White Supremacy and the Story of African American Barbers on the Verge of the Twentieth Century

Khanh (Miki) Doan

The fire insurance Sanborn maps and the city directories illustrated Bank Street from 1865 to 1920 with two major changes: the expansion of the government and the emergence of one particular African American business, the barber service. The race relation between whites and African Americans during this time period tells two stories about each race. For white men, as they tried to segregate the system and prevent African Americans from exercising their freedom, they realized that the traditional form of controlling blacks suppressed the social and economic development of the region. Whites cooperated with African Americans as a rational solution to promote the expansion of the region whereas African Americans submitted to the white supremacy with a motive to advance themselves as well as their community up the economic ladder. African American barbers took roles as pioneers to develop the connection with the white community and bring back benefits to their people.

Bank Street, once the headquarters of the Confederacy during the Civil War, again acted as the center of governmental bureaus after Emancipation.  In 1886, the United States Customs and Post Offices were located at a small building on the block between 10th and 11th Street. Post offices expanded gradually until the entire block became the Customs and Post Offices in 1950. The expansion of the government in Richmond maintained white supremacy within the capital of Virginia. Although black men were free citizens, whites still considered African Americans inferior with subordinate status. Eventually, whites realized that black men strived for equality in public areas and they feared the black men’s power.

Eventually, whites traded some control over black’s freedom in return for a flourishing economy. By 1880, Richmond represented the industrialized South with tobacco factories, flour mills, iron and steel foundries. The city was also the terminus of six railroads that connected Richmond to principle markets throughout the country.[1] As blacks joined the labor force, the supply for labor exceeded the demand for workers, which lowered wages. By giving freedmen a lower wage than immigrants, firms were able to cut back the cost and push forward the production. Foreign-born immigrants migrated to the North for a better working condition and higher wages. Richmond was among the few cities whose percentage of immigrant population plummeted, which was due to this migration.[2] In 1860, Richmond’s blacks constituted 38 percent of the city’s population; in ten years, they made up 45 percent of the residents.[3] When the foreign-born immigrants left Richmond, more African Americans moved to Richmond and took the immigrants’ places in the work force.

A considerable portion of the African American work force was composed of unskilled males; however, there was a small, urban black professional and business class. Within the professional community, black barbers made a significant impact on the local culture. An article from Richmond Planet in 1906 states that as white barbers began to unionize and raise the price of a shave from 10 to 15 cents, one white gentleman decided to have his shave done by black barbers instead.[4] Even though their first customers were black, African American barbers slowly attracted white customers from their white competitors. Not only did the black barbers stand out due to their cheaper prices and refined skills, but they also had an advantage over white barbers because of their more convenient locations and nicer establishments.[5] They reached out to white customers by purchasing or leasing buildings in the downtown commercial district or establishing black outposts in an exclusively white retail area.[6] Barbers in the nineteenth century were known more for their shaving rather than haircutting. While writing about black barbers in this era, Bristol calls it “the story of the black man’s razor at the white man’s throat.”[7] However, a white man did not see a black barber in that light, but rather a black man doing Negro work.

The city directory in 1893 showed that John Wilder, an African American man, owned a barbershop right in front of the Capitol, amidst all the administrative offices. Not only were white men patrons a part of his business, they also shared close relationships with the barber through conversation and business partnerships, established to attain real-estate. In one special notice in the Richmond Planet, Charles Preston mentioned about a rare business opportunity for a colored barber with little capital.[8] This example illustrates that African American barbers valued their white clientele. Due to potential connections that they would make with the affluent white men, African American barbers could borrow money from these white men and then invested in real estate. Real estate became the main income of black barbers. During the 1870s, the number of prosperous barbers dropped because many barbers moved from the personal service industry to other business endeavors.[9] White men received benefits from this transaction just as much as African American barbers. With this connection, white men were able to buy land in the black area. In this time period, the black barber became the middleman and purchased land for their white clienteles. This mutual relationship explained why Wilder was the only black man who operated a business on Bank Street in 1893 without being forced to leave by political figures around the Capitol.

By the end of nineteenth century, black barbers started to receive criticism from both the black and white communities. To draw whites to their barbershop, black barbers had to operate segregated business and sometimes refused to serve their black fellows. Originally, the black barbers submitted to white supremacy in order to provide the black community means with better economic status in society. Racial tension escalated to the point where the white mobs attacked the black barbers. The African American barbers then decided to turn back and serve their growing community. Bristol states that, by using white society to advance themselves economically and socially, black barbers stepped out of the passive role of racial ideology and took advantage of the white prejudice for their own benefits.[10] In 1911, there was no longer a Wilder barbershop on Bank Street.  According to the United States Federal Census in 1910, John Wilder owned a house on North 3rd Street, implying he no longer lived on Bank Street. So Wilder, the black barber among the sea of white business and offices, decided that he had gained enough from Bank Street to move back and establish a business in his neighborhood.

The transformation of the infrastructure on Bank Street and the story of John Wilder, a black barber, reveal how whites used public space to manipulate black men’s freedom. The changes on Bank Street challenged the freedom that the government claimed to have given to slaves. Without help from the government, African Americans, such as John Wilder, were left to fight for the freedom to enjoy the same prerogatives and opportunities as those of white men.

[1] Charles Crowe, ed. The Age of Civil War and Reconstruction. 1830-1900. A Book of Interpretative Essays (Homewood: Dorsey P., 1975), 61

[2] D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: a Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 278.

[3] Ibid., 56.

[4] Race and Place Newspaper. “Richmond Planet on January 13, 1906: Will Patronize Colored Barbers.” Accessed March 21st 2011. http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/

[5] Douglas Bristol, From Outposts to Enclaves: A Social History of Black Barbers from 1750 to 1915, Enterprise &Society 5 (2004), 596.

[6]  Ibid., 598.

[7] Bristol, From Outposts to Enclave, 596.

[8] Richmond Planet. “Richmond Planet on March 07, 1903: Vol. XX no.13.” Accessed April 28, 2011. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov

[9] Loren Schweninger, Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 217.

[10] Bristol, From Outposts to Enclaves, 606.

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