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Cutting Heads in Harlem: Black Barbers Play an Important Role

In the Black community, barbers and customers agree that 'there's more to barbering than cutting hair'

By Arlene Schulman

Before the first light of morning abruptly wakes up brick apartment buildings and sleeping storefronts on Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem, Patrick Savage slips on a black cotton apron and arranges clippers, scissors, razors and brushes for the fades, flat tops, shape ups, beard trims and witty banter that are part of a barber's toolkit. A rotating red, white and blue pole marking his trade rotates seven days a week.

A close up of a man getting his hair cut. Next Avenue, Black barbershop
Ray Chaires at Big Russ Barber Shop   |  Credit: Arlene Schulman

"It's up there with church," said Savage of barbershops in the Black community. "Black hair is just as important."

After more than 30 years as a barber, Savage, who is 57, has cut hundreds of pounds of hair and trimmed as many beards. And listened to as many stories.

"This is a place where a lot of people can come and be heard," Savage said, pointing around Big Russ Barber Shop and its six barber stations on the corner of West 132nd Street.

"This job is 99% customer service and 1% hair."

"A lot of people, they don't get heard on their jobs," he said. "They don't listen to them at home. Sometimes they're ashamed to speak about certain things and certain people. The barbershop is sort of like a free for all. You can say what you want to say.  No therapist is going to tell you 'shut the **** up. Get out of here.'  A barber can say that. So I think that we're better therapists. You always need someone to listen to you."

Also listening is Dennis Mitchell, one block up at Denny Moe's Superstar Barbershop, who found his calling to coiffure and conversation at 14.

"My mother said 'son, behind your barber chair is your pulpit,'" he said. "So this is my ministry."

Mitchell has been cutting hair in Harlem since 1983 which means that Denny Moe's may be the oldest barbershop in the neighborhood.

Barber as Therapist

"There's a difference between a barber and a hair cutter," he explained. "A barber takes care of his clients. A haircutter is gonna take the money and he doesn't care when you come back. You have to be personable. You have to bond, learn about this person, learn about their families and vice versa," Mitchell, 59, said. "Men trust you more than doctors."

A young man getting his hair cut. Next Avenue, Black barbershop
Dennis Mitchell aka Denny Moe at Denny Moe's Superstar Barbershop  |  Credit: Arlene Schulman

A startling lack of Black therapists around the country emphasizes this point. Data from the American Psychological Association's Center for Workforce Studies reveals that only 4% of U.S. psychological professions identify as Black. And out of this small number, only 8% are Black men.

"It's about a relationship," Savage said. "They (customers) believe they can trust you to tell you their personal things. I've heard everything from cheating to stealing to selling dope to you name it. I've heard it all."

"This job," agrees Russ Smith, 47, owner of the barber shop that carries his name, "is 99% customer service and 1% hair."

Smith, a former college basketball player, moves as if he's still guarding players on the court, bouncing back on his feet and darting in after the ball. His son, "Little" Russ, was a standout college basketball star with the Louisville Cardinals and a former NBA point guard with the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies. The Louisville basketball hoop decorating the center of the shop was hung in his honor.

Following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, some free Black barbers opened their own shops or traveled to cut hair. Others worked in hotels.

Smith opened his barber shop in 1993 at a time when he estimates there were at least 60 barbers throughout Harlem. An accurate count is hard to come by. Shops come and go. They close when rents rise, owners retire, buildings sold. The New York State Department of Licensing records show 29 licensed barbershops throughout the neighborhood. But this number does not include unisex beauty salons and shops operating illegally without a valid license. Mitchell estimates there are about 300 shops catering to hair in Harlem.

History of Black Barbers

Barbers have cut heads for centuries dating back to the late 1700s. In his book "Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom," Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr., writes of enslaved men shaving and cutting the hair of their white owners. Some used their savings to buy their freedom. Other barbers were active in the abolitionist movement as part of the Underground Railroad. Following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, some free Black barbers opened their own shops or traveled to cut hair. Others worked in hotels. Their clients were white men who objected to sitting next to Black men until "rules of the trade" relaxed.

A man watching a barber cut hair. Next Avenue, Black barbershop
Russ Smith watches barbers in training at his barbershop school  |  Credit: Arlene Schulman

Moving into the 19th century and beyond, more and more Black professionals began opening their own barbershops as barbering became a steppingstone to economic prosperity. Some barbers became entrepreneurs, including Henry M. Morgan of Texas who opened Tyler Barber College with five chairs in 1933 and expanded it to a national chain of barber schools.

Smith opened Big Russ Barber School on 135th Street, a few blocks up from his barbershop about two years ago. The school offers training to young adults from ages 16 to 22 under the umbrella organization of Harlem Mothers and Fathers S.A.V.E.. S.A.V.E. is the acronym for Stop Another Violent End.

Over 75 students have studied the art of cutting hair and shaving since the school opened. Each receives an apprentice license when they complete training. After working for two years under a master barber, students can apply for their master barber license.

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"You have your favorite barber and you wait because they are your person. It's like going to a certain bar," commented Erik K. Washington, 70, a historian and Harlem resident whose grandfather was a barber. John Moss was born into slavery in 1843. He was 84 years old when Washington's mother was born in 1927. Moss owned his own barbershop in Quincy, Florida.

"My sense," said Washington, "is that barber shops are dying out and they are becoming more hair salons where people go for news and conversation and the vibe."

A Place for News and Gossip

Barbershops have long been a place for Black men to exchange news and gossip, read newspapers, gather around radios to listen to boxer Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling in 1938, organize Black voters, discuss the civil rights movement, and get their hair and facial hair cut and styled. And over the centuries, rapport with customers hasn't changed.

"You have your favorite barber and you wait because they are your person. It's like going to a certain bar."

The movies "Barbershop" about a Black owned barbershop on the south side of Chicago, and Spike Lee's "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads," a film about a Brooklyn barbershop, emphasize the camaraderie between barber and customer.

At Big Russ Barber Shop and Barber School and Denny Moe's Superstar Barber Shop, men (and a few women) discuss politics, sports, their marriages and families, girlfriends, boyfriends, the woes and triumphs of life, and the ways of whites, with wit as sharp as a razor.

Barbers in Training

Khabir Ahmad, 29, who holds a master barber license, cut while singing along to Drake's "Feel No Ways" at the barber school. He stood back and admired his work and pointed out his technique, cutting through layers of damp wavy hair as students observed his technique.

"J. Lo be looking for you!' Ahmad warned the teenager sitting in his chair.

Students attend one of three daily training sessions and are provided with a MetroCard for travel and meals. Small snack bags of Oreos and Cheez Doodles were scattered on waiting room chairs.

"Hey, what happened to healthy snacks?" Ahmad called out.

An exterior shot of a barbershop. Next Avenue, Black barbershop
Big Russ Barbershop  |  Credit: Arlene Schulman

"Yeah, we need those snacks," said one barber in training.

"What's wrong with these snacks?" demanded another.

After a few more back and forths, the young woman sitting at the front desk who manages appointments and snacks settled the argument.

"Eat hair!"

There's a waiting list of young people interested in cutting and grooming.

"We need to have more of the trades," said Smith.

"I started out really young," he said. "I  always had a business mind as a kid. I noticed, at a young age, how much money could be made. And that it's a business that will be around forever. Everyone's always gonna need a haircut."

Men and women's haircuts range from $14 to $20. A shave will set you back $8. A shapeup costs the same. The sign on the door states in bold capital letters NO REFUNDS.

What's Changed and What's Stayed the Same

"I might have raised prices maybe twice in 31 years because you have to know your market. I tell people all the time: 'Know your market'," Smith said. "'That's the same community that kept you in business for 30 years.' "

Mitchell of Denny's Moe is the only one of the three master barbers who can advertise his hair, so to speak. Smith and Savage shave their heads down to their scalps. When Mitchell changes his hair style, he said "A lot of customers will sway that way."

A woman cutting a man's hair. Next Avenue, Black barbershop
Woman barber at Big Russ Barber School  |  Credit: Arlene Schulman

"People want the same cut: a skin fade, a  fade, a trim, a little bit off the top," Smith explained. "Styles haven't changed that much. They just get recycled. What's new are wigs and implants. You can't really tell that it's not someone's hair. It's just a culture thing when it comes to different styles and different ones."

Back at the Big Russ Barber Shop, Ray Chaires visits Savage on a weekly basis.

"You get into this rhythm," said Chaires, a single father of three who works in banking in midtown Manhattan. "I know Patrick's going to use the brush, the alcohol. It's wonderful. To come in here is like being in a sanctuary. Everything with a haircut feels so much better," he added. "Everything will fall in place."

"I don't change my barber or dentist. When you find a good barber you stick with him."

He closed his eyes, his thoughts a million miles away, as Savage trimmed his gray hair and then his mustache.

"I won't let anyone else put a razor to my face," Chaires said. "Pat's so good I can fall asleep. I always look good in the office. Many men have a longer relationship with their barber than with women."

Savage is strictly old school. While his much younger colleagues post on TikTok and Instagram, his appointments are made via text and telephone.

"Howya doin, champ?" Savage asked a 15-year-old high school sophomore who arrived alone. He sat, lost in his phone, texting his friends, with reruns of the sitcom "In Living Color" playing on the large TV screen, as Savage trimmed his hair with gold scissors.

They both glanced up. A man selling African black soap opened the door to the barbershop, hoping to make a sale. When there were none, he watched the television for a few minutes and moved on to another store.

A Community Center

After he left, barbershop chairs were pushed aside so that a man in a wheelchair, a regular of one of the younger barbers, could roll into the back barber station.

"If they like me scruffy," he said as the razor buzzed through his hair, "They'll love me like this."

Another spoke in disbelief to his barber about a friend's attempted suicide.

Clientele includes a cross section of men and some women, from actors, city workers and current and retired basketball players. A few are white. Some travel from downtown. Others are from the neighborhood.

"The barbershop has always been a  community center," Savage said. "Back in the day, people would tell their kids, 'when you get out of school, go to the barbershop. It's a safe haven'."

A man smiling during a haircut. Next Avenue, Black barbershop
Deacon William Allen at Big Russ Barbershop   |  Credit: Arlene Schulman

Anthony James, 62, traveled from Washington Heights for a long awaited haircut.

"I'm going to enjoy my hair while I have it,' he said, opting for a trim. "Patrick is engaging and well rounded on different subjects so we hit it off. We're into a lot of the same things, civil rights, music, you name it. Me and him, we're really deep into house music. I go to the barber," James added, "not the barbershop."

The ministry of barbering found William Allen, deacon of Union Baptist Church on 145th Street in Savage's chair. The gentle sound of the razor buzzing put him to sleep. Almost.

"I've been coming here since I was a baby," he joked. "For the past 10 years. I'm 69. I am peculiar and particular about barbers. I'm not going nowhere else. Patrick knows what he's doing. I don't change my barber or dentist," he added, smiling broadly. "When you find a good barber you stick with him. There's more to barbering than cutting hair."

Continuing the entrepreneurial legacy of Black barbers, Smith no longer cuts hair but manages the shop, school and an acting career; Mitchell manages the shop, cuts hair and photographs and edits videos for his celebrity clients; and Savage contemplates moving from barbering to managing a promising rapper.

And when daylight dims just before streetlights turn on, Big Russ Barber Shop ends its day. Savage puts his tools away, dusts off his chair, sweeps the floor by his station, takes off his apron, gathers up his backpack and walks home to his wife, Paunice. She's a hairstylist.

"Home," he said, "is a quiet place."

Arlene Schulman
Arlene Schulman is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker living on Manhattan island. She is the author of several books, including the critically acclaimed The Prizefighters: An Intimate Look at Champions and Contenders and 23rd Precinct: The Job. Visit her at www.arlenesscratchpaper.com She's also on Instagram: @arlenesbodega Read More
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