Abstract: From Outposts to Enclaves: A Social History of Black Barbers, 1750-1915

Douglas W. Bristol, Jr.


This paper tells the story of how black barbers competed against white barbers for white customers and won. Their dominance in the lucrative market serving affluent white customers made them the preeminent black businessmen of the nineteenth century. Their accomplishments also demonstrate that African Americans have a long-standing tradition of business enterprise. Following the American Revolution, black barbers occupied an economic niche by capitalizing on the demand for genteel services and the aversion that white men felt toward menial jobs. Barbering not only provided a livelihood at a time when job opportunities for African Americans diminished, but it also furnished the means for slaves to become free men. During the 1820s and 1830s, African Americans strengthened their position within barbering by inventing first-class barbershops that transformed a mundane personal service into a glamorous ritual. At mid-century, growing numbers of white immigrant barbers challenged African American dominance within the trade. Black barbers defended their outposts by drawing on their community's tradition of mutual aid to preserve artisan customs and to maintain their competitive edge. During the Gilded Age, black barbers reached the pinnacle of their success in the white marketplace; however, as black-owned barbershops grew in size and luxury, proprietorship became elusive, fostering discord between master barbers and journeymen. Even as limited opportunities and the rise of Jim Crow at the beginning of the twentieth century increasingly pushed black barbers out of their outposts, growing black urban enclaves pulled them toward serving African American customers. The story of black barbers helps enlarge African American history to include business and, more significantly, pushes the field to go beyond the study of exceptional individuals. The story of black barbers also underscores the importance of regional differences in African American life. Throughout the nineteenth century, black barbers from the Upper South succeeded in disproportionate numbers and advocated economic self-help, anticipating and later supporting the philosophy of Booker T. Washington.