The history of black barbershops follows the history of race relations in America, starting with the days of slavery, when all barbers in the South were black and all their clients were white, a practice that extended through Reconstruction. As the perception of barbering turned to that of a skilled profession, there rose new opportunities to exclude black barbers, like requiring licenses and training from institutions that would not admit them. An interview with Quincy Mills, author of Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America, tells us how black barbers turned to serving a black clientele, which led to the barbershop as a place of community discussion and activism.
With the rise of Jim Crow, public spaces were becoming less accessible to African Americans, so it helped that places like black churches, black barbershops, and, later on, black beauty shops and other businesses provided spaces where African Americans could safely gather, talk, and organize.
Now, I wouldn’t put black barbershops on the same level as the church. It’s very well-documented that the black church was central to Civil Rights organizing, and that’s because they were much bigger spaces. You can fit hundreds of people in a church, while you might only get five or six people meeting in a barbershop.
But there are a number of cases where activists retreated to a barbershop to plan a particular campaign, and there are tons of examples of African Americans coming to consciousness in barbershops. Black newspapers were available in barbershops and many barbers were quite politically active, so they would provide their own literature and reading materials, whether about the Communist Party or registering to vote.
Stokely Carmichael, who would go on to be chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was first exposed to activism at his regular 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. He explained in his autobiography how it was in this Harlem barbershop that he learned about the Brown v. Board of Education decision and black activism. It was at this barbershop that he gained a glimmer of awareness of the larger black freedom struggle.
Read the history of the American black barbershop and the role it plays in the community at Collectors Weekly.