Oct 7, 2019
by Darryl Wellington & Jean-Marie Mauclet
If I told you that getting a hairstyle is about a lot more than losing a bit of unnecessary hair, because it involves self-expression, self- esteem, and even a sense of social identity, I probably wouldn’t be telling you anything new.
And if I told you that since the 1800’ s black barbershops and beauty parlors have been significant gathering places and “community hubs” where African Americans communed to swap stories, gossip, or debate politics in a friendly atmosphere, that may not be news either.
The folk tradition of blacks transforming barbershops and beauty parlors into social spaces has been popularized – and humorously satirized! – in movies including Barbershop and Barbershop: Back in Business.
It’s in recognition that a hairstyle is a major social signifier which makes millions of people feel good about themselves and their role in society that conNECKtedTOO is sponsoring “the Charleston Cut,” an occasion for local barbershops to create hairstyles for the Low Country. No Cut will be the prizewinner because conNECKtedTOO does not promote competition between TINY Businesses, but rather the spirit of service to community. Participants however will be identified with their creation on professional, large-format photographs to be exhibited with artifacts from other conNECKtedTOO members: a celebration of the grassroots role TINY BUSINESS plays in the quality of neighborhoods’ life.
Behind the glamour of a good, noteworthy haircut or style that earns admiring glances, lies the history of black barbershops and beauty parlors which runs parallel to the story of the growth of black businesses..
Barbershops—indeed – were among the first outfits operated by black entrepreneurs.
In slavery times, barbering was considered a lowly, or servant profession, a job that was too “undistinguished” to be performed by whites.
White slave owners established businesses using skilled blacks whom they hired out to oversee the dress, grooming and barbering of other whites. Hence, the majority of people in America with barber knowledge were Blacks who performed the task for their masters.
Following emancipation, they opened their own businesses. Following the protocol which had been established during slavery, these businesses initially exclusively served white clientele. Then in the late 1880’s and 1890’s, when a younger generation who had been born after Emancipation entered the field, they opened barbershops in black communities servicing black men. Many black barbers did financially well (by relative standards) and accrued small fortunes. Though socially the profession was considered lowly, black barbers were proud, well-paid, and sometimes called themselves “the knights of the razor.” The profession was so deeply associated with Blacks that Frederick Douglas even penned an essay extolling more Blacks to enter industrial trades rather than barbering!
The primary blow to black barbershop businesses came around the turn of the century when whites aspired to move into the profession. Powerful Whites created “licensing laws”, manipulated so as to secure white clientele. This power grab – alongside the rise of Jim Crow laws – instituted the reign of segregated barbershops (whites to white barbers, blacks to black barbers.) But black barbers established the basic seating and design of barbershops which carries on till today. And they’ve carried on – becoming the social institutions, or “black men’s country clubs” (so deemed in the comedy Barbershop).
There is another amazing story behind the history of beauticians.
Similarly to barbershops, before emancipation, wealthy white women used black slaves or white servants to do their hair. Following emancipation, both white and black women realized the hair care business was a burgeoning financial opportunity. The beauty industry offered women real financial independence!
Born in 1867, Sarah Breedlove, who later became famous under the name Madame C.J. Walker, was possibly the first (and clearly one of the first) black millionaires in America. She made her fortune by building a beauty parlor and skin cream empire. Following her death, Madame C.J. Walker’s business partner, Marjorie Joyner, patented the permanent wave hair devices which have become fixtures in hair salons across America.
Madame Walker’s legacy has been criticized because many of her products upheld “white standards” such a straightening black hair, or lightening black skin. Tastes vary; times change. But Walker undoubtedly remains an inspiring symbol of savvy, independence, and black business possibilities!
I myself can’t revisit this history without thinking about my own personal barbershop stories. I have so many! As a young person in Savannah, and Charleston, I knew my way around, but during my first visit to New York City in the 1980’s, I stepped into the “wrong” barbershop. The barber nervously began explaining he was closing (at 11am in the morning!) He obviously wasn’t closing. He was telling me he didn’t want to cut black peoples’ hair!
I hope the days when barbershops are so strictly divided along racial lines that patrons may be refused service are long gone, but thinking about it makes me wonder how many stories are out there! While we’re waiting to see “the Charleston cut,” let’s relive our fondest memories, or, yes, our uncomfortable stories, too. Let’s talk about and commemorate the noble profession called barbering!
Darryl Lorenzo WELLINGTON
The Charleston Cut, a work-in-progress at Smitty’s Super Seven, Berenice’s Salon, Fresh Cut Barbershop and the Top of the Line School in Charleston, SC. Photographs by Tony Bell.
FOOTNOTE by Jean-Marie MAUCLET:
Ever since I enjoyed Molière, the famous 17th century satyric French playwright, who spent many-a-days in barbershops, claiming they were the best places for collecting real people stories, I wonder if Shakespeare did the same.
After all, besides the Channel and a mere one-generation time gap, the difference is that Shakespeare would have seen a lot of blood letting, as some barbers were still surgeons in his days, and Molière … maybe some tooth pulling on the side, once in a while.
What a difference though! With Shakespeare kings and foes spill ire and blood. With Molière, they are ridiculed.
And what about Rossini, who makes barbers sing, sing … sing?
Barbershops are also theater!