During the 19th century, black-owned barbershops had mostly prominent, white clientele. It was difficult for a black man to approach a black barber for a shave or haircut using the same instruments he used on the white customers, even in the north. The shops were run by either slaves or “waiting men” or by freedmen and were competition for the white barbers.
The rationale used by the black barbers was considered economic necessity. As long as the white men continued to patron the black barbershops, the barber’s family had stability and the ability to provide for his family in a middle-class household. The profession was also attractive to the black barber because the conditions of working inside were much better than the fields or back-breaking labor.
After Emancipation, the black-owned barbershops were opened to serve black clientele. That was the beginning of the barbershop as a sanctuary for black men. Unfortunately, the number of black barbershops began to decline with the demand for formerly trained barbers and changes in state laws and cosmetology.
In 1934, Henry M. Morgan established Tyler Barber College, the first national chain of barber colleges for African Americans, in Tyler Texas. The colleges spread until nearly 80 percent of all black barbers in America were trained at Morgan’s schools.
The placement of black barbershops has been so significant in black history that legendary authors Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Amiri Bakara and Richard Wright all made reference to the ‘black man’s sanctuary’ in their works.
Vassar College history Professor Quincy Mills has written “Cutting Along the Color Line”, which takes a deep look at the history of black barbershops.