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A son's gift: Shuttered North Charleston beauty salon's restoration for his mother

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A large piece of plywood covers the window of a small cinder block building on Joppa Avenue, a place people could walk past and think nothing of — another abandoned building. 

Kenneth Morris prys at nails with a crow bar. The board came crashing to the ground, revealing a handpainted sign dated to 1958: "Thelma's Beauty Salon." 

A silhouette of an African-American woman was fading in the corner, nearly vanishing like the businesses that once peppered Union Heights in North Charleston. Morris, now 67, remembers when the sign was painted. He was 11 then. 

"Our lady's faded out," he said. "She's not what she used to be." 

In its heyday, Thelma's Beauty Salon entertained a long waitlist of clients from around the neighborhood. Perfect curls were a Sunday church necessity, as mothers reminded daughters. What they really came for was Thelma Region, a petite woman with a rich complexion, a quick wit and a different pair of heels for each day of the week. 

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Thelma Region, raises her hands and dances across the floor in celebration of her former beauty shop where she operated for 56 years in Union Heights. Her son Kenneth Morris recently renovated the shop as a community space for Thelma and revealed it to her on Mother's Day this year. "This is beautiful, it is beautiful. It is something." Thelma said in reaction to what her son had done for her. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

The salon is a relic of the now dormant small business scene in Union Heights — where cars now whiz past dated and empty storefronts. Spruill Avenue once sported distinct black-owned barbershops, grocery stores and laundromats. Today, it's blighted by noisy infrastructure and dead streets, but its residents and their churches remain. 

There were more black-owned businesses in the 1950s in South Carolina than there are today, S.C. African American Chamber of Commerce President Stephen Gilchrest said. After desegregation, African-Americans were able to enter what were formerly whites-only businesses.

Additionally, the children of business owners in prominent African-American communities like Union Heights chose to move away to places with more opportunity. Morris knows this story all too well because it mirrors his own. 

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Kenneth Morris, 67, gives his mother, Thelma Region, a hug after returning the keys of her former beauty shop where she operated for 56 years in Union Heights. Kenneth recently renovated the shop as a community space for Thelma and revealed it to her on Mother's Day. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

His mother, Thelma Region (born Thelma Morris) left South Carolina to pursue a nursing career in New York City. But it was in New York where a man named Buddy changed her life. She was a smitten girl from the South and he was a big city guy. But at the age of 19, she became pregnant with his child. He denied that he was the father and stopped speaking to her. 

Things weren't good back in South Carolina. The teenager received a call from her father. Her mother had fallen ill with cancer. He needed her to come home and take care of her siblings and her mother while he worked his overnight shift at the Navy Yard.

Young Thelma kept her pregnancy a secret and tried many times to abort her baby. She tripped herself while running from the bus stop. She drank turpentine. And still, the baby kicked. 

Her mother died in November, and the following February, Kenneth was born. 

He grew up in his grandfather's home in the 1950s. His mother walked about half a mile to the corner of Meeting Street Road and Echo Avenue. Miss Annie Green's salon was where Thelma first learned the craft of hair styling. Annie's daughter, Lucille, watch little Kenneth while Region shampooed hair at 25 cents a head. 

Every penny saved went toward a better life for her son, who showed an early affinity and talent for music. He was recognized by the band director at his middle school for excellence in drumming and would practice at home by patting his hands on the kitchen table. After saving enough money, Thelma went to Fox Music and bought her son a real set of drums. 

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Kenneth Morris, 67, returned home from California to take care of his ailing mother, Thelma, in her Union Heights home. He also decided to renovate the beauty shop she operated there for 56 years. Wade Spees/Staff Friday, May 11, 2018

Life was good for the little family of two. When Kenneth turned 10, however, Thelma met the love of her life, a man who wanted to be a father to her son and support her career. His mom married and took her husband's name, "Region."

Thelma asked young Kenneth if he would like to have the new name, too. 

"No," he said. "I want mommy's name."

The Region family — including Kenneth Morris — moved to their new home on Joppa Avenue. Region continued to walk up to Miss Annie Green's to press hair and walked home after dark. One summer night she got caught in a wild rain storm. When she walked into the door, drenched, her husband said, "No more." 

He spent a year building a salon in the front yard of the family's home. Morris, then 11, helped lay the bricks. Just like that, Region owned the first beauty salon on her street.

It was aptly named, "Thelma's Beauty Salon."

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Thelma Region, in her Union Heights home, where her son Kenneth Morris, 67, came back to from California to take care of her. He also decided to renovate the beauty shop she operated there for 56 years. Wade Spees/Staff Friday, May 11, 2018

Region made a name for herself as one of the best hair stylists in Union Heights. Ladies flocked for her "hot press" — a technique in which Region heated an iron in hot coals before curling the hair. 

Region was deeply religious and involved in her church. She thanked God every day for the life he had given her, how everything fell into place in the wake of the death of her mother and the birth of a child she thought she couldn't protect. Morris was a teenager when his mother confided in him that she had tried to abort him. At first they cried. Now they laugh. 

"God wanted this," Region says now. 

Morris attended South Carolina State in Orangeburg on a music scholarship. He studied engineering. After graduating he joined the Marines. He later moved across the country to California to pursue a career in engineering. That’s where he met his wife and the couple settled down in Los Angeles.

When his mother's dementia began to take hold of her health, Morris and his wife sold their house in California and moved to Hanahan. At first he took on small projects here and there to help his mom; he built her a walk-in closet and refurnished her kitchen. 

What loomed in the front yard, termites eating away at the floorboards, was his mother's legacy. 

Since its inception in 1958, the salon was a place where Thelma prayed with her friends and sang with the Union Church Band. Morris wanted to restore the salon so it could be a comfortable, safe place for his mom and the circle of longtime neighbors and friends. 

On Mother's Day, Thelma stepped out of the front door of her home and gripped her porch railing. Her pale turquoise dress contrasted with the spring foliage and green grass. She squinted her eyes and walked, slowly, toward her son. 

"Hey mom!" he said, reaching for her hand. 

Once inside, gasped, "Oh my gosh!"

Her feet glided over the new wooden floors. Fresh white paint with red, blue and yellow trim coated the walls. 

Suddenly, the energetic, spunky Thelma of the past came back. She tap danced. Then started singing. 

"This is beautiful, it is beautiful," she said. "It is something."

For Thelma, she was returning to the business she had run for 56 years. 

Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at The Post and Courier covering race, immigration and rural life across the Palmetto State. Before graduating from Indiana University and moving to Charleston in 2017, her byline appeared in The New York Times.