January 29, 2021
What’s Goin’ On
Black Barbershops
Louis Armstrong getting a haircut, Queens, New York, LIFE Magazine, c.1965 
Black barbers and barbershops have a long and unique history in the U.S., with roots in the era of slavery, where owners leased out enslaved men to cut the hair of local prominent white men. Over time, barbershops grew to become “safe” cultural and social hubs for black men while providing services to the community and financial independence for the owner. As Bishop T.D. Jakes put it, “the barbershop was really (laughter) the place where black men got together… where everybody talked about everything, politics and life and talked about everybody (laughter).”[1]
Newspaper advertisement for Alonzo Herndon’s barbershops in Atlanta, Georgia, c. 1890s
In the early days, being a barber was a noble profession. The great-great-grandfather of corporate executive George Levi Knox, III, is an example of this: “The story is that he [Charles Knox] followed an Indiana regiment out of Tennessee as it made its way home after the Civil War and wound up [in Greenfield, Indiana]… He had been a slave… and… he opened a barbershop… all the barbers were black essentially, and that's what free blacks… [were] allowed to do.”[2] There was also typically plenty of work, as white men were accustomed to having their hair cut by African Americans. Civil rights activist and English professor Gloria Rackley Blackwell (1927 - 2010) further explained: “Daddy [Harrison Blackwell, Sr.]… had his own barbershop [in Little Rock, South Carolina]… but it was for whites only since it was segregated… Now the barber could make up his mind, he could decide that he's going to have a black barbershop. He would also probably be deciding… how he wants to live,”[3] referencing that “this was due to economic reasons, mainly being that barber’s financial stability.”[4] This is how one of the first African American millionaires, Alonzo Herndon, began his empire in the 1870s, as archivist Herman "Skip" Mason told: “Herndon… was this former slave, born in Social Circle, Georgia… walked to Atlanta on foot… started this barber shop, saved his money, invested in real estate, became very wealthy… created Atlanta Life, and became one of Atlanta's first black millionaires.”[5]
James Guilford cutting the hair of world middleweight boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson, one of his many high profile customers, Boston, Massachusetts, 1964
Painter and barber James Guilford (1911 - 2015), who owned Jimmy Guilford's Hairstyling Salon, which catered to Boston's black elite, got his start during segregation as well: “During the Depression, the '20s [1920s] and '30s [1930s]… I sold newspapers, and I started barbering at the age of twelve to help out… I was cutting hair at the time for thirty-five cents a haircut and fifteen cents for a shave… I was in high school when I was taught how to become a barber… I went to Mr. Gordon [ph.] who had a barbershop [in Boston]… as black barbers, at that time… [who] came out of the South… serviced… all the prominent white people… and they were very disciplined about their business.”[6]
Black barbershop, undated
Business, civic leader and supporter of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, Fred Davis (1934 - 2020), pointed to the flexibility the barber profession allowed his father as a business owner: “He worked in two places, primarily he worked in barbershops that other people owned and then twice… he turned the living room of his house into a barbershop… the barbershop was in front and we lived in the back and… He worked in plants… ten months or a year and then he'd quit, came back to that [barbering] because… he was used to being his own boss and doing it like he wanted to do it.”[7] Lead vocalist of the well-known group The Platters, Sonny Turner, remembered the opportunities it gave young people as well: “During elementary school… we were all about trying to be entrepreneurs and trying to learn to make money… I started in the barbershop sweeping up… those guys were like mentors… They would mentor you… about growing up and what a man is… get a job. Go to school, learn something. Become somebody… have self-respect. They were all about that.”[8]
A barber posing at his station, undated
Barbers are where many were mentored, scolded, educated and advised, as portrayed in director Charles Randolph-Wright’splay… 'Cuttin' Up'… based on a book ['Cuttin' Up: Wit and Wisdom from Black Barber Shops'], Craig Marberry, where he went around and interviewed these barbers… one story just so affected me which happened in Atlanta… And this young woman goes into this barbershop, and she says… ‘Excuse me. I don't mean to interrupt you, but I watch you… and I see how you always wearing a tie and how you how you treat people in your business… I have three sons, and I wondered if I can bring them by and watch you.’ He said, ‘Watch me? Why?’ She says, ‘I want to expose my sons to a black man doing something positive.’[9] Roger Gore, co-founder of The Hair Gangsters, a group of stylists who traveled around the country teaching hair styling classes, explained the draw barbers have: “I just admired the way… the community loved the barbers… they always had money seemed like… had a nice car, Cadillacs… and everybody came there in the neighborhood.”[10]
Customers getting haircuts at Fay’s Barber Shop, San Diego, California, c.1950s
Barbershops were also the communication center, the local watering hole, the place you learned what was really happening in a community as noted by historian Thomas C. Holt, whose father was a barber: “I learned more about… history, human relations, and current events in the barbershop than… anywhere else… incredible debates about one thing or another, sometimes frivolous, sometimes very important stuff, a place where all kinds of characters pass through from the… stuck up… high school principal or doctor to… the character on the street… talking a mile a minute and my father out talking everybody… and I suspect I learned a lot.”[11] High school principal Malcolm Hemphill, Jr. had a similar experience: “My grandfather, was a barber, Steve Dickey… always worked in a shirt and tie… He had a barbershop [in Chicago, Illinois]… and I learned so much from him as a kid… when I worked in the barbershop shining shoes… historically, they gave me such a perspective of life in the black community, the kinds of things that they were doing, the kinds of things that they experienced… it was a learning experience for us. It was just phenomenal.”[12]
A young L. Douglas Wilder
Various issues of Jet magazine, 1960-1970s
For former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder, it is where he developed his speaking skills: “The barbershop was a place that was my forum. And the older men would listen to me because they said the kid might know what he's talking about because I would come and argue with them, fuss with them about what I knew and what the encyclopedia said… I'd run home and bring the encyclopedia back, said this is it. So the men started betting on me in terms of the kid knows what he's saying. And it was I guess the first opportunity I had to engage in public speaking.”[13] Judge James R. Spencer, on the other hand, who grew up in Florence, South Carolina, looked forward to going so he could enjoy Jet magazine: “I've got a huge Jet magazine collection (laughter)… I just saved them over the years… they used to have it at the barber shop… and I worked a deal with a barber. I was like, ‘Okay… when this stuff gets… too old… you don't want to put it out here, can I take a couple?’ He said, ‘Sure, sure.’ So… I was always reading Jet magazine… It was important to me to be able to see somebody who looked like me doing great things. And I didn't get that from any other place.”[14]
Fade & Shave Barbershop, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, c.2016
Over the course of about 150 years, “throughout war and times of economic drought, barbershops acted a safe haven. Discussions of social and societal reform took place there… individuals found not only confidence in themselves, but in their communities, and more largely their country. Today, barbers and barbershops continue to thrive and exude confidence on communities.”[15] Actor and comedian Cedric The Entertainer, who starred in the ‘Barbershop’ film franchise, concluded: “That's the place where you… hear the language, you hear the stories… and what's going on… the barbershop has always been… in our culture.”[16]
Dr. Manford Byrd, Jr. (1928 - 2021)
The HistoryMakers Salutes You
"On the day of HistoryMaker Dr. Manford Byrd's funeral, we here at The HistoryMakers mourn his loss. He was one of our staunchest advocates and supporters. It was Dr. Byrd that forged a strong working relationship between The HistoryMakers and the Boule’ Foundation, and it was he who helped guide many of our interview efforts. He was a true servant leader and during his life, he contributed so much to the African American community," says Julieanna Richardson, President and Founder of The HistoryMakers.

Byrd was born in Brewton, Alabama. His life changed when he was given a four year scholarship to Central College in Pella, Iowa, where Iowan farm country met Alabama native, and where he majored in mathematics. When his hopes of being an engineer faded due to lack of opportunities following World War II, he chose a career in education, and what a career it became. After teaching in Quincy, Illinois, Byrd joined the Chicago Public School system when it was known for its segregated Willis Wagons - the portable units that housed the city’s African American youth and teachers. By 1968, Byrd had been promoted to Deputy Superintendent and Chief Operating Officer of Chicago Public Schools, making him at the age of 39, one of the highest ranking African American public sector leaders in the nation. He would go on to serve as Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools during the administration of Chicago’s first African American mayor, Mayor Harold Washington

Dr. Byrd reflected on this career in his 2002 interview: "It was a wonderful experience... the system was great to me... [I am] a great believer in the public school system and what its possibilities are... Nobody has a quick thing that gonna change this overnight. We're gonna have to make perceptible moves of advancement in success, and if we do that we'll make more and more of our people successful. Already we've got them doing everything, going into all kinds of professions, and we can do more of that. And I hope that I've been a part of starting that and giving aspirations and hope."[17]

When asked what he thinks his legacy will be, he simply stated: "I would hope that it was one of faithfulness and one of staying with it, one of facing frightening odds... I walked into unchartered waters and worked and built bridges."[18] Our hearts to go out to his wife and life partner of 62 years, Cheribelle Byrd. They met as young teachers. Our hearts also go out to their three sons, Carl, Bradley and Donald, who did indeed become engineers. Dr. Byrd, during his life, certainly built many a bridge, and we are all the better for it. 
Cicely Tyson (1924 - 2021)
A Heavenly Partnership
Cicely Tyson and her designer B Michael, Creative Arts Emmy Awards, 2018
Cicely Tyson in a B Michael dress with her Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, 2013
Yesterday we said goodbye to the legendary award-winning actress Cicely Tyson, whose career began as a model in the late 1940s. Ophelia DeVore (1922 - 2014), founder of the Ophelia DeVore School of Self-Development and Modeling in New York City, spoke of Tyson's time at the school: "Cicely basically was an actress. So... when she came to us, she came basically to help, as well as to gain... So she also came as a teacher and as a model.... she worked with a lot of the students... [and] was very young when she came to us and... [was] a very good teacher and a very good model."[19] Director and television producer Oz Scott spoke of working with Tyson during her acting career, including on his 1981 film Bustin' Loose: "Cicely Tyson was wonderful.... there were some scenes that were cut out that Cicely was funny and the studio said, 'Oz, no, Cicely's not supposed to be funny, Richard's [Richard Pryor] supposed to be funny.' ...and Cicely Tyson called me about a year ago... I haven't talked to her in about ten, fifteen years... and she said... 'When... people ask me what my favorite movie is, I ask them, you tell me what your favorite movie of mine is... and... more than often [they] say, 'Bustin' Loose'... I just had to tell you that.'"[20]

HistoryMaker and fashion designer B Michael told of his close relationship with Tyson, designing many of her outfits, becoming the first African American to dress an Oscar award-winner: "We trust each other... if you were asking Cicely for instance, 'What are you wearing to the Tony Awards?' She would say to you, 'I have no idea. I have no clue until B Michael... calls me for a fitting...' And it's because she does trust me that way and she has learned that that's my lane and she respects what it is... And I think as a designer for me to work with someone, especially such a big person, there has to be that trust where I can still be who I am and that you allow me to have a vision for you and she's able to do that... when she first saw the dress [for the 2013 Tony Awards] ...she actually screamed when she saw the dress. And... that made me well loved because I wanted her to be happy."[21]

After ninety-six years, Tyson leaves behind an incredible legacy that will certainly live on!
Our Donors
Dr. Charles & Barbara Price
We are deeply grateful for the $20,000 donation from Reno, Nevada’s Charles and Barbara Price to The HistoryMakers 20@2020 Campaign.

Barbara Price said that she and her husband were inspired to donate to our 20@2020 campaign because “It is hugely important at this time… There are many more stories to tell about the value that Black Americans have brought to this country in so many arenas, I felt compelled to contribute as significantly as I could to that cause.”

Charles and Barbara Price are a true team – he works as a private practice psychiatrist and she is his office manager. They have been long-time supporters of The HistoryMakers since 2007 when Barbara Price visited our office in Chicago and was amazed at the work done by The HistoryMakers Founder and President, Julieanna Richardson, and the importance of this work to the education of our country. From that moment forward, the Prices have been stalwart supporters. Barbara Price grew up with Julieanna Richardson in Newark, Ohio.

The Prices “encourage others to support the cause because there are many, many untold stories and it is vitally important at this time in our history for this work to continue – and it’s expensive to continue! I don’t think people realize or understand what the costs are to create a digital archive.”

Thank you, Charles and Barbara!
[1] Bishop T.D. Jakes (The HistoryMakers A2010.106), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, August 25, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Bishop T.D. Jakes remembers the black barbershops of his childhood.
[2] George Levi Knox, III (The HistoryMakers A2005.084), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 29, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 8, George Levi Knox, III details his paternal great great grandfather Charles Knox's journey from slave to freeman.
[3] Gloria Rackley Blackwell (The HistoryMakers A2006.094), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 18, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 7, Gloria Rackley Blackwell describes her father's family background, pt. 1.
[4] “Black History Month in the Barbershop,” Booksy, February 24, 2018, accessed October 29, 2020. https://booksy.com/blog/us/black-history-month-in-the-barbershop/#:~:text=Black%20barbers%20were%20introduced%20to,mainly%20groom%20prominent%20white%20men.
[5] Herman "Skip" Mason (The HistoryMakers A2011.037), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 20, 2011, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 8, Herman "Skip" Mason recalls joining the staff of the Herndon Home Museum in Atlanta, Georgia.
[6] James Guilford (The HistoryMakers A2006.067), interviewed by Robert Hayden, April 7, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 5, James Guilford recalls his first experience working in a barbershop.
[7] Fred Davis (The HistoryMakers A2003.140), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 23, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 5, Fred Davis describes his father's background and personality.
[8] Sonny Turner (The HistoryMakers A2007.318), interviewed by Jacques Lesure, November 2, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Sonny Turner describes working as a shoe shiner at Millionaire's Barbershop in Cleveland, Ohio.
[9] Charles Randolph-Wright (The HistoryMakers A2006.129), interviewed by Denise Gines, November 5, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 8, Charles Randolph-Wright talks about his play, 'Cuttin' Up'.
[10] Roger Gore (The HistoryMakers A2004.131), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, August 18, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 4, Roger Gore describes learning to barber from his uncle at Seat Pleasant Barber Shop.
[11] Thomas C. Holt (The HistoryMakers A2010.027), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 27, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 1, Thomas C. Holt remembers the black barbershop in his community.
[12] Malcolm Hemphill, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2005.124), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 31, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 3, Malcolm Hemphill, Jr. describes his mother's family background, pt. 1.
[13] The Honorable L. Douglas Wilder (The HistoryMakers A2004.105), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, July 22, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 9, The Honorable L. Douglas Wilder remembers developing his skills as an orator in the local barbershop.
[14] The Honorable James R. Spencer (The HistoryMakers A2016.132), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 8, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 6, The Honorable James R. Spencer recalls reading Jet Magazine as a child.
[15] “Black History Month in the Barbershop,” Booksy.
[16] Cedric The Entertainer (The HistoryMakers A2014.192), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 31, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 7, Cedric The Entertainer describes the barbershop culture in Berkeley, Missouri.
[17] Manford Byrd, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2002.076), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 1, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 8, Manford Byrd reflects on his career as an educator.
[18] Manford Byrd, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2002.076), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 1, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 7, Manford Byrd describes what he thinks his legacy will be.
[19] Ophelia DeVore (The HistoryMakers A2006.035), interviewed by Shawn Wilson, March 14, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 1, Ophelia DeVore remembers her students including Cicely Tyson, Bea Richards, HistoryMaker Susan Taylor, Gil Noble, and Richard Roundtree.
[20] Oz Scott (The HistoryMakers A2005.109), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 2, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 6, story 8, Oz Scott reflects upon Richard Pryor's career as an actor.
[21] B Michael (The HistoryMakers A2014.106), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, May 10, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 10, B Michael talks about his relationship with Cicely Tyson.
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