Not just a haircut: Barbershops, salons offer freedom and community
By RON SELAK JR.
Barbershops and salons in the African-American community are more than places to get a haircut, but occupy a special, almost sacred, space for black men and women of all ages, income levels and experiences.
They offer a chance for generational economic freedom — the natural evolution of the literal freedom enslaved barbers before the Civil War could earn by cutting hair — and as intergenerational community hubs and social outlets.
They serve as safe havens, often referred to as the “black man’s country club” for being the space where African-Americans can talk about whatever they want however they want, from sports to politics to relationships to child rearing.
“It’s cliche to say, but it definitely is the cornerstone of the community,” said Kelan Bilal, owner of Excalibur Barber Grooming Lounge at the Southern Park Mall. “This is the place to go, the information hub … where you get all your politics, all your sports, just what is happening in the community, period. It’s that hub, that cultural hub that we all just love to be at.”
The viral outbreak may have changed this a bit, but the spirit remains — more metaphorical than actual now due to COVID-19 — but people are still coming, still interacting, still wanting that sense of community, so it won’t take long at all to come back when the virus runs its course.
THEN AND NOW
Pre-Civil War in the 19th century, barbering was one of the few fields available to African Americans, particularly to blacks living in the South, said Patrick Spearman, professor in the Department of Education and Leadership at Youngstown State University.
“If you were getting your hair cut, it was often times an African-American barber doing that because if you think about enslavement, it was all about service and the service economy … so (there were) some enslaved Africans that were actually trained and almost kind of loaned out and they could also, once they gained that skill, several of them — depending on their relationship with their enslaver — could loan their services out and actually make money. And maybe depending on how much they could make, purchase their own freedom.”
Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, black barber and beauty shops started to flourish, Spearman said, because blacks in this period of segregation were not allowed at the neighborhood white-operated shops.
The number of black shops started to decline in the mid-1950s and beyond due to desegregation, Spearman said.
“But to take it back to the economics, that was one of the few areas that African Americans, men and women for that matter, could kind of stake their claim and make a living even during the period of enslavement,” Spearman said.
The freedom narrative continues today, but in a different way.
“It is freedom,” said Bilal, also co-owner of Beyond Excellence Barber College in Youngstown. “(In the) old days, it was buying your family, getting your family back from a slave owner, but this is purchasing your freedom as long as you are willing to work … you have the equity basically to do whatever you need, get your credit right, get your family generationally right. You have that power in that right here as long as you have that background and work ethic.”
Daniel Williams is a co-owner of Beyond Expectations.
“You get out what you put into it,” Williams said. “I’m a living witness. Never did I think in 2014 when I was a barber student that in 2020 we would have two barber schools that I not only work and teach at, but I would be a part owner of, have shops, have opportunities to create jobs for others.”
“That’s a beautiful thing, a beautiful thing,” Bilal said.
Beyond Expectations also has a school in Akron. The company expanded to Youngstown after noticing many of its students were from the area. Part of the 1,800-hour course are lessons on economics and creating that blueprint to have a successful business, Bilal said.
“(It’s about) creating jobs, creating entrepreneurs. We literally teach them step by step about to open their own business,” he said.
COMMUNITY AND CULTURE
“When they say it takes a village, the village all meets here. We can’t meet at McDonald’s, we can’t meet at a restaurant, (but) we can meet up here every two weeks and get a haircut,” said Anthony Peeples of Warren, a barber at Royal Fades Barber Shop in the downtown.
Inside, people are free to talk about pretty much anything and customers often cut across generational and other social lines. That infusion of diversity, Spearman said, is what helps shape world views.
Peeples called it a safe haven, the “black man’s country club.”
“Everything you talk about at the country club, you talk about at the barbershop,” Peeples said.
Eric Brown owns CBS Barbershop on Highland Avenue SW, Warren.
“(It’s a) place where you can learn a lot about life and experiences, particularly the African-American culture,” Brown said. “So for over 30 years of cutting hair in a place like that, you come across all people in life, everything from highly educated to street educated to in between. It doesn’t matter what class you come from, you come across all these people and with that, you’ll pick up different experiences.”
“We’re more than just barbers, we’re mentors, too,” Brown said. “We are responsible for making sure these young folks, the best that we can, are headed in the right direction and I thank the good Lord for allowing us to be put in that position.”
The barber / client relationship is one that can last decades and span generations, resulting in a special bond, in part, due to the physical closeness with which a barber must work on his / her client.
“It starts off as a haircut and informal conversation to this is what is going on in my life, I have a baby on the way, I’m proposing tonight. It goes so in depth,” said Curran Redd, owner of Redd Zone Barbershop in Warren. “Cutting people at a young age, you literally watch them grown. It’s a beautiful thing.”
People come to trust their barbers with information that sometimes not even a spouse would know, and know that won’t be spilled throughout the community. It’s a bond that barber and client both enjoy, Redd said.
“The barbershop is definitely one place where the people are happy to see you, actually celebrate you,” Redd said. “It’s one love.”