black barber in America

On an episode of the Kojo Nnamdi Show titled “The History of Black Barbershops,” Mr. Nnamdi says: “Used to be that you could get a shave and a haircut for two bits, and for that price you got more than a trim and a fresh face. You also got a place to air your opinions, connect with neighbors, and a way of supporting a local business. An experience both tangible and intangible and of value in any community but perhaps especially so in African American barbershops.”

Barbershops have been a cornerstone in the African American community for decades. Around 1854, San Francisco was home to 16 black-owned barber shops. During the 1860s, a former slave, Peter Briggs, effectively monopolized the barber shop market in Los Angeles on his own. Barbering was a source of wealth for those who catered to the higher-end clientele. Barbershop ownership was the path to affluence for the black man. One out of every eight black men considered to be wealthy owned a barber shop, with a net worth exceeding $2,000 (equivalent to around $55,000 today). Mounting growing competition from German and Italian immigrants, African Americans provided top quality service coupled with a first class experience winning the business of white patrons.

As a profession, barbering quickly elevated in status. Black barbers, with their artisan touch, won the market cementing their role in society. Barbershops drew their strength and influence from the African-American communities in which they operated. Their commitment to one another fostered spaces of trust and self-expression, giving birth to the barbershop culture today. Barbers worked within their community, selectively grooming apprentices, maintaining a superior level of service, and controlling entry into the profession.

The luxury experience they provided to their white customers went unmatched by the competition. First-class amenities fill their shops, earning them access to coveted parlors locations. Luxury hotels and photography studios were home to many black-owned barbershops. From carpeted floors to laced window drapings, fancy chairs and upholstered furniture to centerpiece pianos, barbershops housed much of the decor which would later become hallmarks of the Victorian home. Hot baths, perfumed soaps, cigars, and the air of exclusivity were all part of the allure so desired by their white patrons.

Not only were black men skilled barbers, they were also fantastic actors.

Out of necessity, they became masters of playing the server role. W.E.B Dubois coined a term “double conscious,” to describe this phenomenon, “of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Black barbers understood the limitations of their time period, yet were able to capitalize on their unique opportunity. Turning the trope of “black inferiority,” for which has plagued them into their most valuable asset.
The ability to “wear the mask” made black barbers a lot of money in the 19th century. As they amassed more wealth, their status continued to rise, as did their notoriety. Barbers such as John Merrick of Durham, who later founded North Carolina Mutual Insurance, self-funded the principal investment from the profits earned from his barbershop. He was the barber of the dukes, tobacco magnets of the Carolinas. Alonzo Herndon of Atlanta also benefited from his wealthy white patronage. He served the white industrialists who moved to Georgia’s capital, with hopes to build the New South. For most of the century, these barbers exclusively cut only white customers, trading deference for dollars. White customers felt sharing barbers with a black man bestowed too much social equity upon the race, resulting in many black patrons being excluded from their shops. This, in turn, led to many wealthy black barbers being despised and ostracized by their communities.
In the 1890s, German and Italian immigrants saw the wealth generated by African Americans and decided to claim their stake. They took to “professionalize” the trade by requiring all barbers attend an accredited barber college. The Germans formed a barber union, allowing them to lobby for barbering licenses and anatomy training. In effect, re-skilling an already skilled profession — which in turn forced many blacks out of the profession. At the same time, Gillette Safety Razor was founded. From its birth in 1903, Gillette Safety Razor redefined what it meant to be a barber. By introducing a line of home shaving products, they transitioned the responsibility of shaving from the barber to the customer, reducing the visits to your local barbershop.

The turn of the century brought about a new generation of black barbers.

Individuals who did not care to cater to those outside their community. As the Great Depression approached, these entrepreneurs looked at barbering as a means to freedom both financial and social. In the era of Jim Crow, barbershops provided safe havens for men and women to talk, think and organize. Liberating themselves from a life of masks, they were able cultivate the culture that still resonates today within the barbershop. Civil Rights movements gained mass support and reach from barbershops. Community members both middle and lower class were able to congregate and socialize, strengthening the bond within the community and spreading the word.  
Fast forward several decades in the future, barbershops still remain staples in African-American communities. Men of all ages and social classes still gravitate to their favorite barbershop when it’s time for a fresh fade. Commerce and culture remain key focal points in the relevance of barbershops. Spirited debates, engaging conversations and news both local and national all contribute to the continued burgeoning of the barbershop culture. Clients come in expecting excellent service married to the uniquely local experience that is their shop. The personal connection they make with a barber grows deeper with every cut. The sense of belonging and identity followed by an amazing haircut go a long way in building a generation of strong and confident black men.

Today, barbers and barber shops are living through a revitalization of their artisan craft.

Trade shows and expos are ushering in a new wave of barbers. There is a sharper focus on honing skills and educating themselves on the industry and its nuances. In the ’70s barbers were tested by the sheer number of people embracing afros and dreadlocks. No haircuts meant no profits. That trend eventually faded, and barbers resumed cutting the heads that filled their seats. Today, men’s grooming has regained its momentum within society. Natural hair is the new trend going against the grain of traditional hair care. However with a new-age twist, this style is perfected by a visit to your barber.
Both technology and culture trends have spurred this movement. A man’s haircut defines his personality and style. Always has been and will continue to. Technology has made it much easier for men to stay current on latest trends and improve their grooming standards. Each trend fueling the renaissance that is men’s grooming, modernizing the barbershop experience.


Want more essays like this? Sign up for Blavity’s daily newsletter!