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The Barbershop as Forum

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Black barbershops are not merely businesses, but have long functioned as part of a social economy. Quincy T. Mills, assistant professor of history at Vassar College, addressed this subject in a lecture titled “Rethinking Black Barbershops as Public Spaces,” presented on March 28 as part of the new speakers’ series sponsored by Juilliard’s Liberal Arts Department. This particular lecture was cosponsored by the Office of Student Affairs. Professor Mills’s research focuses on African-American urban and business history, race and segregation, and social and political movements.

Quincy Mills, of Vassar College's history department, spoke about black barbershops as public venues for discourse and debate.

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Black barbershops have had an expansive history as public spaces for African-American men to socialize without the intrusion of either a white or a female population. The men visiting them felt free and uncensored when discussing issues such as racial politics. But a barbershop owner might have felt less freedom than his patrons, according to Mills. He cited the case of Leander Blount, a barber during the early 1950s in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, who learned to speak cautiously when dealing with certain topics. On one occasion, Blount expressed his support for the Yankees to one of his customers, who politely listened while getting his hair cut. Then, without a word, the customer left and never returned to the shop. Blount’s support of the Yankees was offensive to the black community, as the team was still segregated, without much economic incentive to integrate since they had a record of five consecutive World Series victories. At the time, an African American’s support of the Yankees might be compared to voting for segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond over Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election. For Blount, this was a hard-learned lesson in considering the business ramifications before voicing his opinions on heated topics in this supposedly freewheeling public space.

Beyond interactions between the barber and his patrons, the barbershops provided an opportunity for socializing among the men waiting be groomed, who played games, chatted, and debated with one another. The exchange of information was such that newspaper reporters regarded these discussions as newsworthy events. For example, African-American newspaper reporter Ralph Matthews covered an argument between two patrons about whether or not Father Divine had meant that he had actually gotten married after stating in a sermon that “he married the Lamb of God.” The press understood that these barbershops were a place to gauge public opinion on racial and electoral politics, sports, and other current events. Even today, the press turns to these places as a source of information about the African-American population. Recently, The New York Times went to black barbershops in the city to interview the African-American patrons about their views on presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Since black barbershops were legal public spaces, they also afforded an opportunity to hide underground illegal activities in back rooms. The biggest and most popular illegal business was the numbers game, the precursor to today’s lottery. During the Depression, many African Americans played the numbers game, as it could cost as little as a penny. Between the two world wars, it was the largest black business in the informal economy. Its connection with the formal economy of the barbershops essentially made this business legitimate. African Americans did not view the game as illegal, but merely as part of the underground economy that provided employment for black residents and for the operators, who could use their profits to build legitimate institutions in the black community.

During the 1930s, the Great Depression and rise of unemployment caused a lot of Americans to re-evaluate their needs. People cut back on expenditures such as entertainment, membership dues—and in some cases, haircuts. Barbershop owners suffered as haircuts became a luxury and many people decided they could get a haircut for little or no cost in a neighbor’s front yard. Since shop owners did not share the revenue from the numbers, their barbers demanded better pay and hours, putting more pressure on owners who were already forced to lower prices.

Aware of these conditions in Harlem, Frank Crosswaith, chairman of the Harlem-based Negro Labor Committee, worked with Local No. 8 to increase the participation of barbers in the union, and he worked toward a city ordinance to regulate barbershops. Crosswaith, an immigrant from the Virgin Islands, and union members used flyer postings to reach local barbers, encouraging attendance at weekly meetings at the Harlem Labor Center on West 125th Street. One such flyer read, “A new day has now dawned for Harlem barbers, a day that will see us rise like men … onto the high-ground of manhood, enjoying a decent wage, reasonable work hours, union protection, and our self respect.”

Spike Lee’s film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, produced in 1983, demonstrated the economic struggle and social issues that black barbers and communities encountered in the early 1980s, but also speaks to the ’30s. The film portrays the shop owner’s moral dilemma of running a legitimate business, though he had very few customers, and allowing customers to play the number in his shop, which brought in more customers and more revenue.

Professor Mills’s discussion of the racial politics of black barbershops as businesses in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant encourages a new look at these public spaces and provided a fitting conclusion to the speakers’ series, which examined various aspects of New York City history in five presentations this year. Watch for announcements of next year’s series!

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