What does your barbershop mean to you? For the black community, the barbershop, like the church, has long stood as a sacred space for people to gather, converse, and engage in activism, discourse, and grassroots organization.
Black barbershops are self-contained worlds with their own culture, laws, and customs. They are the culmination of craft, etiquette, and tradition that has evolved over 160 years to produce the heritage we look back on now. Just like our hair, the roots of barbering run deep.
In the Antebellum South, barbers were slaves. In the North, freed black men and low-income whites often became barbers. At that time, only wealthy white men could afford the service of barbering, which meant that, while black barbers began to spring up across the country, they weren’t cutting black hair.
In the 1860s, barbering was an artisan system and a cornerstone of burgeoning black enterprise. Barbers would start as apprentices under the supervision of a master barber until age 18 or 21 then travel city to city to hone their craft and earn their living. Master barbers were pillars of their communities, often owning their own barbershops where high levels of skill could be cultivated and barbering skills passed down to future generations.
Just like today, the first barbershops were founded on bonds of mutual respect between master barbers, apprentices, and clients. As revered and active community members, master barbers were looked to not just for haircuts, but for advice and wisdom. While clients came in for a haircut, they stayed for the discussion.
For the black community, barbering became an entrepreneurial tool to achieve financial success. John Merrick, a great barber and entrepreneur, was born a slave in 1859. By the 1880s, he would own five barbershops in North Carolina: two black, and three white-only, using the profits from those barbershops to found the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. In the 1880s, barbershops began to combine elements of luxury hotels, spas, and clubs, creating what we now consider “first class” barbershops. These higher-end barbershops allowed their customers to experience luxury, offering a place to linger and enjoy hair cuts, shaves, hot baths, cigars, and a range of goods and services.
“First class” barbershops provided an heir of exclusivity, and would custom tailor their services, even going so far as to monogram mugs, capes, and tools for their most important clients, adding small details and personal emblems that elevated the experience of a haircut and shave into something more: a ritual.
In the 1890s, the German Organized Barbers Union lobbied to pass licensing laws that required barbers to have a degree from a Barber College, nearly all of which refused to grant admission to black men. This forced black barbershops into black neighborhoods exclusively, where they would evolve into a community gathering place and a conduit for black activism.
In 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression and Jim Crow, Henry M. Morgan established the first chain of barber colleges for black people, allowing black barbers to officially earn their degrees. Black barbers were given more entrepreneurial control and societal prestige, and black barbershops continued to evolve as venues for business, and community organization.
Civil Rights activist Stokely Carmichael first became involved in black activism through his Harlem barbershop. It was recruitments like his that led the FBI to target and monitor black barbershops through their COINTELPRO project during the Civil Rights era.
During the summer 1966 riots, then-barber Ernie Chambers was featured speaking about the racial divide in Omaha for the documentary film “A Time For Burning.” Chambers would go on to become the longest-serving state senator in Nebraska history, a 46-year career during most of which he was the only nonwhite senator.
Today, black barbers continue to serve their community as leaders, teachers, and entrepreneurs, and the barbershop remains a focal point for gathering, discussing, relaxing, and enjoying the simple luxury of a haircut.
We at The Rich Barber proudly honor the history and traditions of the past that laid the groundwork for the modern barbershop, and we continue to carry the craft of barbering forward with a spirit of entrepreneurship, evolution, and community.
When you walk through our doors, you become a part of our story. We continue to maintain the legacy of the past while furthering the craft of barbering and the role of the barber to move beyond the barber shop and affect positive social, political, and economic change.
The barbershop is a place you can express yourself, mix with younger and older generations, and learn new things. When you get in that chair, throw on a cape, and talk to your barber about your look, you become part of a tradition that spans generations and continues to work as a force for social equity, financial freedom, and community resilience.
Barbering is a foundational part of who we are, the past we share, and the future we’re building. Together, we can continue to build upon the traditions of the path while paving the way for the barbers of tomorrow.If you want to learn more about the history of barbering and the entrepreneurial mindset of the barber, check out my book The Rich Barber Method (Softcover & Audio Bundle). Learn the tips, tricks, skills, and insights that a decade of professional barbering and entrepreneurship have taught me and get a roadmap to attracting and keeping clients, mastering your craft, and moving beyond the barbershop.