“Since the turn of the 19th Century, beauty salons and barber shops have served as special places among African Americans. They have been places not only to get hair care services but locations where Black people could be vulnerable and talk about issues of importance in the community. There were spaces where customers played games such as chess, cards, and dominoes, while having conversations about local gossip, politics, and community affairs.” NMAAHC (National Museum of African American Art History and Culture)
According to Patrice Gaines in her NBC broadcast on April 29, 2020, “Barber shops and beauty salons aren’t just small businesses in the Black community; they are metaphorical street corners or town plazas. Customers visit both to get their hair styled or cut but also for the therapeutic experience.” Aaron Wallace in his book Black Man’s Grooming Guide states, “Barbershops are the central hub of the Black community. This is where we congregate, connect, share, learn, laugh, and feel a strong sense of belonging. For many of us it is a haven with lively debates, comedy and authentic Black-male friendship.” Gaines speaks of African American barbershops as “safe havens where the stylist with the clippers or the blow dryer can be trusted with sensitive marital or health secrets.”
African American barbershops have been so significant in U.S. history that legendary authors such as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Amiri Bakara and Richard Wright all have made reference to the “Black man’s sanctuary” in their works. Coming to America (1988 & 2021), Malcolm X (1992), and Barbershop (2002) are examples of films used to showcase African Americans’ unique relationships with barber and beauty shops.
Black barbershops in the 19th Century prior to the Civil War
Vassar College history professor Quincy Mills in his book Cutting Along the Color Line states that the history of African American barber shops “is deeply entwined with the history of slavery.” “Slave masters were turning a profit by leasing enslaved Black barbers to their neighbors and local establishments, to mainly groom prominent white men. The Black-owned barbershops were run by slaves or ex-slaves and it wasn’t easy for a Black man to visit a Black barber and get a haircut, not only in the south, but also in the north. Those Black barbershops were a competition for white-owned barbershops.” (Booksy Videos, The Importance of a Black Barbershop) “Black customers were not allowed to get haircuts in these Black-owned barbershops, mainly because white customers didn’t want Black customers getting shaved next to them. So barbers capitulated to the wishes of their white customers both in the North and the South.” (Mills) Barbering provided stability to some African American families as it became a means to earn some money and control of time. And, working inside was much more appealing to working under the harsh conditions of labor outside.
Black barbershops after Emancipation
After Emancipation, Black barbershops in the U.S. were free to serve Black customers. Education became more formalized for barbers when Henry Morgan established the Tyler Barber College in Tyler Texas in 1934 for Black barbers. He established a national chain of barber colleges throughout the nation until nearly 80 percent of all of the nation’s Black barbers were trained in his schools. Barbering became not only a career of opportunity for entrepreneurship but also a source of wealth for many. One such person was Alonzo Herndon who opened his first barbershop in 1878 in Atlanta building an empire of 100 shops while he became one of the first African-American millionaires.
African American barbershops as sites for activism
Herndon and John Merrick of Durham, North Carolina used money from their barbershops to establish life insurance companies because existing companies weren’t insuring African Americans. Their companies still exist today. Communities were benefactors of the monetary success of these individuals for they often contributed to public causes. An example was self-made millionaire, entrepreneur, philanthropist, political and social activist, Madame C.J. Breedlove Walker, who, while developing and marketing a line of hair care products for African American women, contributed funds to many organizations.
During the rise of segregationist Jim Crow laws, Black barbershops and beauty shops provided spaces where African Americans could gather to discuss issues and organize to safely address societal reforms. While at the barbershop individuals became knowledgeable of events and information from others, and through reading Black newspapers and literature in shops. Folks also became aware of the larger struggle for rights of African Americans.
The importance of Black barbershops today
Kevin Jones, proprietor of All Hair Cuts ‘n Styling on the Southside of Minneapolis recalls getting his first haircuts in the Southside Chicago garage of a neighbor Mr. Sims. Jones reflects on trips of young boys to his own barbershop as a rite of passage for African American youth. He states that Black barbers, including him, often counseled Black youth. A former Minneapolis firefighter, Jones sees a benefit of being a barber includes the enjoyment of watching the kids grow into adulthood. A former colleague brought in his grandson for his first real cut. The child had the experience of hearing conversations about matters of the day including the new chief of the fire department, an African American who grew up on Minneapolis’ Northside. Jones sees his barbershop as a bridge in the community, particularly when white fathers and grandfathers bring in their biracial sons and grandsons, validating both cultures.
The owner of Camden’s HWMR (Houston White Men’s Room) on 44th and Humboldt North, Houston White said, “The barbershop is the Black man’s country club.” This entrepreneur has created a clothing line and coffee brand. White has a dream for his enterprise which continuously develops. He has a dream for this neighborhood in which he has played leadership roles. “There’s something about the inner city, it’s just rich, it’s different,” he says. White has dubbed the community “Camdentown” as exhibited on the mural of his building which is in the process of being expanded.
As you have read here, African American barbershops have evolved since their beginning when they served wealthy whites. As stated by Hunter Oatman-Stanford:
“While catering to certain hair types may have helped these businesses succeed, the real secret to their longevity is their continued social import. For many African Americans, getting a haircut is more than a commodity—it’s an experience that builds community and shapes political action. As both a proud symbol of African American entrepreneurship and a relic of an era when Black labor exclusively benefitted whites, Black barbershops provide a window into our nation’s complicated racial dynamics.” (Strait Razors and Social Justice the Empowering Evolution of Black Barbershops, Collectors Weekly by Archive: Hunter Oatman-Stanford, May 30, 2014)