Willia Bland, a trailblazer in the field of public health and the founder of the Flair Modeling Studio, which helped develop the self-esteem of young women of color for generations, died Feb. 18 at age 92.
Willia Bland, founder of the Flair Studio of Modeling and Dance, was a pioneer of fashion and beauty in Baltimore. (Courtesy Photo)
Lottie Willia Bland was born in Chadbourn, N.C., to Addie Suggs and Marion Buck, on May 28, 1925. While they lived in North Carolina, her father, an erudite man who later became a lecturer, worked on the railroad. Her mother was a talented seamstress, who taught Bland and her younger sister Dorothy how to sew. The family moved from North Carolina when Bland was three. According to The Baltimore Times, the family’s move from North Carolina to Baltimore was precipitated by a threat by the Ku Klux Klan, who had planned to attack her father.
Influenced by her father, Bland was drawn to language and acting. Her mother’s work as a seamstress sparked an interest in fashion and modeling.
Bland enrolled in the Carson Modeling School, the first such school in Baltimore for people of color, and graduated in 1967. Afterward, she pursued her passion for modeling and taught the craft as well.
In 1968, Bland established the Flair Modeling Studio during one of the most tumultuous times in the nation’s and Baltimore’s history. For many years, Flair was the only Black modeling agency in Maryland. Initially, classes were held in the living room of Bland’s partner Lucille Barton and then Bland’s basement. A subsequent move took Flair to Mondawmin Mall, where the organization was based for many years, before a final move to its current Catonsville location. Early on, Willia Bland was joined in the business by her daughter, Andrea Bland-Travis.
In 1974, Flair expanded to the Flair Studio of Dance and Modeling. The dance studio instructs children, teens and adults in Ballet, Tap, Jazz, Hip-Hop, Pointe and African Dance.
Bland is also remembered for her trailblazing career in the public health field. In 1951, Bland broke the segregation barrier at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Baltimore, working as a ward secretary in the cardiac research unit, and then as Outpatient Clinics manager. She was later the hospital’s director of volunteer services.
As a volunteer at Provident Hospital, where her sister Dorothy studied to be a nurse, Bland created the Provident Hospital Auxiliary’s Annual Fashion Show fundraiser, which operated under Bland’s direction for decades.
In 1969, she became the first Black person to serve on the Board of the Maryland Association of Hospital Auxiliaries. In 1972, Bland was president of the Maryland Council of Directors of Volunteer Services. From 1974 to 1983 she was the only civilian chosen to serve on the Surgeon General’s Public Health Services staff, eventually becoming its chief and responsible for the implementation of policy at seven hospitals.
Bland was laid to rest on Feb. 27. She was preceded in death by two sons, Harold Leighton Mitchner and Jeffrey Craig Bland. She is survived by her daughters, Diane Mitchner Brown and Andrea Bland-Travis; granddaughters, Mona Hanson, Misty Drummond and Willia Noel Montague; great-grandchildren, Michael Antonio Bernal, Maria Bernal, Gemma Mallick, Madison Drummond, Nolan and Harper McCormick, and a host of other family members and friends.