A history of the African-American barbershop

Black-owned barbershops are more than just places to get a shave and a haircut. Their position in American culture is well-known: They're places to talk about the events of the day, to swap stories -- and, according to Vassar College history Professor Quincy Mills, to let African-American men become entrepreneurs.

But it took barber shops the better part of a century to reach that quintessential place in black community life. Mills tells that history in a new book called Cutting Along The Color Line. Mills says the history of these barber shops is deeply entwined with the history of slavery.

In the 19th century, he says, most black-owned barber shops served wealthy, white clients -- businessmen and politicians.

"The black barbers were in many cases enslaved men, but also free blacks," Mills explains. Barbering became a way for some African-Americans "to find some little pockets to sort of figure out how they could at least earn a little bit of money, and control their time -- which of course was what slaves did not have control over."

That shifted in the late 1880s and 1890s, when a younger generation entered barbering. They were born after emancipation and specifically opened shops in black communities to serve black men.

Now, Mills says, it's hard to know what the place of black barber shops will be in our new, constantly changing economy. The current political rhetoric is all about jobs -- and black barber shops simply don't employ many people. On the other hand, Mills points out that it's comparatively easy to become a barber. To open an entire shop only costs about $150,000. Because of that, he says, maybe their direct economic impact is not the most important thing.

"So barbering still serves as that avenue for men, whether they want to own a barber shop or just work in [one]. But also, barber shops provide this sort of central hub, if you will, for communities across the country to understand the nature of their respective communities. And so I would argue that's just as vital to an economy as is the number of jobs one can generate."

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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