Why Blacks Have a Thing About Barbershops

Professor Quincy Mills talks about black-barbershop history
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 9, 2014 7:40 PM CDT

(Newser) – Black barbershops are known for lively conversation on sports, politics, you name it—so of course there's a fascinating history behind them. In an interview with Collectors Weekly, Vassar College history professor Quincy Mills goes over barbershops' key role in black politics and identity, from the pre-Civil War years through Jim Crow to modern times:

  • "Before the Civil War, most black barbers explicitly groomed wealthy white men," says Mills—even in the North. So where did blacks get haircuts? "On somebody’s front porch, or in the yard," or maybe in "barbershops after hours, off the record."
  • Post-Civil War, black communities targeted black barbers for refusing to serve black men. Yet many of those barbers "were still deeply engaged in black communities," influencing politics or starting businesses for black customers (like insurance companies).
  • Things got tricky in the 1890s when white barbers, mostly German, honed in on black barbers' "wealthy white clientele" by starting a barbers' union and pushing for licensing laws. "As you might have guessed, blacks were not admitted to these barber colleges."
  • Around that time, blacks born after the Civil War opened barbershops in black communities. There, "African Americans could safely gather, talk, and organize."
  • Civil Rights activist Stokely Carmichael "was first exposed to activism" at a barbershop. "When his family moved to the Bronx, the local barbers were Irish and couldn’t cut his hair, so Carmichael wound up going to Harlem every week to get his hair cut."
  • Now Mills is worried that blacks (like everyone else) are too "tethered to our phones" to engage in barbershop conversation. "The generation of men in their 50s, 60s, and older, still goes to barbershops to hang out and talk."

See a Ledger-Enquirer piece on black barbershops in Columbus, Georgia, or for another twist, see what the US Senate paid for its barbershop. (Read more barbershop stories.)

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