Black Barber Shops: A Davidson Tradition
Editors’ Note: This article uses verbatim language from a bygone era, language that would not be appropriate today. It is used in an illustrative manner to tell this important historical aspect of our community.
Davidson freshman Aubrey Brown, who was from Texas, made an interesting statement in a letter he sent home in September 1925: “There are no white barbers here. Negroes run both shops. Had my hair cut this afternoon. Sure seems funny to have a negro do it. 25 cents.”
Black barbers were a tradition in the South. According to Quincy Mills, author of “Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops In America,” barbers in the northern states were often Irish, German, or Italian immigrants. Before the Civil War, Black barbershops traditionally served prominent white businessmen and politicians; Black customers were not welcome. As early as the antebellum period, Black activists like Frederick Douglass decried these practices. During Reconstruction, Black communities actually targeted such barbershops. The tradition continued much longer in the South, however, even after the 1890s, when a new generation of barbers came along who had not begun their practices grooming white men.
One of the Black barbers working in Davidson when Aubrey Brown was a student was Ralph Johnson. He is a well-known figure in Davidson, but his father C. Walter Johnson was also a barber. Walter was born around 1879, and in 1880 he was living in Lemley Township with his grandparents Elijah and Dilsey Johnson. In 1900 he was living with his mother Alice and his stepfather Richard Robinson and was already working as a barber. Walter married Bessie Norton in 1903 and their oldest child, Ralph Walter Johnson, was born in 1904.
The Johnsons owned their own home, situated in an integrated neighborhood on the east side of present-day route 115, about a mile north of Davidson’s small business district. Walter died in 1912, and at the time he was running his own business at 106 South Main Street and employing two other barbers. One was an older man named Ralph Torrence and the other was his nephew, Rutledge Norton, whom he had trained in the business. The shop only served white customers, and Johnson charged 15 cents for a haircut and 10 cents for a shave.
After Walter died, Rutledge ran the shop for Bessie Johnson and trained his brother Hood Norton in the business. When Rutledge went to fight in World War I, Hood was left in charge. Ralph tried working there as a shoeshine boy and trainee barber, but it did not work out. There was a falling out between Bessie Johnson and Hood Norton, and Hood put Walter Johnson’s fixtures out on the street and opened his own shop, leaving Bessie and her children without income. Ralph later apprenticed under barber Lon Colbert when he briefly attended Billingsley Academy in Statesville in 1920. In 1921, at age 16, he opened his own shop, using his father’s old fixtures. It was located in an old frame building at 122-123 North Main Street, opposite the college campus. He shared the building with a pressing and tailoring business owned by his uncle Otho Johnson, whom Ralph called “Uncle Tobe.” Ralph also employed an older barber named Preston. Just a year later the old wooden buildings were razed, and the Sloan Building was put in their place. Ralph and Tobe were able to move their businesses to a building built by Mr. Withers on South Main St., and a short while later to a new building built by Mr. Knox at 122-116 South Main St.
The barber business was not an easy one. Barbers worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. on Saturdays. In 1929, North Carolina changed the regulations for licensing barbers. A barber could no longer learn the trade by apprenticing to an established barber but had to attend barber school or college and pass an exam. Ironically, barber schools were segregated, and Black barbers had to train cutting Black hair. So, any Black barber wishing to cut white hair essentially had to train all over again. This made it hard to find Black barbers who could work white trade, which had been the tradition. The Depression only added to these difficulties. Businesses were closing, and Johnson’s clientele began to drop off. Those who did come in often paid with barter.
In addition, Johnson was apparently attracting the enmity of other Davidson citizens. In 1934, several fires were set at his business, and that same summer the family’s house was burned to the ground. As a result, they were forced to move to a rental property that Walter Johnson had bought on the west side of town. By the mid-1940s, Ralph was employing a barber named Henry Jackson and his cousin Rutledge Norton, who had fallen out with his brother Hood. Rutledge Norton’s employment in Johnson’s shop did not work out, and he left after only a brief time and opened his own shop in Cornelius.
In 1966, Ralph Johnson had the opportunity to purchase a building on the corner of North Main and Depot streets, across from the Davidson College Presbyterian Church. This made him the first Black person to own property in downtown Davidson. This new shop would enable him to employ up to nine barbers. It was, apparently, not a popular move. Before the shop even opened, red paint was thrown on his windows; the windows were also shot out on several occasions. Neither Hood Norton, who had a shop just down North Main, nor Ralph Johnson cut local Black men’s hair during business hours. They made an exception only for Davidson College’s Black students. In his book “David Played a Harp,” Johnson noted that there was a third barber shop in Davidson that catered to Black men, staffed in the evenings by some of the Black barbers who worked in other shops during the day.
Two years after Johnson’s shop opened, this was to cause him serious difficulty. In early April of 1968, two Black men entered the shop and asked to have their hair cut. Johnson explained to them that long custom required that he not comply. The next day he received a letter from a group of Davidson College students demanding that he change his policy. This controversy would ultimately involve not only students, but College faculty, employees, and townspeople. Initially, Johnson held firm, asserting that “We do business with (white) people from all over this area, and they wouldn’t support this [integration]…I’ve spent a lifetime building up this business. I think it ought to be that everything would be open to all people. But then we have attitudes to deal with, and I didn’t create the attitudes. I don’t think I should have to bear the brunt of them.”
After five weeks of demonstrations and extensive media coverage, and on the urging of some of his employees, including James Raeford, Johnson decided to save his business by integrating the shop. Hood Norton, whose shop had never been picketed, would follow suit late the next summer. However, Johnson’s business dropped off, and he ultimately closed it in 1971, after 50 years of service. Ralph Johnson died in 2001 at the age of 97.
For much more information on Ralph W. Johnson’s life, see his 2000 biography, “David Played a Harp.”
The barber shops run by the Norton and Raeford families will be covered in future articles.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.