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Nelson Malden leans with his back to a counter with a wall to wall mirror in his barbershop with his arms crossed with two sinks and a barber chair visible as are lots of photographs of the people he met
Nelson Malden at Malden Brothers Barber, Montgomery, Alabama, Carol M. Highsmith photographer, 2010.

Honoring African Americans: Barbering

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This post was written by Lynn Weinstein, a Business Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

African-American men’s barbering has its roots in slavery when enslavers earned income by leasing enslaved barbers to neighboring plantations and nearby barbering establishments to groom slaves and affluent white men. Enslaved individuals often worked alongside freedmen, and some individuals were able to earn their freedom through barbering.

From the 1880s through the early part of the second decade of the 1900s, black-owned barbershops primarily served prominent, white clients. Barbering and shaving white clientele was an early and important component of the freedman’s service economy, and provided upwards economic mobility.  After emancipation, black-owned barber shops organized as sole proprietorships or family run businesses also began serving an African American clientele. The barber was, and remains, a respected public figure in the black community, with professional skills who could pass along his trade through apprenticeships.


Louis McDowell standing next to his barbers chair smiling
Barber Louis McDowell in his shop., 1994. Part of the Working in Paterson Project Collection. Martha Cooper, photographer.
Louis McDowell cuts Roger Dailey’s hair, 1994. Working in Paterson Project Collection. Martha Cooper, photographer.

The overall number of African American barbers declined over time due to changes in state laws that required training and licensing. In addition, competition created by the entrance of white men into the field also contributed to the decline in the number of black barbers. Nonetheless, African American barber shops have continued to serve as a community meeting place and refuge, and have played important roles in civil rights as well as in other social, political, economic, and cultural movements. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some barber shops have served as food distribution centers as well as places for reliable COVID-19 disease information, vaccination, and testing.

barber standing at the open door of the Harlem Barbershop W M Mallory proprietor, with a barber and customer seen through the window
Barber shop in Oxford, NC, 1939. Marion Post Wolcott, photographer.
seated portrait of Merrick at the age of 35
From John Merrick : a Biographical Sketch. by R. McCants Andrews (p. 61, 1920). Image from HathiTrust; original University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Some early barbers became economic figures in “Black Wall Streets” across the country, and emerged as entrepreneurs in other fields including real estate, banking, and insurance. One prominent example was John Merrick, who was born enslaved, but went on to become an entrepreneur, community leader, and philanthropist based on income first generated from his barbering establishments in Durham, North Carolina. He served as the first President of North Carolina Mutual, was influential in the creation and management of the Mechanics & Farmers Bank, and was a founder of the Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Real Estate Company. Mr. Merrick formed the Bull City Drug Company and was President of Lincoln Hospital. While he lacked formal education, Mr. Merrick supported Black literacy and scholarship for children and adults by funding rural schools and the College for Blacks in Durham, now known as North Carolina Central University.

To learn more explore the African Americans in Business and Entrepreneurship: A Resource Guide. It contains sections on African Americans in Small Business, the Beauty industry, and the Banking, Finance & Insurance sectors.

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Comments (4)

  1. Excellent commentary!

  2. Please I’m a barber and I want to work outside please I need your help

  3. The number of black barbers has increased rapidly over the years so I don’t where they get this decline from. Black men get licensed and trained all the time, there are black owned barber schools. Black Owned Barbershops are highly successful and make billions of dollars each year and serve as important institutions in the black community.

  4. Black owned barbershops are powerful economic engines in the black community. These institutions serve as social clubs, therapy centers, and safe spaces for black men to actually be themselves and express them truthfully and authentically. And most importantly, these shops also allow our people to circulate money throughout the black community. Black owned barbershops and hair salons speak to the resilience and resourcefulness of black people. It shows that no matter what, our people make it happen regardless.

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