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
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(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.

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Showing 3 of 41 comments
Jun 11, 2014 3:33 PM CDT
The title is why I first thought: 'What does he know about Black barbershops?' But, after I read the article, I was impressed about what Professor Mills knows about Black barbershops. His historical chronicling was fascinating. His summation is 'right on'. Problem here is African-American boys-to-men are still frequent customers, but, off they go to college and become career driven, the only things they will want to talk about principally in an ethnic barbershop is sports. They will not want to get caught up in what they consider old ideas and old ideals and refrain from such dialogue. It is problematic because technology, engineering, and legal fields have most likely driven barber schools down slim. A "glimmer of hope" is the savvy African-American female who sees a future in becoming a barber. She (eyes wide open) will be quite the conversationalist. She also will enjoy a broad range of clientele, brown, black and Caucasian (especially if she's attractive). Won't this be a twist, professor? Sign of the times!
Jun 10, 2014 4:25 PM CDT
Why Blacks Have a Thing About Barbershops, Nice way to give an article a name!
Jun 10, 2014 3:11 PM CDT
I go to a white barber shop, old timey guy type. Politics and religion are pretty verboten. They will tell you kindly not to talk about it. They just don't want the drama. Sports seems to the topic of choice and since I don't follow any sports I pretty much just sit quietly. It's all good to me anyway. I have found the loudest talkers usually know the least about what they are talking about anyway.