By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
syoes@afro.com

Our country has been through a lot over the past year, so of course, that means Black people have been through a lot, times 10.

In a country that has terrorized us since 1619, our 401st year (2020) truly was one for the history books chronicling our collective Black bane. How do we begin to heal from such an atrocious year? Where is the refuge for Black people?

Of course, the Black church has been a place where our communities have sought sanctuary, solace and spiritual healing.

Yet, over the generations we have also held space for each other in other “sacred” spaces. Perhaps the most ubiquitous are the beauty shop for Black women and the barbershop for Black men.

However, the Black barbershop didn’t begin as a bastion for Black men to debrief, decompress, talk trash and trade wisdom in a safe space.

In the June 16, 1928 edition of the AFRO, this ad for Madame CJ Walker’s Glossine grooming product for men appeared. (AFRO Archives Photo)

In the 19th century, Black operated barbershops serviced mostly prominent White men and in the South they were typically plantation owners. Then it was essentially impossible for a Black barber with a White clientele to cut the hair of, or shave a  Black man.

Many of those 19th century tonsorials for men were run by slaves, or specifically what was called a “waiting man,” a multi-purpose manservant for his master, or freedmen. Prior to Reconstruction almost all barbers were Black and many of them became some of the wealthiest men in the Black community. After Reconstruction and into the early 20th century they began building Black clienteles exclusively and many of those barbers were members of the Black upper middle class wielding similar status as teachers, doctors and lawyers.

As the 20th century evolved the importance of the Black barbershop only grew. Civil rights meetings and other strategy sessions aimed at the liberation and upward mobility of Black people were held at the barbershop. Some of the greatest Black American writers, such as Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and Toni Morrison all referenced the barbershop as the Black man’s sanctuary. And of course the character Eddie portrayed by Cedrick the Entertainer in the “Barbershop” series referred to the barbershop as the Black man’s country club.

And so it remains in the 21st century. 

For every Black boy, his first haircut is a rite of passage and marks the beginning of an evolutionary journey physically and mentally.

My first haircut came in 1966, when I was one year old and my barber was Mr. Johnny Montgomery, one of the co-owners of Montgomery Bros. Tonsorial in what once was the thriving all-Black enclave of Whitelock City in West Baltimore. “Mr. Johnny” was a well-respected Black businessman and a community leader. As a matter of fact I don’t remember a time when Mr. Johnny didn’t wear a tie to work. That’s how serious he was about his job.

(AFRO Archives hoto)

I sat in the chair stoically and even grinning for my dad as he clicked away with his box camera. But, that was pretty much the last pleasant time I had in the barber’s chair as a child. 

As I got older and my hair got longer and more “unruly” (the word for it back then was nappy of course) going to the barbershop became a terrorizing experience for a little boy with thick, nappy hair and a tender scalp.

Fast forward to my teenage years and things got decidedly better for me and my hair. And of course my grooming enlightenment was linked directly to my inclination to be desirable to all the young ladies of West Baltimore. My hair transformation was 180 degrees; I went from coarse and nappy to soft and wavy. I remember a high school classmate named Jennell said to me once, “Sean I don’t know if you have good hair or you just take really good care of yours.” 

However, it wasn’t rocket science, or Soul Glo,  I just started to adapt grooming habits from the top fashion magazines for men (GQ, Esquire, Ebony Man), such as constantly brushing my hair and keeping it clean and moisturized (I wasn’t really into the stocking caps). And I stayed in the barbershop.

When I was in high school I started going to an enigmatic barber who was only known as “Ernie” who cut hair at the barbershop in the basement of  Mondawmin Mall. This brother was a wizard with the clippers and somehow he was able to hold conversations on the phone and no matter how much “ear hustling” you did you could never make out what he was saying, not one word. I suspect those clandestine conversations may have led to Ernie doing a bid, which meant I had to find a new barber. So, I shifted to a brother named Webb who also worked in the Mondawmin barbershop. And Webb cut my hair for several years; I followed him to a new shop in Walbrook Junction and then his own shop in Milford Mill.

My last barber is a cat named Marvelous Marvin, who I was referred to by a young woman I was dating back in the early 90’s, back when his shop was on Reisterstown Road, just before it turns into Pennsylvania Avenue. And Marvin, a multi-talented brother, who is also a singer and an exceptional trumpet player (and for years he produced his annual “Marvelous Marvin’s Phat Party”) cut my hair for almost 20 years. Marvin is still a friend despite the fact I started shaving my head about a decade ago.

As I reflect on my personal barbershop odyssey over the decades, I evolved from an angst ridden little boy, to an insecure young man who didn’t say much, but did a lot of listening, to an opinionated man who wasn’t afraid to mix it up verbally with anybody on sports or politics while I was in the chair.

When the pandemic hit, it probably forced a lot of brothers to adjust drastically, or face the reality of losing their businesses. But, as we emerge from the depths of the deadly pandemic, prayerfully some of those barbershops will reopen. Not just because brothers need haircuts. But, because so many of us need the type of healing and safety we can only find in these sanctuaries that are just for us.

Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Senior Reporter and the author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.

 

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor