Cutting along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America

Cutting along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America

Cutting along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America

Cutting along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America


Today, black-owned barber shops play a central role in African American public life. The intimacy of commercial grooming encourages both confidentiality and camaraderie, which make the barber shop an important gathering place for African American men to talk freely. But for many years preceding and even after the Civil War, black barbers endured a measure of social stigma for perpetuating inequality: though the profession offered economic mobility to black entrepreneurs, black barbers were obliged by custom to serve an exclusively white clientele. Quincy T. Mills traces the lineage from these nineteenth-century barbers to the bustling enterprises of today, demonstrating that the livelihood offered by the service economy was crucial to the development of a black commercial sphere and the barber shop as a democratic social space.

Cutting Along the Color Line chronicles the cultural history of black barber shops as businesses and civic institutions. Through several generations of barbers, Mills examines the transition from slavery to freedom in the nineteenth century, the early twentieth-century expansion of black consumerism, and the challenges of professionalization, licensing laws, and competition from white barbers. He finds that the profession played a significant though complicated role in twentieth-century racial politics: while the services of shaving and grooming were instrumental in the creation of socially acceptable black masculinity, barbering permitted the financial independence to maintain public spaces that fostered civil rights politics. This sweeping, engaging history of an iconic cultural establishment shows that black entrepreneurship was intimately linked to the struggle for equality.


I WAS inspired to write this book while sitting in the Truth and Soul Barber Shop on the South Side of Chicago in the summer of 2000. I was not there to get a haircut—and despite the jokes of imminent attacks by rogue hair clippers, I never did—because I had just started growing dreadlocks one year earlier. But more about my hair later.

I was in Truth and Soul to observe the conversations and interactions among the barbers and customers. Melissa Harris-Perry (formerly HarrisLacewell) employed me to do this work for her book Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought. She was concerned that, as a woman, had she hung out in the shop, she would have altered the nature of the conversations. But even as a black male from the South Side, I have no doubt that I, too, altered the space in some way. While she was interested in how African Americans develop their political worldviews through collective discourse, I could not help but think historically about the space. As I learned more about the owner, how he entered barbering, and how his entrepreneurial activities had shaped his political thought, I had more questions, and I had to go back farther in time.

That fall, I plunged into the archives and stumbled upon George Myers, a black barber in Cleveland, Ohio, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He groomed William McKinley before he was elected president. In fact, Myers boasted of a large customer base of white, wealthy businessmen and politicians, and the Ohio Historical Society housed eight reels of microfilm of his personal papers. Why would a barber have such extensive papers? And why did he shave only white men in his shop? While few black barbers could say they had shaved a future president of the United States, as I discovered, Myers’s practice of shaving white men was by no means an aberration.

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