By Mark F. Gray, AFRO Staff Writer, email@example.com
For Black men the place for logic and social commentary has often been the barber shop. Great debates of sports, politics and life have been passionately discussed, and many of the world’s problems have been solved in the down time customers face while waiting for their haircuts.
Capitol Heights native and master barber Nathaniel “Nat” Mathis is known as the “Bush Doctor” and celebrating his 20th year as a member of the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s, “Business History Collection.” In his book, “Portrait of a Professional: Nat the Bush Doctor Story,” he chronicles how his passion for a hairstyle that was the symbol of the Black Power movement of the 1960’s early 1970’s became the platform for him to carve a niche in American history.
“Bush Doctor” Nathaniel “Nat” Mathis is celebrating 20 years as a member of the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s “Business History Collection.” (Courtesy Photo)
“I always believed we’re in the people business,” Mathis tells the AFRO, 50 years since he was first featured in the paper in 1969.
Mathis never meant to be an activist or set out to make history. However, by embracing and popularizing the symbols of expressions of the afro hairstyle and cornrows of that time, he found his place in that movement. He is credited for being the first barber to create the afro haircut and a pioneer in afrocentric hair care.
“Bush Doctor” Nathaniel “Nat” Mathis, who was featured in the AFRO in 1969, is celebrating over five decades in the business and 20 years as a member of the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s “Business History Collection.” (AFRO Archives Images)
He is the child of a single mother who was born in 1946 at Gallagher Hospital in the District. She didn’t know in 1957 that a $50 Christmas gift to her son would lead to the launch of his career. Mathis, then 11, got his first set of clippers, which was the genesis to his future livelihood and has earned him local, national and international acclaim.
“When my mother gave me the money I bought a set of clippers and the rest is history,” Mathis said. “Once the word got out everybody in the neighborhood was coming over to my house to get a cut.”
Five years later when her turned 16, his acumen for hair styling crossed gender barriers. Mathis learned to style women’s hair and earned a barber-stylist license. That proved to be a fortuitous decision as he was able to work for Soft Sheen products as a consultant, which gave him international exposure. He helped the company expand into Senegal, Cameroon and Nigeria.
By 1976 Mathis was the first African American to compete in the World Hair Olympics and in 1981 he won the gold medal. Always the innovator he would later create The Mathis Hair Care System which he says is a combination of science and artistry that uses a systematic concept of individualized care based on the texture of a client’s hair such as wavy, curly, straight, fine, coarse or any combination.
However, his two patents which are part of the Smithsonian and Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore, are what have made him a legend. In 1974, he created the Barber/Stylist tool organizer, which is a vest that allows stylists to keep their tools of the trade on their person. Last month he earned his second patent after creating special shelving for utensils that allow barbers to work in an organized space.
“After four decades it all seems to be coming together,” Mathis said.
Mathis is celebrating his golden anniversary this month and remains busy. He now applies his trade in a home based business in District Heights, where pictures of celebrities whose hair he’s styled or cut are prominently displayed throughout the shop. These days he takes pride in sharing the wisdom he’s acquired through five decades.