Claudia Kai McKee, the founder of a downtown Baltimore hair salon and mentor to young beauticians, died of sarcoidosis Dec. 15 at Esther’s Place at the Montebello Assisted Living Facility. The West Baltimore resident was 78.
Born in Baltimore and raised in West Baltimore, she was the daughter of Faison Sampson, who owned a well-patronized West Fayette Street soul food restaurant and his wife, Audrey Neal, who later changed her name to Khadeejah Satou Mata.
She was a 1958 graduate of Eastern High School and was in a class that had only recently been opened to African American students. Ms. McKee then received a diploma at the Apex School of Beauty in Baltimore.
“My mother was warm and inspirational. She was a fantastic businesswoman who was also creative,” said her daughter, Shannon Harper. “She had many attributes and went on to become one of the best-known stylists in Baltimore.”
As a young woman she worked in hair salons until she opened her own business, Mane Attraction, in 1977 at 119 W. Mulberry St. near the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library. It was an early African American owned, full-service beauty salon in the downtown Baltimore shopping district.
“She was honest, upright and a much-respected stylist,” said Keven Brown, owner of the Nancy Cafe on West North Avenue. “She was the kind of person who crossed her t’s and dotted her i’s. She would say, ‘I don’t dye hair. I color hair.’”
Ms. McKee enlarged the salon with a licensed aesthetician who ran a skin care division.
“People didn’t know what an aesthetician was in 1979,” said Debi Young, a makeup artist and aesthetician hired by Ms. McKee. “Claudia was way ahead of her time. She was innovative and a people person. She could light up a room with her smile.”
Others recalled how she had high standards.
"She never had a shop. It was always a salon. She would correct you,” said Towanda Solese, a friend who is the owner of Mahogany Hair Salon. “Her knowledge of the business was immense. She trained me. I came to her as an 11th grade student from Mervo Vocational-Tech. I was doing shampoos and I felt as if I were in one of the highest-learning classrooms of the beauty industry.”
Ms. McKee later opened shops within her store — Fyndz, the Collectique and Mirrors. She sold fine art, designer clothing, jewelry, accessories and cosmetics.
“My sister became legendary in the field of beauty culture, hair care and design,” said her sister, Shannon. “Clients traveled from across states on the East Coast to experience her service and style.”
Colleagues said Ms. McKee believed she could learn from other hair professionals and studied and trained with the Vidal Sassoon salon in San Francisco and at the L’Oreal and Mondial Schools in Paris.
Colleagues in the beauty field said this masters-level training enabled her to provide service to her clientele, educate and mentor other beauty care professionals, and facilitate demonstrations in many hair and beauty venues.
“She was tirelessly dedicated to the education, training and uplifting of young stylists. Her training extended beyond what was required to acquire licensure,” said a friend, Cassandra Stewart.
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“Her salon had a professional atmosphere,” said Sheila Lewis, a Pikesville resident. “You could tell the entire staff was into their trade. It was a place of customer service and making the clients beautiful.”
Ms. McKee was a consultant to the 2018 Center Stage play, “A Wonder in My Soul,” about hair salons. She appeared with other salon owners at an audience workshop.
She collected and sold works by African American artists William Tolliver and Charles Bibbs.
She invited local jazz artists to her salon for concerts. She also entertained elected officials and politicians. She hosted a reception for the actress Barbara O. Jones, who appeared in “Daughters of the Dust,” a 1991 independent film about the Gullah region.
Ms. McKee served as a docent at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, and was a board member of the Joshua Johnson Council of the Baltimore Museum of Art. She volunteered her time with students during career fairs.
A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1130 W. Lexington St., where she was a member.
In addition to her daughter, survivors include her sons, Derek McKee of New Tripoli, Pennsylvania, and Eric McKee of Columbia, South Carolina; a sister, Patsy Whitener, of Baltimore; four grandchildren, sixteen great-grandchildren; and a great-great-granddaughter. A son, Bryan Lee McKee, died in 2018.