Words by Feathers Scott
Though barber shops are often thought of as a “boy’s club,” they’ve long played a pivotal role in both the economic and cultural development in African American communities. Many would even argue that the barbershop has reinforced black male identity in America.
A barber shop is much more than a place to go for a haircut, it’s a second home, a town hall, a place of refuge and a place of healing. “We were known as some of the first doctors” says Jay Hawkins an artist, youth mentor and barber at Master’s Touch Barber Shop in Buffalo, NY. When asked about how barbering has helped him and his community Hawkins says, “Barbering has been the backbone of everything I’ve done and everything I do in life.”
Since the birth of formal barbering , the Black barber has always been a precious commodity. During slavery, slave masters turned a profit by leasing barbers to neighboring plantations and local establishments to groom both slaves and affluent white men alike. As a result of this huge demand, many black men literally “cut” their way to freedom. This helped pave the way for a more cultured American experience and rise to prominence as far back as the 1800’s.
At the turn of the 19th century, black barber shops began to transform into a place of commune and empowerment for African American men.
“It’s one of the few places where African-American men gather and do not feel threatened as black men — The barbershop has provided an emotional safe-haven for men who have endured exploitation for more than 200 years.” – Melvin Murphy author of “Barbershop Talk: The Other Side of Black Men”
Demesio Sango, a barber at Nappy Roots salon in Riverside, California passionately affirms this sentiment, “I’ve had clients pull me aside and cry to me.”
For Demesio, barbering is therapeutic, calling himself an occasional therapist for his clients. “We’ve always had to maintain a certain look. We were already looked down upon because of the color of our skin,” he explains. “We had to at least stay well groomed and kept up, especially if you were on the righteous path or in need of opportunities.”
Demesio also believes the grooming that barber shops provide, alternatively, is spiritual for black men. “If you’re confident in your image, you’re spiritually indulged in self.” he adds.
By the early 1900s, barbering and the men’s grooming industry became the “yellow brick road” and produced unprecedented wealth and opportunities for black men during some of the most toughest eras in modern history.
Alonzo Herndon, born in slavery and considered to be one of the first African-American millionaires founded the Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1905. The company had branches all across the country by 1922. It all started when he opened up his first barbershop in 1878.
At the time of his death, Herndon was said to have owned more than 100 rental and commercial properties on Auburn Avenue and was the wealthiest black man in the city of Atlanta. Herndon was able to take part in many other initiatives that helped shape black America as a whole such as the YMCA, National Negro Business League.
There were other black Barbers and shops who had even thrived financially during the Great Depression thanks to both black and white patrons — as grooming was still a necessity despite the hard times.
Barbering has also given black men global opportunities for enterprising. Entrepreneurs such as Willie Lee Morrows began his career as a barber in the late 60s. In the early 70s, he was even hired by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) to train thousands of military barbers in Vietnam, South Korea, and other Asian countries during the Vietnam War on properly caring for the “Afro” and the dynamics of black hairstyling. Today, Morrow is a multimillionaire, credited with what is now known as the Jheri curl, the commercializer of the “Afro Pick,” author of several best-selling books, and is regarded as both a black business and black hair care pioneer.
At the dawn of the civil rights era, black barbershops served as organic political hubs. Prominent Black Liberation activist Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) gave homage to a Harlem Barbershop his father patronized as a young man for giving birth to his social awareness. Ture referred to his barbershop experiences as “a necessary corrective” and “an early window into an African-American worldview and sensibility” in his autobiography “Ready for Revolution”.
In the mid 1980s black barbers helped shape Hip Hop into a thriving culture with hairstyles such as the hi-top fade worn by artists like Doug E Fresh, Big Daddy Kane, Kid N’ Play, 2Pac, Jay-Z and others. The hi-top fade is said to have been the catalyst for Hip Hop’s Golden era and also inspire popular alternative music styles such as “New Jack Swing.”
Today barber shops continue to be pinnacles within Black communities and are incubating a wealth of success stories.
“Barber shops are highly resourceful, I’ve gotten so many opportunities as a barber, this is our country club!” says Master Barber Antonio Carroll of Well Groomed Male in Decatur, GA. Carrol has been able become a philanthropist, inventor and remain self-employed for over 10 years by way of his clippers.
When asked about his stance on black barbers shops and their impact in the community and the lives of other black men, he recalls a client of his, now a celebrity chef and how it all started with pep talks in his chair. “He didn’t even believe that he could do it. Now, he’s cooking for everyone. We’re constantly motivating everybody. I ride my clients back just to make sure they’re uplifted and motivated and they appreciate that.”