Grooming hair, and the use of hairstyles, as cultural, social and political expression, and even social status – dates back to various regions and peoples of, and on, the African continent.
However, the Barbershop, as a distinct institution in the African American community, has its roots in Antebellum America where the coiffeuring services and skills of the Black barber could only be enjoyed by White customers. That’s right – the first barbershops in the United States, Black barbershops, weren’t in business to service Black customers – neither down South nor up North. And the decisions by Black barbers, as business owners – not to service their own, were based solely on financial considerations.
Over the passage of time and owing to social, political, cultural and economic factors and forces – Black barbershops changed their practices and, in the twentieth century, the barbershop became an important establishment in the Black community. Ironically, the Black- owned barbershops, with Black barbers, that once barred Black men as customers, eventually became their sanctuary and refuge. The Black “tonsorial parlor” became a place and space where Black males could go and be themselves, among themselves, with themselves and by themselves. Along with the church, the school and the fraternal lodge – the barbershop became one of the essential and valued institutions in the African American community.
All across the United States, the Black barbershop became a distinctive breathing “room” where African American men gathered not just to get groomed to look their best for work five to six days a week; play on the weekends or pray and worship Saturday or Sunday – but to also socialize, share, learn, teach, laugh, truth – telling, truth – stretching, boasting and bragging. People got together to kick- back, relax and have a good time away from others. No matter the state, city, town or community – the barbershop is like unto a village where men folk arrive to congregate, connect, conversate, communicate, cajole, criticize and “cut the fool.”
In the barbershop, everyone’s point of view was welcomed and valued. No subjects or topics were taboo. Whether you were a doctor, janitor, student, teacher, attorney, writer, truck driver, librarian, construction worker, self – employed or unemployed, you could step in, step up and express your position – as long as you were able to substantiate and defend your views if challenged by anyone else in the barbershop— but, especially, a barber who might be facilitating or leading group dialogue. Particularly concerning such important matters as politics and history. Such is the tradition of the Black barbershop, and some of its kinship rituals, passed down over the centuries and decades.
“The Black barbershop is a town square in our community…where you get up to the minute news and provocative discussions about politics, entertainment and sports,” shares Kevin Harewood, CEO of EDclectic Entertainment located in Brooklyn, New York.
Universally, no matter in what city, state or neighborhood – the African American barbershop is like a film or theatre set with a cast of similar characters gathered together for the sharing of information and knowledge; to impart or receive counseling and to participate in some young man’s rites of passage with his first haircut and with his initiation into the fraternity that is the barbershop society and its traditions and rituals.
Young Black men learn to sit and patiently wait for their turn. They learn to pay attention when grown folks talk, pontificate, debate and elaborate. Youngsters learn not to talk when adults are running their mouths, especially not when the barbers, as Griots or facilitators, have the floor. Barbershops are institutions where older Black males, like grandmasters, safely and openly, share and impart their perspectives and experiences about living to younger Black males, as apprentices – hoping and intending to raise their youthful minds into a higher state of social, political and historical awakening, while they are getting their heads groomed and images perfected.
Robert Scott Adams has worked in radio in Georgia and New York and currently works at a recording studio in Washington, D.C. He remembers his adolescent barbershop experiences. “I used to marvel at the older guys who came into the shop – their hairstyles, how they dressed, the cars they drove and the stories they told,” he recalls. Laughingly he adds, “Some of the most memorable stories were the ones about women. A lot of those tales influenced my life …how I would and would not relate to women as an adult.” The barbershop was where boys could be boys; men could be men and boys could aspire to manhood.
Well – known Atlanta jazz artist and music educator, Joe Jennings remembers his experiences growing up in Natchez, Mississippi. “The Barber Shop…a community institution where on Saturday afternoons, men – young and old – prepare for a night out or Sunday Church meetings,” Jennings recalls. “The owners are, in most cases, well – versed in many subjects and ready to debate at the drop of a hat. They’re astute philosophers and entrepreneurs.”
Another thing that the barbershop served as was an opportunity for economic ambition and financial stability. It was a vehicle and opportunity for Black men to become business owners and, after they opened the door and chairs to Black clientele – work on their own terms and according to their own rules.
Alonzo Herndon, the first African American millionaire and Georgia’s wealthiest Black man during his lifetime, started out as a barber. Born in 1878, the Social Circle, Walton County – native moved away from his family to Jonesboro, Georgia where, at the age of 20, he opened his first barbershop. After migrating to Atlanta, Herndon would come to own three barbershops by 1904. Earnings garnered from those three shops would allow him to establish an empire that would include various real estate properties and holdings including a plantation in Florida. In 1905, Herndon would enter into the insurance business and in twenty years, establish and grow the multi-million dollar, Atlanta Life Insurance Company with branches all over the country. By 1920, it was one of the most successful Black businesses in the United States.
Another African American businessman who parlayed barbering and ownership of barbershops into a multi-million dollar business empire was North Carolina native John Merrick.
In 1880, Merrick and a friend relocated from Clinton to Durham to start a new barbershop business. It took six months before Merrick actually bought shares in the shop to become co-owner. Twelve years later, after acquisitioning the remaining shares in the company from his friend, Merrick became sole proprietor. Eventually John Merrick would become owner of eight barbershops in Durham – some exclusively catering to white customers and others to African Americans. He would go on to accomplish a very impressive and major level of success in publishing, real estate, banking and insurance.
Black men viewed barbering and barbershop ownership as an entrepreneurial endeavor that provided opportunity to achieve financial security, middle class status, wealth, and social standing.
March, 25, 2017. It’s Friday mid – afternoon, at KMP Barbershop in historic downtown Greensboro, and Johnny Lewis, Jr. is grooming the head of the much disciplined nine – year – old Elijah Williams who, accompanied by his mother, Latrice Williams, is clearly accustomed to the barber chair.
There are two sections of the entire barbershop owned by Lewis: the smaller, more intimate “Upstairs” and the more spacious, frenetic “Valley of the Kings.” Downstairs, in “the Valley of the Kings” there is much more space and there are two barbers, two chairs – and where the more “traditional” activities occur. This is where the younger crowd congregates in larger numbers waiting for their cuts. Lewis works in and from the VIP section where he, personally offers more than just barbering services to his clients.
“Here is where I offer an experience for my more “mature” clients and those who want a more family feel and environment, utters Lewis who is also an ordained minister. “Counseling, life – coaching and deeper, more confidential kinds of dialogue happens here.”
On the walls and on top of shelves, surrounding the one barber chair – are all kinds of items like sports paraphernalia, the obligatory grooming price list, a photograph of former POTUS Barack Obama and Lewis’ “Master Barber” plaque. Lewis remembers the elder African American men who were the barbers throughout Greene County, he approximates – from the 1950s through the 1990s.
Gus Terrell in the railroad community; Cosby Brown in Canaan; Emerson Gresham in the Bush Street community; Willie Chester and Eugene Scott on Main Street In Greensboro and, his great – great grandfather, who was his first teacher, Roosevelt Champion, in Siloam.
The average price for the basic cut, nowadays, is around fifteen dollars. Lewis exclaims, “These men were the master barbers and business role models in the community. Mr. Willie Chester owned ‘Chester and Sons’ on Main Street…right where Wahl’s law firm is now.”
Although Lewis graduated from Ogeechee Technical School’s barbering program decades ago, he was nine years old when he first learned the fundamentals of barbering from his great, great grandfather Roosevelt Champion and the elder barber’s twin grandson’s – Donald and Ronald, who helped pass the skills down. “Barbering is part of the family history and legacy,” Lewis affirms. “I became a barber at nine years old at the feet of my great, great grandfather”, he proudly adds. It wasn’t until he was in his early twenties, however, that he actually established his very own first barbershop.
From the approach that Willie Chester took in operating his barbershop; a sixteen year old Lewis learned that cutting hair wasn’t the only service you could offer in a shop. “Chester and Sons” was a barbershop, music shop and snack shop. “During the course of a Saturday, we were there for so many hours…he had a captivated audience…” Lewis reminisces. “So, he offered his customers additional services to make their wait a little more enjoyable.”Having been influenced by the forward – thinking of Willie Chester, Lewis offers various business services at KMP such as tax preparation, print services, obituary production and graphic design. The craft of barbering, and the barbershop as a business, has proven to be financially lucrative for Lewis and his family.
“I have been able to, not only provide for my family but to help others, as well,” he testifies. “My own barbershop allows me to manage my own time and be in control of my own economic destiny.”
Saturday, March 25th. Eleven – thirty in the morning. Ruff Cuts Barbershop: historic downtown Greensboro. Barbershop’s motto: “Your Solution To A Rough Day.”
Tyler Perry’s “Meet the Paynes” sets the ambience for the several customers in the shop – especially the eight-year old sitting next to me who is cracking up at the slap stick comedy. Although I don’t normally watch the show – I must admit that I, too, am quite amused. Something about the collective barbershop experience that really is contagious.
On the walls and around the shop there is the obligatory hair cut price list; UGA paraphernalia; refreshments for sale and the signs: “WE ARE BLESSED” and “NO CREDIT PLEASE DON’T ASK.”
There isn’t any conversation or discussion going on. Instead, Master barber Dennis Ruff, and his apprentice barber, Marcus Mallory, are working on the heads of respective clients like sculptor Augusta Savage approached her craft and created her masterpieces: with exactitude, deliberation and meticulousness – each barber intent on fashioning a magnum opus worthy of acceptance and praise by the customer after they peer into the mirror handed them by the barber after the cut is deemed finis!
“I opened my shop to help others apprentice and learn…” Ruff shares. “…so that they could move from apprenticing, get licensed and go into business for themselves.”
For the last eleven years, barbershop proprietor Dennis Ruff has been offering his grooming services at this Broad Street locale. Although his client – base is predominately African American, he has an occasional Hispanic customer and white customer. From the age of fifteen, the fortyish Ruff has been cutting hair. His mother had barber skills and he has a brother in Savannah that has a shop. “I couldn’t clock in for anyone else,” he declares. “My independence was important for me…still is. “
Having recently “retired” after being in the barbering and grooming business for over fifty years, Eatonton native Ezekiel “Zeke” Dennis, owns Zeke’s Beauty and Barber Shop. “My children wanted me to retire completely, “he chuckles.” ”But I just cut back my hours so I’m semi-retired. I’m part-time now. Some time” The undisputed grandmaster of barbers and barbering in Eatonton, Dennis began cutting hair when he was a young lad because he and his brother, Eddie, “just liked to cut hair” and used to coiffeur each other.
After marrying Betty Freeman in 1962, he and his wife gave birth to a son who would face a slight predicament when he reached the pre -adolescent age to begin his barbershop experience by entering the doors of the Black barbershop and being initiated into the African American barbershop experience. “My son had curly hair and nobody could cut it, so I had to cut it,” Dennis gleefully shares. In 1964, after receiving his barber’s license — he worked in his first “barbershop”, “The Combo” which was located in a night club of the same name.
During Dennis’ half – century barbering and styling career, his clients have been male, female and the occasional white male customer. This Saturday after Good Friday and before Easter Sunday, as we sit in the spacious shop along with about seven of his grandsons or great grandsons– he shares his vast knowledge and recollections about such hairstyles as the Afro, the Gheri curl, the S curl and the T Hound.
“Barbering was good business – wise,” he proudly states. “I was able to raise all my children.” Passing on a legacy that he could be proud of, his daughter, Alicia Waller – and his grand-daughter, Shalon Watkins – are also his partners in the business. Waller is a stylist and Watkins is a master barber and stylist.
The long tradition and legacy that is Black barbershop is being preserved and perpetuated by Johnny Lewis and Dennis Ruff, in their respective businesses, in small town Greene County, Georgia.
The barbershop is a cornerstone and like unto an ancient landmark in, of and for the African American community.
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Note: This essay is the original version of a revised article that appears in the Summer 2017 version of Lakelife magazine which covers the wonderfully beautiful Lake Oconee area of Georgia.