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Modern black barber shops are civic, cultural and business institutions in many major cities. Their history, however, is complicated, shifting from places where only white men were served to the democratic social spaces of today in just over a century. We consider the political and social movements brought that change about and the role these shops play in communities now.
- Quincy Mills history professor, Vassar College; author 'Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America'
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to the "The Kojo Nnamdi Show, connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, on this Martin Luther King Day, we'll hear from legendary historian Taylor Branch about the ways we remember and misremember Martin Luther King, Jr. But first, the history of back barber shops.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt used to be you could get a shave and a haircut for just two bits. And for that price you got more than a trim and fresh face. You also got a place to err your opinions, connect with neighbors and a way of supporting a local business, and experience both tangible and intangible and a value in any community, but perhaps especially so in African American neighborhoods. The history of black barber shops is more complicated than many realize. But even though the days of getting just about anything for a quarter are long gone, their relevance remains and continues to change.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to explain the history and current significance of these barber shops in our communities is Quincy Mills. He teaches history at Vassar College. His latest book is titled "Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America." Quincy Mills, thank you for joining us.
DR. QUINCY MILLSWell, thanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation. Do you consider your barber shop a refuge of sorts? Tell us why or why not, 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Like many before it, this book came about when you could not find a volume on the history of black barber shops. What got you interested in the topic and what did you find when you started looking?
MILLSI was working with Melissa Harris-Perry's book when she was working on it, "Barber Shops, Bibles and BET" in Chicago. And sitting in this barber shop Truth and Soul on the south side of Chicago I couldn't help but think about this space historically, right. We talk about barber shops as spaces where black men can go and can hang out and talk. But I was wondering had this always been the case? And certainly being a historian, I had to go back to ask those questions.
MILLSAnd what was most striking was that I -- some of the early sources that I came across -- one was this barber George Meyers who was William McKinley's barber before he became president. And George Meyers not only groomed McKinley but he groomed other white men in Cleveland. And Meyers had literally eight reels of microfilm papers, right. So he had collected all of his documents and kept them and archived them. And that was curious to me because I was wondering, why does this barber have all of these historical documents?
MILLSAnd it turned out that Meyers was really central in Republican politics at the time. This is the liberal Republican Party before it turned conservative of course. And African Americans would send Meyers letters saying, I know that McKinley just got elected and you know McKinley. So please help me out with a position here in my hometown in Arkansas, in Georgia, et cetera. And so Meyers proved to be this really central figure principally because of the people he was shaving, right.
MILLSAnd so certainly Meyers wasn't the first person to shave a future president. Abraham Lincoln's barber was William Florville in Springfield.
NNAMDIWhich is interesting. There are two aspects of this I would like to discuss.
NNAMDIOn the one hand you find in your research that there was -- there seemed to be a lot more written about barbers in newspapers, books, autobiographies in the 19th century than there was in the 20th century. Is that because in the 19th century the position of being a barber or having a barber shop held more class status?
MILLSWell, it's -- well, there's two ways to answer that. One, it held more class status because they made a lot of money, right. They got quite wealthy grooming wealthy white men. So John Merrick out of Durham who would go on to found the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company principally out of the profits he made from his barber shop, he was the duke's barber, the sort of tobacco magnets, right. Alonzo Herndon out of Atlanta, again sort of groomed those wealthy white industrialists who went to Atlanta sort of to build up the new south.
MILLSAnd so they got quite rich serving these white men. And because of that they, again, were close to seats of power. And so many African Americans and whites sort of tagged them for various things. But secondly, they were quite well known and quite talked about because the black community despised the fact that these barbers made their money by excluding black men, right.
NNAMDII was about to say, that's the other aspect I was about to ask about because for the most part, a lot of these barbers did not serve black patrons at all.
MILLSOne of the major reasons was that white men didn't want to be shaved next to a black man being shaved. For them it smacked of too much of social equality, right. So barbers -- black men could be barbers but they couldn't be customers getting the same aristocratic treatment as they were receiving, right. So -- and certainly white men, you know, loved their servants throughout slavery, throughout the history of Jim Crow. They loved their black servants as butlers, as barbers, as domestics in their homes. But again, it makes you wonder, what did it take for these white men to trust a black barber with a straight razor across their necks, right.
NNAMDIRight. What did it take?
MILLSIt took for them to believe the fantasy of black inferiority. They had to believe that this black barber was incapable of cutting -- of slitting their throats. They had to believe that their black female domestics was incapable of putting rat poison in their dinner. They had to believe that these African Americans simply did not have the will to resist in that way. We know that African Americans resisted in various ways. Some very direct and seen, others not so seen.
MILLSAnd so again, they had to believe in this fantasy of black inferiority, which is why we get to "Duck Dynasty," which is why we get to Paula Dean. These sort of vestiges of the old South that folks can't quite seem to let go.
NNAMDIThat the notion that people enjoyed their inferiority, enjoyed their second class status.
NNAMDIThey never saw these people -- little did they understand the thoughts of rebellion that were going through the heads of these people.
MILLSPrecisely. Precisely, but also there's that, you know, famous poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar "We Wear the Mask," right. And certainly, you know, barbers in essence traded deference for dollars, right. They stood to make money from it from being deferential to their white customers and they did.
NNAMDISo barbering, like running a restaurant or a bar, was considered a job that gave African Americans a foothold in the middle class. And that was true from the very beginning.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Quincy Mills. He teaches history at Vassar College. His latest book is titled "Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America." We're interested in hearing from you, 800-433-8850. Do you continue to go to a barber shop that's out of your way or doesn't necessarily do the greatest job on your head, because of the atmosphere? Tell us what draws you in, 800-433-8850. An important distinction to be made here, on today's store windows I didn't realize that you typically see barber shop written as one word. But your default in this book on the cover is to write it as two. What's the difference and why does it matter?
MILLSThe difference is I think it's important that we bring the barber back into our discussions of the barber shop. And I make the distinction of barber shop as two words to sort of get back to that old artisan craftsman moment of the 19th century. And that's to say that our contemporary conversations of barber shops are essentially about the customers, right. It's a space where black men can go and talk. But let's be clear. If barbers don't turn a profit and they can't pay their rent, the shop isn't going to be there tomorrow.
MILLSAnd so we have to think about the commerce that happens inside of barber shops. And so that move is to say that there's a lot happening in the space which makes it unique. These are space of commerce, of community, of culture and of congregation. And it's important to talk about all of that together, which is why I think barber shops hold significant places within black communities.
NNAMDISo we devalue it. We, in a way, demean it by simply joining the words together. I notice whenever I call my -- and now you've got me saying it differently now -- whenever I call my barber shop they always answer the phone saying, barbershop. So the first thing I've got to tell them when I go there today is to say, answer the phone saying barber shop.
MILLSThat's right. I mean, these were -- historically, right, these were spaces with low barriers to entry, right. Men could really always, if they wanted to, become a barber. And because of the low investment, they could own a shop. But even if one didn't own a shop, a barber still worked independently, right. Not for wages, right, but they certainly gave the owner a percentage of their intake. But customers are connected to their barber, not necessarily to the shop.
MILLSSo if a barber leaves the shop -- and this is -- I'm not talking about the owner -- if a barber leaves the shop and if it's not too far, the customer, his customer is likely to leave with him, right.
NNAMDIFirst sometimes we try a couple of other barbers in the same shop.
MILLSWe try, we try.
NNAMDIIf that don't work out, we're out of there.
MILLSThat's exactly right. I mean, folks like their particular barber or their particular beautician. And so barbers -- even again, those who aren't owners still have a sense of autonomy in ways that a regular wage worker has to sort of do a lot more to grab hold onto.
NNAMDIThe book is called "Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America." We're talking with Quincy T. Mills who is the author. He teaches history at Vassar College. And he's teaching me a whole new way of looking at the places that I go to get my hair cut. When did the social practices shift from black barbers serving exclusively white clienteles to being sort of social hubs for the black community?
MILLSRoughly between 1890 and the 1920s. So there are a number of factors here both external and internal. One, most white men didn't want to be barbers because they associated the labor with servile unskilled slave labor, right. During slavery most of the barbers were black, especially pretty much in the south they were all black. To some extent certainly in the north, there were lots of German and Italian barbers north. But native whites didn't want to be barbers.
MILLSGermans, once they migrated to the U.S., became barbers, they formed a barbers union. And they worked to quote unquote "professionalize the trade. And professionalizing the trade meant that one would have to go to a barber college. One would have to sit for a state licensing law. One would have to be in tune to the anatomy of the body, right. Part of sort of professionalizing it meant that they wanted to re-skill it. They wanted to make it a skilled profession.
MILLSNow certainly we know that it was already a skilled profession, right, again holding the straight -- shaving somewhat with a straight razor takes a lot of skill, right. But of course, much of that rhetoric was about it was a black man who was doing that work. But also the -- and so the German barbers formed a barber's union, pushed for a lobby for licensing laws, successful in some states, not so successful in others, but barbers saw this as a way to push them out of the trade, and in some cases they were successful. The Gillette Safety Razor was mass produced after 1903. So now men were going to the barbershop less often for shaves, and much more for haircuts.
MILLSNow, the important part here is that the duty of shaving was considered to effeminate part of a barber's duty, right? Because you have a man touching another man's face and massaging it, and so white men said, no, no, no, I don't want to do that kind of work. That's not manly work. But cutting hair, skilled, yes. That's what I want to do. That's what I'm going to do. And so the mass production of the Gillette Safety Razor, again, helped to redefine what it meant to be a barber.
MILLSThe other factors here, I think, are about a new generation of black men who entered barbering in the 1890s, not as connected to white communities as their predecessors were, and they wanted to open shops in black communities. They wanted to have spaces to talk about the rising tide of Jim Crow, right, in the 1890s, 1900s, 19-teens. And so there are these two sort of parallel movements happening at the same time, and in many ways informing each other. That sort of again, we see many more black-owned and black-patronized shops coming up in the 1920s, the 1930s at a time where, as we know, the Great Depression is starting to sort of set in.
MILLSAnd folks don't have jobs. They need stuff to do, and in some cases, barber shops gave them a place to go and want to talk about the hard times, but also survive through the hard times by doing what? Playing the numbers.
MILLSThat happened a lot in barber shops, right?
NNAMDIBig time. Big time.
MILLSAnd so -- but also, again, to sort of talk about the difficulties and the challenges, and indeed to organize around Jim Crow throughout the U.S.
NNAMDII wanted to get back to the kind of gender divide you brought up when -- after Gillette invented the razorblade, because a lot of people, men and women, found themselves in barbershops for one reason or another. In this book there's a story about the great African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston working as a manicurist?
MILLSYeah. She worked as a manicurist and this barber, George Robinson's, barbershop on 14th and G here in DC to earn money to pay for her time at Howard University.
MILLSAnd we know that many women have worked in barbershops as manicurists and as barbers and they have been there as customers. They have been there as the daughters of men who were there to get shaves or haircuts. So, you know, women have always been in barbershops, we just haven't talked about them, right? And so Hurston, being the observant anthropologist as she always was, she talked about her interactions with the -- again, this was a shop -- because this was 1918, this was a shop that only served white men.
MILLSGeorge Robinson had a shop on U Street that served black men, and so she talked about the interactions that she had with her white clients. She talked about the protest of black men who tried to sort of get shaved in Robinson's shop, and so -- and so yes. Again, this is a space that we see both men and women sort of interacting in some very interesting ways over time.
NNAMDIYou've got to don you headphones now, because I'm getting ready to head to the telephones, because Caranja (sp?) in Washington DC wants to address this issue. Caranja, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARANJAYeah, hi. Thank you for getting my call. Yeah. I'm an African who's been in DC for over 15 years, and I'm wondering why I don't feel that welcome in the barbershop compared to African-Americans, and this happened all over the country since I travel extensively. I work for an airline. And I don't feel like I get the gist of being in a barbershop for all these years. Why is that?
MILLSSo I can't speak -- obviously I can't speak to the particular situations there because I wasn't there, right? But if I were to guess, and it would just simply be a guess, it would certainly be the larger complicated politics that African-Americans have had, particularly with African immigrants, right? So I don't think it's about the barbershop itself, I think it's that we -- we as in African-Americans and Africans, don't have enough dialogues, right?
MILLSIn many ways, I think certainly African immigrants sort of, in some cases, right, have tried to distance themselves from African-Americans, and African-Americans have tried to distance themselves from Africans because, I think, there's a larger immigrant story of coming to the U.S. fulfilling the American dream, quote unquote, and sort of pulling one's self up. And I think that narrative is best understood from folks who come to the U.S.
MILLSIt's a complicated narrative for African Americans because that's always been the trope to explain bath pathology, right, that African-Americans are not sort of living up to the standard as, say, African Immigrants who are much more go-getters, right? Again, I don't know the particular situation in those shops, but I think there's a larger politics to African-American and African relations.
NNAMDICaranja, thank you very much for your call. I know of at least two predominantly African barbershops here in the Washington area where the environment is remarkably similar, especially because they have quite a few African-American patrons who also go to those barbershops, and they're run by a younger generation of African barbers, some of whom came here very young. So it might be a little bit different. But thank you very much for your call. We've got to take a short break.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850, if you have questions or comments about the history of African-American barbershops, or you can send us an email to email@example.com. Our guest in Quincy Mills. He is author of the book "Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barbershops in America." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Quincy Mills. He teaches history at Vassar College. His latest book is titled "Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barbershops in America." Barbershops were especially important gathering places during the civil rights movement. What role did they play and how do we see that legacy today?
MILLSSo we know that the black church was really central in civil rights politics. One, these were -- the church itself were large spaces that a large number of people could come and sort of meet and organize before campaigns and obviously that happened that did. There's a lot written on that. But I think in many ways barbershops and beauty shops served a similar role, certainly on a much lesser level because they're obviously smaller spaces than say churches are.
MILLSBut what's interesting about barbershops is that these are spaces without professions of faith, without -- you don't have to be of a particular class level, right? Many churches, they're, you know, sort of middle-class black churches, working class black churches, but in barbershops, you know, you -- there were the black middle class, the black working class, the unemployed, all sort of moving about in the same space. And for all that we talk about in terms of movement building -- civil rights movement building, we haven't thought enough, and it's largely because we don't have a large body of sources to sort of do this, about how one becomes conscious, right?
MILLSHow one is introduced to a movement. And in some cases they were introduced in barbershops as I talk about in the book. They were introduced to particular movements inside the barbershop where they were there to get a haircut at the moment and, you know, there were folks talking about King, or talking about Ella Baker, or talking about Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael, or reading something in the newspaper, right, because most black newspapers would provide copies in barbershops and beauty shops so that folks could obviously read and talk about it.
MILLSAnd so barbershops serve as this sort of organic space to sort of think and talk and organize. But also, and there were a number of barbers that I talked to, and I discuss in the book, barbers who said that they felt free to openly give money to civil rights campaigns, and to contribute and sign petitions and to march because they were not beholden to white employers or beholden to white customers, right? So this sense of autonomy, right, that barbers had gave them a sense of freedom to, again, openly contribute to campaigns in ways that black teachers, for example, had a much harder time doing because many black teachers were fired if they signed a petition, if they went to register to vote.
MILLSOf course, many still did and didn't care if they were fired or not, but that was the sort of difference with barbers as business owners, right? So their profession and their space gave them a way to contribute in ways that I don't think we've talked enough about.
NNAMDIYour focus is mainly urban shops, but you note that in rural locations, the role a barbershop plays in a community can be even more vital. How so?
MILLSWell, because if rural settings, there might be one black shop for miles, right? And so you're lucky to have a larger number of people descending on this space more frequently than say in an urban space where there might be four or five shops in a one or two block radius, right?
MILLSAnd so that means you'll get some folks who will go to this shop, others will go to that shop, but you're lucky to get many black men and women in a general vicinity going to this one shop. So in rural spaces, black barbershops could be this, literally, central hub and not just metaphorically as we talk about in urban spaces.
NNAMDIHere is Rebecca in Germantown, Md. Rebecca, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
REBECCAI just want to say that this is the most fabulous conversation. I am actually teaching African-American literature this coming spring, and I thought that the comment about the straight razors, it immediately made me think of "The Color Purple," and how Whoopi Goldberg had the opportunity to cut her husband.
REBECCAAnd, you know, the whole psychology behind, you know, why having to believe in inferiority and then you have this oppressed situation in the black community where you have this woman doing the same thing. But I just wanted to say that this is -- it's just -- it makes me think on a whole lot of lines how important this book -- this whole discussion is about what this means in the black community. I think that the caller that called in about Africans and African-Americans, that comfort level in that space is up for discussion as well.
REBECCAAnd I think that as a person who goes to the barbershop/beauty shop now, that that combination that you have a revival of discussion and purpose in the community. So I'll take your comment off the air. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Rebecca. Care to comment?
MILLSYeah. First, I'm sure you are aware of Charles Chesnutt's work, but he has this short story titled "The Doll," which deals with that -- which is an interesting short story to pair with Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno," because both deal essentially, right, with this black barber with the straight razor over a white customer, in interestingly different ways, and so it would be good to sort of pair those in your courses. And so, yes. No. I think this is -- barbershops and beauty shops are decidedly very local spaces that for some reason have this very national feel, right?
MILLSThey are rooted in particular communities. Barbers are intimately aware of what's going on in that particular community because they see, again, men and women coming throughout the decades, right, in their space. Often, they know generations of a particular family because they have come through the barbershop. But yet, when we think about these spaces outside of the local, we expect them to be the same wherever we go, right? So if we're leaving from DC and going to Chicago or New York, we expect to find a barbershop that's similar to the one that we are used to frequenting.
MILLSAnd, again, that's the same with beauty shops. And so they have this sort of strange, again, sort of local and national feel that is essentially rooted in black culture.
NNAMDII have a friend who moved his parents here from Harlem, and he said his father wasn't comfortable until he found a barbershop.
MILLSYeah. That's right. Because, you know, it's, you know, I mean, you can -- you can find a, you know, a new grocery store to go to, a new market to go to, a new favorite restaurant or a new cleaners, but there's something really intimate, right, about one's relationship with their barber, akin to one's relationship with their pastor, one's relationship with their doctor. There's a certain trust, right, that they're going to take good care of you.
NNAMDIBut these are economic institutions also, and because we're running out of time, these shops have a sort of dual purpose, both as business and community hub. Is it difficult in today's world for owners to balance those two?
MILLSI think it is difficult. Because certainly, you know, well, first, I should say, men will -- and women, will always got to barbershops and beauty shops on one level or another. Certainly the (word?) process, the afro, and now dreadlocks, have scared barbers in a way, right? During the time of afros, barbers were like, whoa, this is going to run me out of business, and they were quite concerned. They didn't care about the politics of afros. They were really concerned about the profits of their shops, but of course we know that that lasted a while and then it went by the wayside.
MILLSBut I think because many men will go to the shop again, because they want to know what's going on, or because they want to hang out, or it's just they want to stop in there for five minutes, at times it means that there are less people getting services done. And so I think that will always be there, but if we think about the rise of social media, if you think about Facebook, right, that business model is based on a group of people who are socializing, right?
MILLSAnd so I think that's what barbershops are about. They are the precursor to Facebook, if you will.
NNAMDIQuincy Mills teaches history at Vassar College. His latest book is titled "Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barbershops in America." When we get back, Pulitzer Prize winning historian Taylor Branch on the real Martin Luther King, Jr.
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