A vibrant tradition: knights of the razor in the 19th and 21st centuries

Guest post by Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr.

When Damian Johnson, the co-owner of the No Grease chain of barber shops in Charlotte, North Carolina, began reading my book, Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom, he was struck by the discussion of the movie Barbershop on its first page. The movie is a comedy set in Chicago’s South Side about a 20-something named Calvin, who has inherited a barber shop from his father and is frustrated with the challenges of operating a small business in the inner city. Confronted with foreclosure after mortgaging the shop to finance several get-rich-quick schemes, Calvin sells the business to a loan shark. Through a series of madcap plot developments, Calvin wins back his business after he learns how important barbers are to the African American community.

Damian related to the movie. He grew up in the business—his mother owned a beauty salon—and he had gone off to college determined to find another career. In the end, though, he embraced barbering and wrote his senior marketing paper on how to open a shop like No Grease. Since Damien thought Barbershop captured something important about his experience, he wondered if the rest of Knights of the Razor might remind him of his own life. He told me later that it did.

I was fortunate enough to learn what Damian and his twin brother Jermaine thought about my book over an excellent dinner they bought me in Charlotte on April 13. After reading Knights of the Razor, Damian contacted me about giving a lecture, so I traveled to the Queen City. Damian and Jermaine were superb hosts. I enjoyed shooting pool at their barber shop in the Time Warner Arena. I was also Damian’s guest at a fundraising gala for Johnson C. Smith University, over which he presided as the master of ceremonies. As you can tell, Damian is a great organizer. He managed the next day’s event, my lecture, with considerable aplomb. Introducing me to the crowd of about 80 people at the Levine Museum of the New South, Damian told the audience how he had accidentally found my book on Amazon and decided, after reading it, that he saw himself as one of the Knights of the Razor.

Damian and Jermaine went on to explain the parallels they found between being black barbers in the 21st century and in the 19th century. Like their predecessors, the twins had to use ingenuity to be successful black businessmen when race posed obstacles. Damian, for example, shared how he and Jermaine convinced their white landlord to finance the purchase of their first shop when no bank would give them a loan. As it happened, their former landlord attended my lecture, and he told the audience what a good investment he had made. Another parallel to their 19th-century counterparts was their first-class shops. In the three No Grease shops, all located in upscale neighborhoods, black barbers wear bow ties while they clip the hair and shave the beards of Charlotte’s black professionals.

Jermaine then explained why he and his brother had chosen the blackface image for the No Grease logo. After learning about minstrel shows while studying drama in college, Jermaine realized that a figure from the minstrel stage could have a double meaning. Blackface invoked negative racial stereotypes, but by taking ownership of the image, Jermaine and his brother could let white businessmen know that they were not playing any games.  What W. E. B. DuBois referred to as “double-consciousness,” an awareness of how he looked in the eyes of white people, was a defining trait of the 19th-century black barber. Since he served white rather than black men, understanding white viewpoints was even more central to achieving success than it has been for the Johnson brothers in the 21st century.

The strongest parallel, however, between the Johnson brothers and the intrepid barbers that I wrote about? In the 19th century, the Knights of the Razor were a fraternity. Black barbers took teenagers under their wings as apprentices, trained them for success, and helped them open their own shops. Damian and Jermaine have continued this tradition. A dozen extremely well-dressed graduates of their barber school attended my lecture. One of them, a memorable young man named Dominique, had been working for the Johnsons since he was 17 and is now the foreman of their shop in the Time Warner Arena. So, while I had traveled to Charlotte to tell Damian’s friends what I had learned about his predecessors in the 19th century, he and his brother Jermaine taught me that the vibrant tradition I studied was alive and well in the 21st century.

Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr., is an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi.