Barbers, barbershops play significant role in Columbus' black community

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comMay 18, 2014 

Ron Jones has been cutting hair in Columbus for 30 years. But clippers aren't the only things buzzing at his barbershop on Buena Vista Road. It's also a place for stimulating conversation about everything from sports to politics.

When there's an election, the buzz gets even louder.

Over the years, visitors have included Mayors Jim Wetherington and Teresa Tomlinson, as well as Sheriff John Darr and Marshall Greg Countryman, Jones said. And in 2006, the barbershop played a significant role in the election of Jerry "Pops" Barnes to the Columbus City Council, said Jones and others in the community.

Alonzo Rivers visits Jones' shop twice a month to get his hair groomed. On a recent visit, he and other men pontificated about the upcoming mayoral election and other issues.

"It's a gathering place where you can hear different perspectives about politics and things like that," Rivers said. "I like the atmosphere."

Barbers and barbershops have long played a significant role in Columbus' black community. During the Civil War, a black barber named Joe Clark tried to recruit free black slaves to organize a black Confederate militia, according to "Rich Man's War," a book written by historian David Williams.

Another well-known barber in Columbus was Amos Sherald, who died in 1948. His family has operated barbershops in the city for generations, and he was known as a successful businessman and humanitarian, according to information provided by the Columbus Black History Museum.

But arguably the most famous Columbus black barber of all was Primus King, who successfully challenged the Democratic party's white-only voting primaries in federal court, allowing blacks to exercise their voting rights.

Zeph Baker, a city council candidate running against Barnes in this election, said he made sure to visit black barbershops both this year and when he ran for mayor in 2010 against Tomlinson.

"Black barbershops have played a role not only in politics, but they hold a strong position and influence in our community," he said. "We often think that beauty shops are where a lot of the talking and information is exchanged verbally, but barbershops are a place where we go to get that exchange as well.

"You get up, not just on political information, but also community issues," he added. "It's our little sanctuary. I consider each barbershop to be like another congregation because the barbers carry a lot of information from one group of customers to the next."

Brandon Hicks, owner of The Nappy Root Barbershop, 4231 Macon Road, said the average black man gets a haircut twice a month, and some come every week. Sometimes they're waiting for hours to see a particular barber, which gives them time to relax and express themselves. "It's the only place they're free," he said. "It's strictly honest conversation and honest feelings. You have people who, nine out of 10 times, when they see you, they're just leaving work or they're headed to a function that's really important to their lives.

"So you deal with them on a personal basis and develop that relationship. When they get comfortable it's just a place that they visit," he said.

Hicks said his shop focuses on promoting black culture more than politics. The walls are decorated with pictures of black icons like President Barack Obama, Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. R&B music plays in the background. A sign on the wall says, "Whatever Happens in the Man Cave stays in the Man Cave." Another reads: "My Cave. My Rules. Enter at Your Own Risk." The barbershop was recently nominated for Steve Harvey's Best Barbershop 2014 Ford Neighborhood Award, and people can vote Tuesday at from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

"The tone we try to set here is all about highlighting our culture and not what you typically see in the media," he said. "There's more to us than what you see on television. That's why it's so easy to convict black men and to murder them and get away with it. So we try to emphasize the other aspects of our community."

Hicks said the shop attracts a diverse clientèle, many of them young people. They talk about sports, relationships and anything else that comes up. His customers aren't that engaged in local politics, he said. But it was different when Obama was running for re-election.

"Everybody was into it then," he said. "We watched the election up here. We had a get-together with food and everything."

But at Jones' barbershop, at 5132 Buena Vista Road, local politics reigns supreme. In 2006, Jones was part of a dialogue group with One Columbus, an organization that promoted unity in the community. C.A. Hardmon, who goes by the name "Brother Love," began attending meetings at the barbershop. They became friends and, along with Barnes and others, launched the Grassroots Unity Movement for Change, according to Jones, Hardmon and Johnnie Warner from the Columbus Black History Museum.

"What I like about this barbershop is you could have a very intense exchange and nobody gets mad," Hardmon said. "You may look like you're going to knock each other out, but nobody takes it personal."

The barbershop, which recently moved from 5313 Buena Vista Road to the current address, is now headquarters for the Grassroots Unity Movement for Change. Warner said the idea for the black history museum also came out of discussions at the barbershop.

Jones, Hardmon and Warner said the barbershop also became the grassroots organizing force behind Barnes' 2006 campaign and helped him topple long-time City Councilman Nathan Suber. But they and Barnes have since parted political ways.

Barnes declined to be interviewed for this article.

Jones said becoming engaged in politics changed his life. He comments regularly on newspaper stories posted online and has learned to express his views both in speech and writing. He's also lost some customers along the way who disagree with his politics, some of them politicians.

"People look at me as just a typical barber," he said. "I'm not supposed to know anything except how to cut hair. But now I say what's on my mind."

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