LuTillian "Tillie" Hudson carefully examines a strand of her client Cynthia Gordon's hair before combing it. Credit: Amir Aziz

Ever since she was a kid growing up in Oakland in the ‘70s and ‘80s, LuTillian “Tillie” Hudson has loved to style people’s hair. “Since I was in the womb, I’ve wanted to style hair,” Hudson said. “I always had my family’s support because they saw me doing my friends’ hair when I was a little girl, and I never wavered.”

While attending Skyline High School, the Oakland native also took cosmetology courses at Laney College. Upon graduating, Hudson enrolled at Laney to complete the training hours she needed to become a licensed cosmetologist. 

By 1992, Hudson had saved enough money working at various salons in town to open her very own shop, Showin’ Out Hair Gallery, on MacArthur Boulevard. “I worked at and learned [valuable skills] from these places, but my ultimate goal was always to own a salon,” Hudson said.

At her salon, Hudson and her staff of two stylists and a braider can do everything from cutting hair, coloring, weaving, and beyond. In the store’s boutique section, Hudson sells everyday beauty products like lipstick, eyeliner, and more. The goal is to keep the customer looking stylish and that ethos is embedded in every aspect of Showin’ Out Hair Gallery, especially the name. “I never wanted to name it after myself,” Hudson said. “I wanted something that really made a statement and had longevity.”

It’s now been 30 years since Hudson first opened up Showin’ Out’ Hair Galley in Laurel, and the shop is still standing. Michelle Myles Chambers, Hudson’s cousin, has worked there with Tillie since it opened, assisting customers in the boutique. Chambers credits the longevity to her cousin’s vision.“The one thing about Tillie is that she’s a natural leader, so she took the necessary steps to ensure that she would be able to fulfill her dream of how she wanted to live her life.” 

Native Laurel residents like Kenya Richardson, owner of the Everett & Jones BBQ location on MacArthur Boulevard, have benefitted from Hudson’s lifelong commitment to styling hair. “I’ve been getting my hair done by Tillie since I was in junior high, and I get it done there quite frequently,” Richardson said. She says Showin’ Out has become a staple part of her life. “We’ve developed a sisterhood,” she said. “It’s really her personality that keeps you coming back because when you go there, you stay talking to her for a while and catching up.” 

LuTillian “Tillie” Hudson works on Cynthia Gordon’s hair. Gordon has frequented Showin’ Out Hair Salon for about 25 years. Credit: Amir Aziz

Hudson’s people skills and eye for detail are what keep Oakland resident Cynthia Gordon coming back to get her hair done. “I’ve been coming here for 25 years now,” Gordon said. She initially visited Showing Out’ because Hudson is a close high school friend of her cousin, and stayed after seeing what Hudson did with her cousin’s hair. “She was doing my cousin’s hair and my aunt’s hair, and I was fascinated with the styling technique and precision.” 

Currently, Showin’ Out Hair gallery is doing okay financially because of Hudson’s loyal clientele, but she says she is in need of hiring new staff that can color and style. “I lost most of my staff due to COVID, so I need a braider, a hairstylist, a barber—I need all of that,” Hudson said. “I lost all those people because salons were closed for almost a year.” 

A salon owner with big dreams for Laurel 

Outside Showin’ Out Hair Galley on MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland’s Laurel district. Credit: Amir Aziz

Hudson remembers that when she opened Showin’ Out Hair gallery in Laurel, there were only around two other salons in the neighborhood. Today, if you walk along the Laurel section of MacArthur Blvd, you’d see a business corridor lined with cosmetic businesses. “I think hair shops make up most of the businesses on the boulevard,” Hudson said. 

According to the Laurel District association’s business directory, there are about 14 shops specializing in hair care, and even more businesses specializing in other types of cosmetic care. Hudson doesn’t know why the cosmetic boom happened but “I feel like I started the trend,” she laughed, “because there weren’t that many when I first opened.”

Daniel Swafford, executive director of the Laurel District Association, doesn’t have a clear answer for why the business district is now home to so many cosmetic-based businesses, either, but considers Hudson to be a pioneer in offering specialized hair care to the surrounding area’s Black community in the 1990s. “Tilly was one of the ones who recognized that you have a special business corridor here that’s bustling with cars but was underserved,” Swafford said.

What Hudson does know for sure is that she wanted Laurel to become a destination spot for people in Oakland to come to visit and shop. Before moving to the shop’s original location at 3647 MacArthur, Hudson planned on opening her salon on Grand Avenue near Lake Merritt because “at the time, it was known as a destination spot,” she said. But that corridor’s popularity meant vacancies were hard to come by, so she kept looking.

The boutique shop inside Showin’ Out Hair Gallery on MacArthur Boulevard. Credit: Amir Aziz

Hudson decided that wherever her business ended up, she would be an active part of that community. Eventually, she landed her first spot on MacArthur and immediately looked for ways to plug in. “When I first moved to the [Laurel] district, they had an event called ‘the sidewalk sale,’ and when the person who started it moved out of the area, I stepped in and started organizing it,” she said. 

Hudson organized the event for about five years, and she and other business owners made it bigger through sponsorships from Wells Fargo and grocery chain Albertson’s. They set up a stage in the Albertsons parking lot and sometimes in the Victory Outreach parking lot, where people would perform music. 

This annual event, founded by business owners and residents, eventually became the Laurel Street Fair, which is now run by the Laurel District Association. “I’m happy to see it [still going] because it’s turned into something much grander than what I was doing,” says Hudson.

Hudson’s willingness to help others and her community has manifested in different forms throughout her three decades of operating in Laurel. Hudson decided to move to her current location at 3717 MacArthur Boulevard three years after opening the business because the owner wanted her to move there. “My current location was double the space of the old one. “He wouldn’t let me say no. I was 24 years old, and I think he saw my business savvy and he liked my drive,” Hudson said. She referred one of her friends to the property owner, and her friend opened a salon called Sisters Cuts & Styles at Tillie’s old location.

Hudson also encourages her own employees to start their own ventures. “A big part of my story is that a lot of people have left my salon and opened their shops,” Hudson said. “It makes me proud to be a part of something bigger, and to be one of the incubators.” Hudson’s sister Rose Bradshaw worked at the salon for five years before opening her own, Salon of Serenity, in San Leandro, in 1997. She later moved to a new location and renamed the business San Leandro Hair Design Co. 

The Laurel District has changed considerably in the last three decades, and the demographics of the community have skewed whiter. Hudson’s response to this ongoing change, according to her cousin Michelle Myles Chambers, has been to continue catering to her longtime clientele while also being willing to attend to the needs of newer customers. 

An illustration of the salon’s namesake hangs on a wall inside the shop. Credit: Amir Aziz

“When you are in cosmetology school you work on all types of hair. We’ve had plenty of new neighbors come to us and say, ‘Do you know where I can get my hair done?’ and we say, ‘You can get it cut here or colored here!’” Chambers said. “Tillie has created an atmosphere that is welcoming whether you are Black, Latinx, Native, Asian-American, Middle Eastern; we’re there to be of service to the community.”  

Hudson, who continues to be involved in neighborhood volunteer efforts such as serving meals to food-insecure people, feels that Laurel continues to be a diverse community and that’s shown through the small businesses on MacArthur Boulevard. “We have so much diversity in all the different businesses that we have, so there’s something for everybody,” Hudson said. “We are a destination spot now, but it’s taken a long time for us to get there. I really enjoy and embrace the change in diversity in the area, I just think that there are times when there is a sense of entitlement that sometimes may not be as welcoming.”

Kenya Richardson, the owner of Everett & Jones on MacArthur Boulevard, said that what she’s learned from watching Hudson running Showin’ Out is that supporting community members’ endeavors is a big part of preserving existing communities in Laurel. “There are a lot of people getting their hair done at home now, and what I want people to know is that if you want these things to be here for generations, then you have come out and support.” 

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.