Courtney Welch is quick to admit she enjoys taking her son to get his hair cut as much as 7-year-old Caleb loves getting one: It’s the highlight of his day.
But for Welch, there’s an undercurrent of harsh reality to her joy: In a country where Black men and boys must reckon with other people’s interpretation of their physical appearances, the barbershop acts as a haven where her son’s self-esteem is tended to with the same care as the crisp edges of his lineup.
“I’m aware of how the world sees Black boys. So there’s something beautiful about knowing he has autonomy in deciding how he presents himself to that world,” Welch said. “Plus, that haircut is happening in a space for Black men where they can feel welcome.”
Welch is describing two cultural truths inherent to the Black community: A barbershop isn’t just a barbershop, and a haircut isn’t just a haircut.
It’s no coincidence that one of the most memorable photos from former President Barack Obama’s first term in office is of the commander in chief leaning over so a 5-year-old Black boy could touch his hair. While the concept of a Black barbershop is no longer unfamiliar in America – even being neatly presented to the public through the “Barbershop” film franchise of the 2000s and 2010s – the journey to a more modern, mainstream acceptance of Black hair culture was shaped over centuries.
Enslaved people, shipped from Africa in chains and forced to labor on plantations in the antebellum South, were stripped of their ability to practice traditions from their homelands, including any form of self-expression through hairstyles. White enslavers wanted the hair of their property kept short, which sometimes meant the enslavers would forcibly cut it.
Barber Nasir Allah chats with Caleb Welch, 7, at Supreme Blends Barber Shop in Oakland. Allah has been cutting Caleb’s hair for nearly five years. Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle
America’s first Black barbers were enslaved during the 19th century and were tasked with solely grooming white men. It wasn’t until long after emancipation that Black barbershops were able to cater to African American clients.
National data showing the scale of the Black barber industry today is scant, but according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are over 100,000 barbers in America. Slightly more than 20% of them are Black, which means African American barbers are a significant component of a men’s grooming industry that Forbes estimated in 2015 to exceed $20 billion.
But the bedrock for the nation’s Black barber scene was shaped by a handful of business pioneers between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, starting with Alonzo Herndon. A former slave born in 1858, Herndon was one of America’s first Black millionaires. He built his wealth from him, in part, by running multiple upscale barber shops in Atlanta in the late 1800s that were popular among the city’s white elites. Herndon would go on to use that wealth to found the Atlanta Family Life Insurance Co.
The country’s first Black barber college opened in 1934. Scholar and civil rights activist Henry Morgan founded the school in 1934 in Tyler, Texas, and during the 40 years it existed, it would serve as the training ground for most of the country’s Black barbers.
Yet, even with the work of these industry pioneers, white America retained a heavy influence in Black barbershop spaces. During earlier portions of the 20th century, as Black men integrated into mainstream society, they used hair relaxers – chemical products that straightened hair – to improve their social status, since American beauty was defined by Eurocentric standards. The natural hair of Black folks was perceived as wild or unkempt.
Then Willie Lee Morrows, a businessman who would go on to launch a hair-care empire in the 1960s, gave America a product called the Afro Tease in the 1960s. The comb was specifically designed to stretch Afro hair from its roots. Commonly referred to as a pick, it exploded in popularity during the Civil Rights Movement, when Black activists looking to force racial progress made the Afro hairstyle a political statement. The natural look became the hallmark of Black rebellion and served as a reminder to white America that its validation of Black hair no longer mattered.
Another racial-justice movement in 2020, sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, triggered a resurgence in longer hair styles among Black men, similar to what America saw in the 1960s, said Malik Rodgers, owner of Tailored Cuts barbershop in San Francisco’s Ingleside neighborhood. Tied to it was also a sense of cultural pride, he added.
“There definitely were more Black men coming in and saying they wanted to keep their hair long,” Rodgers said in reference to the past two years. “They still had to get it tapered on the sides, of course, but that look is a lot more common now than it was a few years ago.”
While Tailored Cuts’ customer base is significantly Black, Rodgers says many of his regulars identify as Latino, white or Asian.
“We aren’t one of those barbershops that are prejudiced. We don’t get down like that,” he said. “If you come in here, you’re family. I have a lot of customers that aren’t Black, but they come here and experience Black culture, and they can feel like they’re good here just like anybody else.”
Barber Malik Rodgers, 49, owner of Tailored Cuts in San Francisco, puts the finishing touches on Jai Watkins’ haircut. Watkins, 49, has been Rodgers’ client for 22 years. Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle
One Thursday night, as Rodgers prepared to close his shop, his cousin, Bay Area hip-hop legend Richard “Big Rich” Bougere, made an impromptu appearance. Rodgers has been cutting the rapper’s hair for about 30 years. According to Bougere, a local activist who also mentors Black youth, Tailored Cuts is the kind of barbershop that helped shape his view of the world.
“Barbershops like this are the last authentic hubs of Black culture that you’ll find, really,” Bougere said. “As a young Black man, you can get exposed to views and opinions that will teach you more about your own identity, as well as the world around you. And you can see how the Black men around you present themselves to the public and how they take pride in themselves.”
Before leaving, Bougere added another thought. He said only one word describes what Black barbershops mean to Black men who often feel out of place in America:
“Everything,” Bougere said. “They mean everything.”