Today’s guest columnist is Chervis Isom.
As a young boy I always enjoyed my visits to the Johnson barbershop on 12th Avenue North in the Norwood neighborhood of Birmingham.
I liked the place because it was a man’s world where men talked about men stuff—sports and politics—and there were no women around to hold them accountable.
But as I grew older, a teenager, I began to hate the barber shop for the same reason – some men preached their racism. and no one objected.
Women never came into the shop except to drop off a child. A mother might dash in to tell Mr. Johnson how to cut the boy’s hair and to pay him, and then out the door she’d go.
The barbershop was there long before my time and was not to close for some years after I’d left Norwood for college and then my adult life. I assume the shop eventually closed as a consequence of white flight from our neighborhood following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, released on May 17, 1954, when I was fifteen. That case held unconstitutional the principle of separate but equal school facilities for Blacks and whites on the basis that separate facilities would be inherently unequal.
The prospect of the integrated classroom frightened whites who began in the late ‘50s and ‘60s to abandon urban neighborhoods like Norwood. White flight was facilitated by the condemnation within urban neighborhoods, mostly Black neighborhoods, for the interstate highway system, disrupting thousands of Black families who began moving into the formerly white neighborhoods, thereby exacerbating white flight.
As I recall, the shop contained two barber chairs. Mr. Johnson was a talker. There were four or five chairs for waiting customers, and in the back was a shoeshine stand occupied by a middle-aged black man whose name I’ve forgotten. I will call him Tom. I liked Tom because he was jovial.
Mr. Johnson and his customers would often tease Tom in a good-natured way. Tom’s response was always a good-natured, cackling laughter. As a child raised with attitudes shaped by concepts of the Jim Crow culture, I thought this represented the good relations between Blacks and whites produced by our culture. But then, as a blue-collar kid growing up in blue-collar surroundings, I had no access to any Black or how they might think about our Jim Crow culture that required absolute separation of the races.
We never had a maid in our home as many Southern whites experienced. Our culture was so separate there was no occasion in which I might learn about Black folk. It didn’t occur to me until much later that Tom may have resented the teasing and the requirement that he take it all with good-natured humor because that was his only defense. It was as if Tom somehow understood Mark Twain’s maxim that “humanity has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.”
A barbershop is a great place for a young boy and an adolescent to learn about men. It’s a little microcosm of male society that can be viewed up close, where every stripe of man will occupy the chair sooner or later. I learned early that some men are jovial, some are bitter, some shared good advice and some spewed venom. A boy could watch the men and listen, could take it all in and then let it percolate in good time there in his brain and in his heart as he learned how to think and act like a man.
As a child, I enjoyed the barbershop, but as I became a teenager, I liked the place less and less until there came a time I dreaded to go. There were a number of reasons for my changing attitude.
First of all, my reason was purely personal. I was envious of those boys with the coolest flattops you’ve ever seen. But Mr. Johnson could not do that for me. “It’s your hair, son. It’s as fine as baby hair. It won’t stand up for a flattop.”
Then, there was another reason. When I was a boy, my dad would pay for the haircut, but when I began delivering newspapers, I had my own spending money, and was expected to pay for my haircut. Back then, I was super frugal and liked to save the money I earned. It would take my buying and delivering about thirty newspapers to earn enough to pay for a haircut. No, thank you. Haircuts were unnecessary, since I couldn’t wear a flattop like other boys, and I became shaggy headed, finally going to the barbershop only after my mother’s prolonged nagging.
The real reason, however, the core reason, I didn’t like the barbershop as I got older was because it was, after all, a man’s world, the very thing that attracted me when I was a kid, where a man might say what was on his mind no matter how inappropriate his ideas might be.
Before the day that became known as Black Monday, the day the Supreme Court released the Brown opinion, the talk was mostly about sports and politics, the Korean War and the threat of Communism. It was clear from the Brown decision that the underpinnings of the entire concept of “separate but equal” had been kicked from beneath the Jim Crow laws, and everybody’s attention in the South turned to race.
The Blacks in Birmingham, fired up by the Brown decision and led by Fred Shuttlesworth, were talking of civil rights, while whites were agonizing over the fear of integration in the classrooms, and turned to “massive resistance” to the court-ordered integration of public schools. White Citizens Councils sprang up in cities across the South in 1955 in order to orchestrate the massive resistance.
The following year, the Interstate Commerce Commission used its nondiscrimination clause to prohibit required separate seating in buses and trains for travelers in interstate commerce.
My father, a Greyhound bus driver, brought home all his frustrations in enforcing the Alabama law requiring Blacks to be seated in the rear of the bus, and later in dealing with passengers traveling in interstate commerce who could not be told where to sit, while those intrastate passengers continued to be subject to the Jim Crow law, an impossible situation.
My father and I attended meetings of the White Citizens Council and listened to demagogues rave about massive resistance to court- ordered desegregation and a litany of conspiracies. One such conspiracy held that the entire civil rights movement was being orchestrated by Communists who were looking to create a race war in America and thereby make America vulnerable to the Soviet Union, which was propagating Communism around the globe.
Conspiracy theories abounded in the barber shop. Trojan horses set down in our country were occupied by one and then another of various perceived threats: Immigrants, Jews, Catholics, Negroes, and the civil rights movement. But the main target was the civil rights movement and its threatened breakdown of the Southern culture and way of life, in which we were so separated from the Black race that there was absolutely no way to know them. We could only fear them.
Mr. Johnson and some of his customers would discuss the latest outrage as if everyone had the same concerns. He and his customers would surmise about how far the federal government would go to push civil rights “down our throats”. There was some discussion about the prospect of being seated in a restaurant with your wife, and a Black couple would join you at your table and there would be nothing you could do to stop it. Such was the paranoia in Birmingham in those years.
Though I don’t recall the exact conversations that occurred in those days, I do remember the general tenor of those conversations and the way in which they impacted me. A conversation back then might have gone something like this:
Mr. Johnson, as he pins the robe around Mr. Smith’s neck: “Well, Mr. Smith, had a good week?”
Mr. Smith, as he pulls his arms under the robe: “Yeah, but all this civil rights business has me on edge. All these communist ideas about race mixin’ is gittin’ under my skin.”
Mr. Johnson, combing Mr. Smith’s thinning gray hair, judging how best to cut it: “ I understand. You been following that hullabaloo in Montgomery – that bus boycott caused by that colored woman, Rosa Parks? And nobody’s ridin’ the bus anymore. Think they gonna break the bus company. They wanna sit anywhere in the bus they want –can you believe that?”
Mr. Smith, eyes closed: “Well, it’s more’n a boycott. They got a suit filed in Federal Court. And people are thinkin’ the stinkin’ Federal Courts will order the bus company to integrate, jus’ like they did with the schools. It ain’t right.”
Mr. Johnson, his arms extended as he makes his point, a comb in one hand, scissors in the other: “Yeah, you know, you give a n ***r an inch, he wants a mile.”
Mr. Smith, resignedly: “Mr. Johnson, have you thought about this, if the Federal Court can make our kids go to school with n***rs, they might tell you you gotta cut their hair?”
Mr. Johnson, pausing, then continuing with his clipping: “Hell, yeah, I’ve thought about it. And that’s when I’m shuttin’ ‘er down. I’ll hang it up, move back to the country where I come from.”
Mr. Smith, defiant: “Well, I’m not givin’ up. I’ve joined the White Citizens Council. We’re gonna fight back.”
Mr. Johnson, now clipping away, answered as if he were only mildly interested: “Well, good for you, Mr. Smith. I might join you there sometime.”
Mr. Smith, now cutting his eyes down to Tom, who was snapping his polishing cloth over Mr. Smith’s shoes: “What about you, Tom? Do you wanna sit by me on the bus? Do you wanna associate with white folks?”
Tom, ducking his head, polishing cloth hanging from one hand, the other turned palm up, his head bobbing: “Oh, nah suh, nah suh. I nevah wanted such a thing. Jus’ cain’t believe all what’s goin’ on.” [Snaps his rag as loud as a pistol shot. Turns back to polishing Mr. Smith’s shoes.]
Mr. Smith, to the room: “See, not even the n***s want it. It’s the communists from up north causin’ all this fuss. They got our good colored folks all stirred up down here.”
I silently agreed with their fears and concerns. It was exactly what I’d been hearing at home from my bus driver father who was on the front lines of efforts to desegregate transportation on the highways. But to tell the truth, those conversations that occurred every time I went to the barbershop made me sick to my stomach, no matter how much I agreed with them, no matter that I too attended the White Citizens Council meetings and was carried away by the demagoguery.
As I listened to this tirade and others like it, I could think of nothing but poor Tom who sat in his shoeshine stand or at some customer’s foot, his face an impassive mask as if he were invisible, as if he could hear nothing.
How can it be, I wondered, that I, a mere teenager, feel the cruelty of this rant paraded before this poor innocent Black man trying to earn a living for his family, who can do nothing, can say nothing, and whose only defense is his humiliation.
How was it, I wondered, that I, who believed then in the Jim Crow culture, grieved alone for Tom’s humiliation when no one else seemed to notice or care. Did becoming an adult make a man immune to the feelings of others? Was empathy something that would be squeezed out of a boy when he became a man, like acne. I believed I could not be squeezed that hard.
The barber shop — a man’s world where men would be men – was a place I came to despise as I traveled through my adolescent years. There were far too many men I observed in the barber chair who were not the kind of man I wanted to become.
Chervis Isom grew up in Birmingham and is a product of its public schools. He graduated from Birmingham-Southern College and Samford’s Cumberland School of Law. He is now retired from the practice of law after a long career. He is the author of The Newspaper Boy: Coming of Age in Birmingham, Alabama During the Civil Rights Era, in which he tells the story of his evolution from the Jim Crow culture. His website is: www.thenewspaperboy.net.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. email@example.com.