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Black Barbershops: A Davidson Tradition, Part II, The Nortons

by | Nov 18, 2021

Kenneth Norton

Most longtime Davidson residents remember Norton’s Barbershop, most recently owned by Ken Norton. Ken, however, was not the first barber in the family. This distinction goes to his uncle, Rutledge Norton. Rutledge was the son of Charlie and Elizabeth Clark Norton, and was raised on a farm just north of downtown Davidson. As mentioned in a previous article, Davidson barber C. Walter Johnson’s wife Bessie was Rutledge’s sister. At the time of the 1900 census, Charlie and Elizabeth Norton were living on the farm with 12-year-old Rutledge and his younger brother Hood, age five. Walter Johnson 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 Rutledge, whom he had trained in the business.

Following Walter Johnson’s death, Rutledge ran the shop for his sister Bessie and trained his brother Hood in the business. When Rutledge went off to fight in World War I, Hood was left in charge of the shop. Eventually Bessie and Hood disagreed, and Hood put Walter Johnson’s fixtures out on the street and opened his own shop in the space. When Rutledge returned to Davidson after the war, he and Hood went into business, calling their shop Norton Brothers. In 1929 Hood adopted a young boy from the North Carolina mountains who was a distant relative. Kenneth Norton joined Hood and his wife Annie in their home on Lorimer Road, just across from the present-day Swimming Hole.

Kenneth Norton, called by friends and customers either “Ken” or just “Norton,” told an interviewer that he started working when he was seven years old, hauling (and often spilling) fertilizer. He was paid 25 cents a day. The following year he plowed cotton fields and made 50 cents a day. By the age of nine, he was shining shoes at Norton Brothers. When Ken was 14, Hood told him that he had earned enough money to start riding the bus into Charlotte to take classes at Morgan Barber College. He graduated in 1943 and began to cut hair. Around this time Hood and Rutledge Norton had a disagreement, and Hood kept the store, now located on North Main Street and renamed Hood’s, and hired Ken to work there with him. Rutledge briefly worked for Ralph Johnson before setting up his own business in Cornelius. He and his brother never reconciled before his death in 1966. Hood Norton died in January of 1969.

Ken, who had graduated from the Ada Jenkins School, spent two years at Carver College in Charlotte, starring on their basketball team and then served as a military policeman during the Korean War. While he continued to work in Davidson, he eventually moved to Landis, North Carolina, and he commuted from there.

Ken was famous for his short haircuts, and when we moved to Davidson in 1979, his method was still being referred to as “Nortonizing.”  According to Allan Cole, who started at Davidson College in 1986, “Norton…only knew how to cut hair one way. Short! I’m talking semi-buzz cuts in the era of big hair and mullets; we called it being “Nortonized.” To step foot in his shop was to accept the fact that you would not need another haircut for quite some time; the only way to avoid this outcome was not letting him tell a long story, because he cut your hair until he finished telling the tale.”

Cole has fond memories of his visit to Norton’s, “When I close my eyes, I can still smell Clubman aftershave colliding with baby powder, the result of Norton’s soft boar’s-hair brush touching the top of my ears and my neck, which stung after he shaved it with a straight razor. To borrow a term from the psychologist Erik H. Erikson, a visit to Norton’s provided me with a sense of at-homeness in the world, of feeling significant and being cared for in the right place.”

By this time Norton was renting a chair to another African American barber, Joseph McClain, on Saturdays. [More on Joseph McClain in the next article in this series.].

Ken eventually closed Norton’s in 1993 after fifty years of cutting hair in Davidson. However, retirement didn’t suit him, and he returned to work two days a week at Raeford’s Barber Shop, from which he retired in 2015 at the age of 87. But, according to a March 6, 2018 article in the Salisbury Post, “it is possible to say Norton made his mark well beyond his barber chair. His work as a district lieutenant governor for Optimist International helped Boys and Girls Homes. As Scoutmaster for Troop 373 at Sandy Ridge AME Zion Church in Landis, he guided 40 Scouts to the Eagle rank. It was usually Norton you saw working the Lions Club concession stand at Davidson College football games. ‘He stayed going,’ said grandson Derrick Norton, one of those Sandy Ridge Eagle Scouts. ‘He was always involved in some kind of organization. That’s one of the coolest grandpas you can have.’”

Nancy Griffith

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.

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