Sunday, February 9, 2003

Exhibit reflects on role of black barber shops

Gathering places offered respite in 'Jim Crow' era

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press

LEXINGTON - For more than half a century, Demosthenes Hunn has snipped hair while presiding over discussions that picked over politics, second-guessed sports teams and shared daily struggles. He has watched young boys he propped into booster seats grow into adulthood and bring their own sons into his barber shop. Longtime customers, their hair thinned or grayed by age, still show up regularly for trims and to catch up with acquaintances.

"It's a gathering place, where people come to discuss topics and exchange ideas," Hunn said. "It's just good fellowship where you can express your opinion without any backlash."

Hunn's shop, tucked into a Lexington strip mall, epitomizes the kinship portrayed in an exhibit that draws attention to barber shops as an important social institution among black men.

The exhibit traces black-operated barber shops from the "Jim Crow" era to desegregation. It is on display at the University of Louisville's Ekstrom Library through Feb. 28.

The exhibit includes old barbering tools and photographs of black barbers plying their trade. Other displays recall the era of racial segregation. Photos show an "exclusive colored theatre" and a "billiard hall for colored," while another store displays a sign that said, "We Cater to White Trade Only."

Doris Wilkinson, curator of the exhibit, said barber shops haven't been sufficiently recognized for their role in galvanizing black men, especially amid the repression of Jim Crow.

The barber shop offered a protected enclave that gave black men "a space and a place where he could be among friends, where he could debate the issues of the times," Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson started her research even before the release last year of the popular movie Barbershop, which was set in Chicago and features a predominantly black cast.

Hunn said the barber shop was an important gathering spot from segregation into the civil rights movement. His customers talked about inequalities in education and job opportunities. Instead of anger, he said, there was a faith in God that things would get better.

"Men could come together with a lot of the same situations and learn from each other how to deal with them," Hunn said. "Where there's unity, there's strength. Just by being together we gave strength to each other."

Since those days, there has been a tremendous amount of progress in race relations and opportunities for blacks, Hunn said.

"I think the doors are open now, and we have to encourage young people to take advantage of the doors that are open," he said.

Wilkinson, a sociology professor at the University of Kentucky, discovered that black barbering has deep roots. Black barbers were plentiful in Lexington and Louisville soon after Emancipation.

Many of the barbers thrived. Later, some formed unions in the early 20th century in response to economic threats posed by immigrants who opened barber shops and lured away white customers, Wilkinson said.

Ed Hamilton, an acclaimed sculptor, spent much of his childhood in the 1950s in the Louisville barber shop run by his mother. The store included a shoeshine parlor plus a tailoring shop in the back run by his father.

The shop was in the heart of the city's black business district. The conversations still echo in his mind, though the store closed decades ago.

"The barber shop was the place where you did all the talking about what was going on - trying to solve the world's problems, to no avail of course," Hamilton said.

For a boy, a trip to the barber shop with his father was "a coming of age," Hamilton said. While waiting their turn in the chair, youngsters listened to their elders converse about politics and current events.

"I was just in awe of who they were, just kind of listening to them and watching what they were doing," he said.

Hunn, 71, got his start as a child, shining shoes and sweeping the floor in his cousin's barber shop in Lexington. Encouraged to enter the trade, Hunn got his barber's license in 1950 and returned to his cousin's shop. "I have never been unemployed since," Hunn said.

Pictures of his cousin adorn a wall, a tribute to his role model.

Like his cousin, Hunn set out strict rules in his shop. There's no profanity, no gossiping and no smoking. Everyone is treated with respect.

Now bald himself, Hunn cuts a striking figure with his neatly pressed white barber coat and gray beard. He proclaims himself moderator of discussions, then lets out a hearty laugh that fills the shop.

He often steers the subject to religion, gently asking customers their religious affiliation and sometimes quoting Bible passages.

As to whether he's instigated barber chair conversions, he said, "I put the word out, and God does the conversion."

A small television sits in the shop, but Hunn only turns it on to watch special sports or news events. "The TV would take over the shop," he said. "The TV would take the conversation away from the customers."

Hunn encourages reading, and has accumulated a small library in his store. Customers can browse the books while waiting for haircuts, and can even check out the books to take home.

Easing out of the chair after a trim, W.R. Brown said he enjoys the camaraderie of his visits to Hunn's shop every other Wednesday.

"He treats everybody just like a brother," said Brown.

Wilkinson said her research of black barbershops turned into testimonials about how black men "coped with adversity, how they managed to endure in extraordinarily difficult times."

As he snipped away, and with a roomful of customers waiting their turn, Hunn said he had no thoughts about retiring.

"As long as God gives me health and strength and a good mind, I am going to keep cutting. And as long as customers keep coming," he said, letting out another hearty laugh that filled the shop.

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