Raney: In the barber chair

Raney: In the barber chair

February 25th, 2018 by Suzette Raney in Opinion Columns

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

Free men of color as well as slaves used their barbering skills to get ahead in early America. Professor Quincy Mills of Vassar College, in his book "Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barbershops in America," pointed out that before the Civil War, black barbers — especially in the South — trimmed primarily white customers. Since black and white men did not customarily share chairs, blacks who wanted a shave and a haircut had to go to their friends' front porches.

In the 1890s, when Jim Crow laws mandated segregation, black barbers began to serve predominantly black patrons. Railroad cars, restaurants and theaters separated into white and black units, and barbershops followed. Barbershops in black communities created a venue for cultural awareness, including discussion of Jim Crow laws.

In his 1904 book, "Biography and Achievements of the Colored Citizens of Chattanooga," local author J. Bliss White identified three barbers as "successful and progressive." J.G. Higgins, who owned the O.K. Shaving Parlor at 911 Market Street, was described as having "one of the prettiest Barber Shops in the City." J.T. Pitts, the son of one of "the leading pioneer families of Griffin, [Georgia]" was "one of the finest tonsorial artists in the country." R.C. Hawkins, a product of Chattanooga Public Schools, worked as a letter carrier and ran the Arcade Barber Shop. Known as "race men," these barbers worked to enhance themselves and their communities by operating successful businesses.

Chattanooga's barbers were unique in being required to have a state license as well as a city license. The Chattanooga Barber Control Board, a voluntary regulatory board, oversaw the city's licenses and inspected all local barber shops. A 1938 ordinance required Chattanooga city barbers to pay a first-time state license fee as well as a first-time city fee. In 1991, the state fee was $35 and the city fee was $25. The city renewal fee was $10 and the state renewal $40. Chattanooga was the only Tennessee city to have this additional requirement. The intent of the ordinance was to ensure that Chattanoogans would receive only "professional" barber services. According to a Feb. 27, 1991, Chattanooga Times article, the ordinance also ensured that nonunion barbers and vagabond hair cutters would not allowed to set up shop. Chattanooga's barbers' control board and the union were discontinued during the 1970s. Current Chattanooga city code declares that barbershops follow Tennessee laws and regulations.

Barbershops were known as private spaces in a public arena. Anyone could visit the shop but the discussions were kept within the shop's four walls. Larry High referred to his barbershop "Bear's Barber Shop" at 3429 Alton Park Boulevard as a "men's social club" in a May 29, 2013, Chattanooga Times Free Press article. Women did come into the shop, some to get their hair cut and others to bring in junior for his first trim.

Ladies finally broke into this male-dominated occupation and became barbers as well. The Chattanooga Observer, the African-American newspaper, printed notice of two women providing first-rate service as men's hair stylists in the 1950s. The first female barber mentioned was Lottie M. Gordon in November 1950. She was a former instructor in the Lidaro Barber College at 218 E. Ninth St. and worked at the Green Light Barber Shop at 219 E. Ninth St. Mr. Betts, proprietor of the shop, welcomed her and assured his customers of only the best service.

The Green Light Barbershop was on E. Ninth Street for several years. The 1990 city directory listed Lottie as retired. By the 1995 city directory, the shop had relocated to Tunnel Boulevard. The last listing in the directory was 2006.

The Observer of March 30 1956, reported that Lucille Favors, formerly Lucille Betts, who had worked at the Green Light Barberhop, moved to become assistant manager at Phantom Barber Shop at 429 E. Ninth St. According to the Observer, she was the first woman in Chattanooga to receive a barber license. In the 1960s, Lucille cut hair at Malone's Drive-In Barber Shop at 1504 E. Third St. She retired by 1980 and died in May 2012. Her obituary on May 18 noted that she was the first black female professional barber in the Chattanooga area.

Suzette Raney is the archivist at the Chattanooga Public Library. For more information on barbershops and beauty salons, visit the Local History Department at the Chattanooga Public Library, 1001 Broad Street, call 423 643-7725 or email sraney@lib.chattanooga.gov. For general information, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org.

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