Viola B. Muse was an accomplished woman—a college graduate, philanthropist and club woman, hair salon and beauty school owner, patent holder of hair products, Federal Writers Project worker, and kindergarten teacher. Born Viola B. Walker, she was the daughter of William H. Walker, Jr. of Huntsville, Alabama, and Annie Laurie Walker (Pleasants) of Cincinnati, Ohio. Genealogical records indicate Muse was born on April 11, 1898 in Alabama, although there is a four-year discrepancy about Muse’s birth year: the Florida Death Index lists Muse’s birth year as 1898, but the Social Security Death Index records Muse’s birth in 1894. Nicknamed “Vie,” Muse had a sister named Beulah L. Walker (Day) (c. 1885).
When Muse was two years old, the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where she was raised until 1914. It is likely here where she met her first husband, Priestly Leonard Mullins (1882-1920), a 1905 graduate of Howard University’s Pharmacy Department who was working as a druggist in St. Louis. (His pharmacy, located on North Market and Pendleton Streets, is listed in the St. Louis Public Library Bulletin as a book delivery station from 1911 through 1916).
One possible scenario for their meeting would be through Muse’s sister Beulah, who graduated in 1909 from Meharry Pharmaceutical College. The pharmaceutical school was part of Meharry Medical College, founded in 1876 as the medical department of Central Tennessee College, the second oldest medical school for African Americans and the first in the south.
Census records from 1940 indicate that Muse also was a college graduate, and the family appears to have been part of the early 20th-century Black middle class, interested in racial uplift through education and credentialed careers. Many in the family were “club women”—for example, Muse and her mother were members of the Phyllis Wheatley Woman’s club of Chicago, which ran at least three homes for the “housing and protecting of Race girls and women.” Annie L. Pleasants later became chairman of the executive board of the club. She was also president of the Chicago Ladies of Honor club and vice-president of the DuSable Memorial Society, Inc.. And Muse’s aunt, Hettie Walker Davis, was well noted for her social, church, and fraternal work in Chicago and Huntsville.
In 1914, Viola and Priestley moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where Mullins, his father, and his brother Moses F. Mullins founded the Vole Hair and Beauty Culture College, incorporated in December 1915. Viola was “superintendent of instructions.” The school seems to have offered training to aestheticians on site in Tennessee and likely in other areas as well, as one photograph shows the college staff in Tampa, Florida.
After a legal battle among the Mullins men over the administration of the college, Viola and Priestley moved to Jacksonville, Florida, but Priestley died soon after on April 26, 1920 and is buried in Old City Cemetery.
Beginning six months later, in October 1920, Muse applied for multiple patents of hair and scalp products created by Mullins. These “hair and scalp preparations” and “oil for massaging the temples” were trademarked by V.B. Mullins in 1921.
Also in 1920, Muse registered the Vylo-Vole Beauty Culture College with an address on Monroe Street in Chicago. By 1923, Muse ran a hair salon and the beauty school by the same name out of the Masonic Lodge on Broad Street in Jacksonville. The lodge also housed the office of lawyer John P. Muse (c. 1884-1964), whom Viola married in October 1922. The couple lived at 1468 Steele Street west of Myrtle Avenue in Durkeeville just down from Smalls Field.
In 1936, Muse was hired as a fieldworker for the Negro Writers Unit of the Florida Federal Writers Project division of the Works Progress Administration, a position she held until 1939. The Negro Unit, segregated from the main office on Duval Street, was located at the Clara White Mission on Ashley Street.
After her work with the FWP, Muse ran a private kindergarten in Jacksonville out of her home on Steele Street. Called the Jack and Jill Kindergarten, the school was not affiliated with the society of the same name and was in operation into the 1960s.
The Muses adopted their daughter Patricia Sharon (child of Gloria Cole) in the 1950s and subsequently had one grandson, John Priestley Muse. Both descendants are deceased, and it is unknown whether Muse has any living relatives. Muse died in Jacksonville on February 6, 1981 and is buried in Riverside Memorial Cemetery.
Bell, Patricia. Interview. Conducted by Interviewers Laura Heffernan, Tru Leverette, Clayton McCarl. 13 October 2021.
Stewart, Catherine A. Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
Taylor, Rebecca Stiles. “Phyllis Wheatley Club Honors Its Eminent Founder,” The Chicago Defender, 4 February 1939.