Southern Cultures 8.1 (2002) 112-113
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David Played a Harp
A Free Man's Battle for Independence
David Played a Harp: A Free Man's Battle for Independence. By Ralph W. Johnson. Blackwell Ink, Inc., 2000. 449 pp. Cloth $24.95
Nowadays, way too many of society's "victims" are mere poseurs. Not Ralph W. Johnson, who was at once victim and beneficiary of possibly the most eccentric practice ever to take root in the Jim Crow era. What a curious tale! For Ralph Johnson was a black man who spent his entire adult life as proprietor of a whites-only barbershop. This is not to say that his was a unique situation, but what is exceptional is his ability to tell a riveting story doubtless familiar to many another black barber who either owned or worked in an establishment that catered only to the white trade.
Those who patronized shops like Johnson's were often witness to a disturbing spectacle: the boss man being forced to turn away black potential clients with what amounted to wholesale disdain--"Sorry, we don't serve your kind in here!" Or words to that effect. This phenomenon became much more pronounced during the Civil Rights era, to be followed, as in Johnson's case, with picketings and nonnegotiable demands from young idealists whose zealotry occasionally turned violent and eventually destroyed him. Twice he was burned out long before movement days--first his shop and then his home, where he lived with his sister and mother. He soon lost count of how many times the windows of his shop had been shot out by vigilantes passing through in the night.
Still, he was luckier than most. For he had grown up in the college town of Davidson, North Carolina, and had set himself up in business there. Students and faculty members at liberal, highly regarded Davidson College formed the nucleus of his clientele. He owed much of his success as well to an inner drive that would not allow him idly to accept conditions thrust upon him by white society. On every page of this oddly titled though solidly written and provocative work, one senses the rage of a man caught in a system from which he benefited yet which he could not defend and against which he fought all his life. [End Page 112]
It had not always been like that. In his early years Ralph Johnson's story was much like that of every other boy, black or white, growing up in the rural South. Then the world turned mean and ugly. Johnson was not yet in his teens when he began to observe all the inequities of a mythical "separate but equal" society. (Yet, lest we forget, the Jim Crow system did not come into being until late in the nineteenth century, long after the Civil War, right at the beginning of our so-called "Progressive" era.)
Johnson sought to improve himself in a world where no real success based on intellectual accomplishment was possible for African Americans. He took correspondence courses to complete his high school degree and eventually delved into law, a subject to which he devoted all his non-working hours, living the impossible dream of a black man who hoped one day to practice his new profession in courtrooms where blacks appeared only as defendants. Even that was no good, for he came to realize in time that, exert himself as he might, he could never raise himself fully out of the situation into which he was born. He drove himself so relentlessly that he soon fell ill of an obscure disease that was never properly diagnosed and that crippled him both emotionally and physically for the rest of his life.
Then came the war years, and, with more money in hand, Johnson began to recover from the bad times he had experienced during the Great Depression. Liberal Davidson College was not much help. It did provide more business, in that the cadets lodged there needed frequent haircuts. But they and professors...