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Cutting Along the Color Line

Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America

By Quincy T. Mills

Publication Year: 2013

Today, black-owned barber shops play a central role in African American public life. The intimacy of commercial grooming encourages both confidentiality and camaraderie, which make the barber shop an important gathering place for African American men to talk freely. But for many years preceding and even after the Civil War, black barbers endured a measure of social stigma for perpetuating inequality: though the profession offered economic mobility to black entrepreneurs, black barbers were obliged by custom to serve an exclusively white clientele. Quincy T. Mills traces the lineage from these nineteenth-century barbers to the bustling enterprises of today, demonstrating that the livelihood offered by the service economy was crucial to the development of a black commercial sphere and the barber shop as a democratic social space.

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. He finds that the profession played a significant though complicated role in twentieth-century racial politics: while the services of shaving and grooming were instrumental in the creation of socially acceptable black masculinity, barbering permitted the financial independence to maintain public spaces that fostered civil rights politics. This sweeping, engaging history of an iconic cultural establishment shows that black entrepreneurship was intimately linked to the struggle for equality.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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pp. 4-4

Copyright Page

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pp. 5-5

Dedication Page

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pp. 6-7

Table of Contents

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pp. 8-9

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pp. ix-xii

...to get a haircut—and despite the jokes of imminent attacks by rogue hair clippers, I never did—because I had just started growing dreadlocks one year earlier. But more about my hair later. I was in Truth and Soul to observe the conversations and interactions among the barbers and customers. Melissa Harris-Perry (formerly Harris- Lacewell) employed me to do this work for...

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pp. 1-12

...traveling in Orange County, New York, had a disturbing experience at a black-owned barber shop in Newburgh. “I went out to get my hair cut and my beard taken off,” he explained, “and for this purpose I called at the shop of Mr. . . . [sic], a colored barber, and sir, he would not touch my face with the handle of his razor, nor my head with the back of his shears! When I...

Part I. Barbering in Slavery and Freedom

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1: Barbering for Freedom in Antebellum America

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pp. 15-59

...the story, Delano boards the seemingly distressed Spanish slave ship to find a dejected and bewildered captain, Benito Cereno. After Delano leaves the ship and Cereno jumps after him, Delano learns that the slaves controlled the ship and Cereno the entire time. Moreover, Cereno’s body servant, Babo, acts as...

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2: The Politics of “Color-Line” Barber Shops after the Civil War

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pp. 60-107

...by manicuring the hands of white politicians, bankers, and members of the press who frequented George Robinson’s barber shop on 1410 G Street, N.W., in Washington, D.C. She worked alongside another manicurist, ten barbers, and three porters, all black. This Virginia-born mixed-race barber, according...

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3: Race, Regulation, and the Modern Barber Shop

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pp. 108-142

...black barbers. “When the hordes of . . . foreign folks began to pour into Chicago,” Williams asserted, “the demand for the Negro’s places began. White men have made more of the barber business than did the coloured men, and by organization have driven every Negro barber from the business district...

Part II. Black Barbers, Patrons, and Public Spaces

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4: Rise of the New Negro Barber

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pp. 145-186

...long line of twentieth-century works of fiction by black writers to explore the role black barbers and barber shops played in black communities. In the story, Dunbar captures well the changing currency of barber shops in the black community. Robinson Asbury, the protagonist, starts out working as...

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5: Bigger than a Haircut: Desegregation and the Barber Shop

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pp. 187-215

...While visiting Chicago in November 1942, Bayard Rustin, civil rights activist, remarked to associates of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) that he needed a haircut. When someone told Rustin where he could not get one, the University of Chicago barber shop, he proceeded to test the waters. Rustin entered the Reynolds Club shop shortly before James...

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6: The Culture and Economy of Modern Black Barber Shops

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pp. 216-248

...Stokely Carmichael, activist and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, believed that his “nappy African hair” saved him from the “cocoon of willed ‘innocence’ in which white America famously entombed its youth during the fifties.” When Carmichael and his family moved to Amethyst Street in the Morris Park/ White Plains Road area...

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pp. 249-254

...SINCE the 1970s, barbering has continued to be a viable vocation for African Americans, and barber shops are still as plentiful as churches. But many of the barbers I interviewed for this book who entered the field in the late 1950s and 1960s lament that there seems to be a decline in professionalism...


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pp. 255-304


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pp. 305-314

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pp. 315-324

...MY grandfather, Elmon Mills, was a barber on the South Side of Chicago. The moments I remember most vividly are those when he had no customers and sat in his barber’s chair talking with a fellow barber or other men in the shop. I selectively forget the buzzing in my ear from the clippers that...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812208658
E-ISBN-10: 081220865X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812245417
Print-ISBN-10: 0812245415

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: 19 illus.
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 867741484
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Cutting Along the Color Line

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African American barbers -- History -- 19th century.
  • African American barbers -- History -- 20th century.
  • Barbershops -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Barbershops -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • African American business enterprises -- History -- 19th century.
  • African American business enterprises -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Race identity -- History -- 19th century.
  • African Americans -- Race identity -- History -- 20th century.
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