Segregation, separatism, and the history of black barbershops

Black_barbershop_historyElias Rodriques at n+1:

I WENT TO THAT black barbershop for the reason millions like me have done so before—to feel at home. But for years, as Quincy Mills’s fascinating Cutting Across the Color Line reveals, black barbershops in America were unavailable to people of my lineage and color. Though they became a stereotypical image of a black social institution, crystallized best in Barbershop, they began as institutions of segregation and white supremacy. In the antebellum era, but also well into the period of Reconstruction, black barbershops—predominantly in the South but often in the North—only served white men. Prohibiting black men from cutting black hair for a profit allowed slave owners to control their slaves’ relationship to their own and to other black bodies. At the same time, slave owners profited from their enslaved barbers by hiring their slaves out to cut the hair of white townspeople. If the barber was lucky, his owner allowed him to take a percentage of the profits, which he sometimes used to purchase his freedom.

Their distance from harsh, manual labor made these positions relatively privileged ones, leading Mills to argue that barbers initially occupied an unstable class position. “As captive capitalists in a slave society,” Mills writes, free barbers represented “both the possibilities and limits of freedom for African Americans in the antebellum period.”

more here.