A documentary for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) tells the story of the Black barber shop and its evolution. As Black History Month 2021 starts today, we take a look at this cultural institution that offers so much more than a shave and a haircut.
Marvin Church, a barber, educator, and influencer, was interviewed for the film. Church has been cutting hair since he was 9 years old, and he describes the barbershop as a “safe haven” and the barber, like a preacher, as someone you can share with, who will hold your confidence.
“The barber has that type of personality where people feel like they can tell them things. The barber keeps these conversations,” Church says.
As Black-owned and Black-patronized barbershops emerged in the early 20th century, the barbershop in the African American community was also a place where Black men could gather without inhibition, without worry. It was and remains an important space for connection and community.
“African American people had limitations on what public space they could frequent, let alone hang out, and barbershops were those spaces where African Americans could gather free from surveillance from a larger white public,” says Dr. Quincy T. Mills, author of Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America.
Cutting Along the Color Line chronicles the cultural history of Black barber shops as businesses and civic institutions. Through several generations of barbers, Mills examines the transition from slavery to freedom in the nineteenth century, the early twentieth-century expansion of black consumerism, and the challenges of professionalization, licensing laws, and competition from white barbers.
“The barber knew everyone in the neighborhood,” Church says in the video. “That was one of the places that people could come together and seek counsel and get information. Outside of those doors it could be chaos but when you come in here, it gives people a sense of security.”
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