Barbershops are not only the places you go to freshen up and get a clean cut. When you visit a barber, you feel inclined to relax, talk and feel a part of a community. The importance of barbershops in black communities held nearly as much importance as churches in black communities. To celebrate Black History Month, Booksy is proud to bring you the history of African-American barbering.
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The Importance of a Barbershop
Barbershops played a vital role in the cultural and economical development of African American communities. It was a space where African American men interacted with each other, regardless of age, class, education, occupation, etc. These barbershops displayed social and cultural appreciation to both its visitors and owners. Not only were they able to get [great] haircuts, but also talk about their own lives, listen to others’ and make new connections within the community. Scattered were men playing chess, playing cards, or reading newspapers. Barbershops acted as the backbone of many black communities and their role of strengthening black male identity in America was vital.
Cutting the way to freedom
Black barbers were introduced to America in the 19th century during the period 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, and their patrons were usually white men! This was due to economic reasons, mainly being that barber’s financial stability. Of course, a barber commonly preferred indoor conditions versus the cruel ones they could face in the fields. Things changed at the end of the century when the new generation of barbers started their work as free people, born after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1863). Around this time, barbers started opening their shops in black communities for black communities. Shortly after, something else changed in the barber industry that caused many to close down. According to the state law, being a barber now required a formal training.
In 1934 Henry M. Morgan established Tyler Barber College, a school for African American barbers-to-be. Almost 80% of black barbers were schooled here. This college initiated a shift in attitude between white men and black barbers.
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Wealth and opportunities
At the beginning of 20th century, barbering brought not only opportunity, but wealth for black men. One of the first African-American millionaires, Alonzo Herndon, began his empire in 1878 with his first barbershop. Before his death he owned more than 100 rental places, being the wealthiest black man in Atlanta. Herndon’s contributions to the YMCA and the National Negro Business League played a vital role in the growth of Black America.
Willie Lee Morrows, another important figure in the history of black barbering, started his career in the late 60s. Morrows was hired by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service to train thousands of army barbers in Vietnam and other Asian countries during the War. Currently, Willie Lee Morrows is a multimillionaire, and known as a pioneer in the black hair care industry.
African American barbershops were places where Black Liberation activists gathered. There they were shaping others sensibility and awareness, leading to huge changes in the American society. And let’s not forget about the impact that black barbershops had on the hip-hop scene, at its beginning in the 80s.
As we learned from the early days, barbershops were and still are much more than solely a place to get your hair done. Their importance to American history is vital, yet often overlooked. During slavery, throughout the war and times of economic drought, barbershops acted a safe haven. Discussions of social and societal reform took place there. It was during these times that individuals found not only confidence in themselves, but in their communities, and more largely their country. Today, barbers and barbershops continue to thrive and exude confidence on communities all over the world.
To learn more about the history of African-American barbering we highly recommend reading an amazing book by Quincy T. Mills called ‘Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America’