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A Tradition of Black Barbershops in Davidson, Part III

by | Dec 8, 2021

James Raeford, holding a US patent he received for a barbering device

The Editors wish to express special thanks to Nancy Griffith, our Davidson History columnist, who undertook extensive research and writing to bring an important three-part series about the tradition of Black-owned and operated barbershops in Davidson. 

James and Ron Raeford

James Raeford, who had first worked for Ralph Johnson, was born in 1934 near Fayetteville, North Carolina. As a young adult he moved to Hampton, Virginia to live with his cousin “because I was young, I thought I knew everything, and I wanted to be out on my own.” He first worked at a motel, and then worked at Langerfield Air Force Base for $1.25 an hour, a lot of money to him at the time. He returned to North Carolina and attended Bull City Barber School to get his license. One of Raeford’s friends mentioned him to Ralph Johnson, and when he graduated in 1957, he came to work for Johnson in Davidson. In 1959, he married Daisy Lee Mayhew in Iredell County.

James Raeford considered Johnson his mentor. While noting that Johnson sometimes offended people with his brutal honesty, he maintained that he had a softer side. According to Raeford, Johnson actually provided the furniture for his first apartment. However, when students demonstrated outside Johnson’s segregated shop in 1968, Raeford opposed Johnson’s decision not to integrate. A year later, two years before Johnson closed his shop, Raeford abandoned barbering to go to car sales. Although being a car salesman was lucrative, he was not satisfied with sales work, and life outside the barbershop was not what he expected. He took six months off, enjoying life on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, before renewing his barber’s license and starting to work at Potts Barber Shop in Cornelius in 1976. Apparently, he was quite the raconteur. As he told Craig Marbury for his book “Cuttin’ Up: Wit and Wisdom from Black Barbershops,” his head was always spinning with stories. “I used to make up things in the barbershop, just to keep the day movin’. If things went dead, I’d bring ’em back with a whopper.”

In 1993, a vacant store opened up on South Main Street in Davidson, and with Norton’s shop closed, James Raeford decided to open his own shop in town. His son Ron joined him there in 1998 after working for a pharmaceutical company. The shop did so well that in 2003 James left Ron to run the Davidson shop and opened his own shop in Cornelius. Both shops developed into thriving businesses, serving people from not only Cornelius and Davidson, but from elsewhere in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.

In 2018 Raeford’s in Davidson celebrated its 25th anniversary. In an interview given at that time, Ron Raeford talked about what he loved about barbering, “It’s one thing to cut hair and make people look and feel good, but it’s the relationships and getting to know people that make this such a special place. I get to know families, cutting their kids’ hair and seeing them grow up and then bringing in children of their own. I know whole families and I know this community. It’s the best decision I could ever have made when I joined my father’s business.”

James Raeford died in 2019, and one of his former customers remembered his many childhood haircuts there. “His smile and his barber shop will always be a cornerstone of my memories in Davidson.” The shop he founded is still thriving under Ron. Interestingly, although Davidson barber shops have long been integrated, the clientele at Raeford’s is 90 percent white and 10 percent black.

Joe McClain

Although he never had his own shop, there was another beloved Black barber in Davidson. Joe McClain grew up in Davidson and was a 1949 graduate of Torrence-Lytle High School. After attending Johnson C. Smith University for a year, he served for three years in the U.S. Army. When he returned home, he attended Modern Barber College in Winston-Salem and worked as a full-time barber in Davidson, first in Ralph Johnson’s shop and then with Ken Norton. In 1969, McClain was elected the first African American to serve on the Davidson town council. In 1973 he left barbering and began working for the Duke Power Company, from which he retired in 1990. After that, he worked as a part-time barber until 2015, in his later years in the shop of Ron Raeford.

D.G. Martin remembers McClain as “the favorite barber of many Davidson College students…A good listener, he made friends easily and probably knew as many students as anybody else in town.” At the time of his death in 2021, another former customer reflected on McClain: “Sitting in the chair at Raeford’s barber shop while he cut my hair, and listening to him reminisce in his soft, calm voice, is one of the things I really miss about Davidson. I always felt better after my time with him, and (as he always said when he finished) I was always a ‘better looking gentleman’ too.”

Nancy Griffith

Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989.  She is the author of numerous books and articles on Arkansas and South Carolina history.  She is the author of "Ada Jenkins: The Heart of the Matter," a history of the Ada Jenkins school and center.

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