon her, and she, therefore, passed a very creditable examination before the board of education of her county, where she taught for a number of years.”
While teaching in Panola County, she married Reverend John Gray, and the two had a son named Isaac. Eventually they divorced and she moved with Isaac to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1910. That same year she married Robert Hockenhull, and they quickly went into business together. They purchased and operated Pine Bluff’s first hotel for African Americans. An astute businesswoman in her own right, Martha also opened a shop called “Ladies Choice Millinery Store and Beauty Parlor” at 627 E. Sixth Street. She sold a variety of products ranging from hats to handmade dresses to hair care products. Like many of the beauty culturists of her day, she went by the title “Madam'' as she manufactured her own hair care line, which included growth serums, dandruff cures, straightening, and glossing oils. She also founded a beauty school to teach her methods to aspiring students.
In 1914, Martha caught the eye of Booker T. Washington, and he requested that she present her work at the National Negro Business League Convention, held in Muskogee, Oklahoma. So on August 18, 1914, the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic newspaper wrote a piece detailing her showcase at the convention. The article stated, “Mme M. E. Hockenhull of 627 E. Sixth Avenue, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, by the request of Booker T. Washington, president of the National Negro Business League, which holds its Fifteenth Annual meet in Muskogee, Okla., Aug. 19-22, will appear in ten different costumes, including hand-printed gowns, demonstrating before the national body her work in dressmaking, millinery and beauty culture.”
During the 1920s, she and Isaac moved to Chicago after her divorce. In Chicago, she continued manufacturing beauty products and women’s clothing. Isaac, who graduated with a degree in chemistry from Tuskegee Institute, was instrumental in helping his mother develop scores of new solutions for hair care. He later went on to wed the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, in a short marriage.
Martha died on December 18, 1937 in Chicago. She was a remarkable woman who was ahead of her time in many ways. Her range of accomplishments in business endeavors defied the odds stacked against African Americans, in general, and African American women, in particular, which were such rigid parts of the Jim Crow South.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard