Cut straight to the heart
Sacramento’s black barbershops bore witness to a turbulent history—but can they survive gentrification and new legal challenges?
Prentice White switched his hair clippers on for the umpteenth time. It was around noon on a late summer Saturday, and he’d already cut three men’s hair, had two people waiting, and me sitting in his barber chair.
“Bald fade, right?” White asked.
“Yup, yup,” I replied.
Our exchange was almost second nature, despite it being only my second time in Chicago’s on Broadway in 12 years. The atmosphere inside hadn’t changed since high school. But the world outside the shop’s widescreen windows had.
“Does it ever get weird seeing white people walking their small dogs in Oak Park?” I asked.
“Yes, definitely,” White said.
Like a lot of predominantly black and brown neighborhoods in Sacramento, progress happens without consent or consultation. Homes have flipped, rents raised. Vacant lots have been filled by modern lofts the locals can’t afford. Small businesses that once served people of color have been replaced with cafes, juice bars and white-owned barbershops.
Some say this all started around 2003, when not-yet-Mayor Kevin Johnson sunk some of his NBA riches into the neighborhood he grew up in, opening the 40 Acres Business Complex on Broadway. Johnson, the wealthy, charismatic, prodigal son, planted his flag in Oak Park—with all its crime, poverty and political neglect—announcing it as a place ripe for investment. More than a decade later, that promise is being realized at a dizzying pace. The flip side of progress is gentrification—and sometimes the two are indistinguishable.
Chicago’s is a remnant of old Oak Park. White’s owned the spot for 16 years. As so many black barbers before him, he’s a witness to history—and a survivor of it.
“I’m just one of those that can see the greatness in the midst of adversity or issues,” he told me later. “You gotta find the good.”
Forged during the messy last throes of slavery, the black barbershop (and later salon) is a perennial institution in African-American culture. Call them secular churches, call them tip-driven community centers, call them trash-talking town halls—they are first and foremost spaces where black people can discuss life, relationships, current events and sports while getting a low fade with a taper in the back for him, or a hot comb uncomfortably close to the nape of the neck for her.
“The barbershop is like a constantly evolving museum in a sense, because there’s so much history there,” observed Justin Tinsley, a culture writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated. “But it also teaches you about life and what your future may hold.”
The future of these iconic black-owned businesses has never been guaranteed. For more than a century, they’ve withstood all manner of social and economic upheaval. In Sacramento, in just the past decade, they’ve had to contend with tragic shootings, racist vandalism and recessions. Now, a state Supreme Court ruling has put the shops’ very economic model in doubt, just as many try to walk a tightrope between long overdue revitalization and unbidden displacement.
Black barbershops are no stranger to adversity. But can they keep surviving the future?
Out of the emancipation fire, into the gentrification pot
The history of the black barbershop is similar to the history of most black-owned businesses in America—created out of necessity on the heels of emancipation. In this sense, as Quincy T. Mills wrote in his book Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barbershops in America, the black barbershop and salon maintain equal footing with the black church in the African-American consciousness.
“This sphere encompasses the private and public, individual and collective interests that organize these spaces,” Mills writes. “Barbershops are locations of economic exchange, but are also spaces that facilitate public discourse.”
It wasn’t always like that.
In the early 19th century, black barbershops specifically catered to wealthy white men. These shops were sometimes run by ostensibly free black men, who controlled just a modicum of their own time in a period of history when black people controlling their own bodies was an anomaly. But most shops were run by enslaved black men, who used their talents as a means of survival.
“In the black barber-white patron relationship of the 19th century,” Mills writes, “whites exercised their political power in the barbershop by dictating whom their barbers could shave. With Black customers, barbers wielded much more control over what happened inside their shops.”
Following the Emancipation Proclamation, enterprising African-Americans turned their trade into some of the first black-owned businesses. More than 155 years later, the flickers of the past return in unexpected ways.
Take the weird—and widely unknown—story behind the demise of Uncle Jed’s Cut Hut.
In 2003, Johnson’s St. Hope Development Corp. bought and began renovating the historic Guild Theatre and Woodruff Hotel. With loans and grants from the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, Johnson transformed the properties into his 40 Acres Business Complex—named after the famed “40 acres and a mule” that former slaves were promised (but never received) as reparations.
While the Guild remained, the hotel was converted into loft apartments, an art gallery, Underground Books (run by Johnson’s mother Georgia West) and Uncle Jed’s Cut Hut (run by Johnson’s brother Ronnie West). Like the rest of the businesses at 40 Acres, Uncle Jed’s had a cultural inspiration.
According to Jalil Muhammad, one of Uncle Jed’s original barbers, the shop was named after Margaret King Mitchell’s 1998 children’s book Uncle Jed’s Barbershop. It’s a tale of African-American adversity told through the lens of Sarah Jean, a young black girl growing up in the segregated South, where her favorite uncle, Jededaiah Johnson, yearned to one day open his own barbershop. Uncle Jed saved money for years, but when the Great Depression hit and Sarah Jean needed an emergency operation, he used all of his savings to help his family.
When Uncle Jed finally opens his barbershop, he’s 79.
Uncle Jed’s in Oak Park had sort of a flipped storyline, starting strong and disappearing before its time. The barbershop lasted 13 years—replaced suddenly last year by Bastille Barbers, a hipster salon opened by local barbers Anthony Giannotti and Brandon Taber. Giannotti also owns Anthony’s Barbershop on 21st Street and Bottle & Barlow on R Street. Locals howled at the optics—longtime black barbershop closes for renovation, only to be replaced by a business catering to hipsters.
The story of why Uncle Jed’s closed is still disputed. Ask black Oak Park residents, and they’ll likely say a black-owned barbershop was kicked out and replaced by a white-owned barbershop just like most businesses in the historically black neighborhood. Others might say the barbershop was struggling and Johnson wanted to expand Old Soul. Muhammad says the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Johnson did want to expand the busy café, but ultimately it didn’t pan out and the barbershop closed in vain, Muhammad said.
“When [Johnson] opened that shop, he intended it to be for the black community,” Muhammad said. “For him to implement a black essence in a part [of the city] that was considered ran down and demised, tells me that his intentions were for good with that barbershop.
“Now that Oak Park is being gentrified, people are looking at [Johnson] like he’s the reason it happened. I don’t blame him for that, because he came and invested in a part of town that everyone forgot about.”
Still, it’s difficult to refute Uncle Jed’s closure as a symbol of Oak Park’s gentrification. Muhammad says two of Uncle Jed’s barbers wanted to open a new shop across the street, at the site of newly built lofts, but were told by the developers that they “weren’t going to open no more barbershops in Oak Park.” (SN&R couldn’t independently verify this story.)
“Out of all the businesses that could matter in Oak Park, why not a barbershop?” Muhammad asked. “Especially a black one. Now, you have—I forget what it’s called, but it’s a white shop. It’s a white shop.”
Hair today, gone tomorrow
Five barbershops serve customers of color along the Broadway corridor, stretching from Alhambra Boulevard to Stockton Boulevard. Two doors down from Chicago’s faded burgundy awning is Ace of Fades, run by one of White’s longtime friends, Lance Washington.
Cutting hair here since 2003, when K.J. opened 40 Acres, Washington takes a less optimistic view of the changes rippling through Oak Park. He and White are a study in contrasting worldviews. Where White is a “look on the bright side” kind of guy, Washington is more of a “once bitten, twice shy” skeptic. And with good reason. After questioning the rebranding of Oak Park’s north side as the Triangle District in 2014, Washington says his shop was vandalized—twice.
“It’s kind of scary to say, because with some people here in Oak Park, you got to say the right stuff,” Washington said.
He points to the back of his shop.
“I had a window busted out right here,” Washington said. “Then the door got kicked in. Two incidents happened after I spoke out about that. It was just weird, man.”
Owning a business in communities of color, which suffer from both too much attention (law enforcement) and not enough (political representation, food deserts, health disparities, joblessness, etc.), sometimes means learning the furies have swept inside.
In February 2017, Supreme Barber Lounge on the Tahoe Park side of Broadway was broken into and robbed. The perpetrators spray-painted swastikas on the walls. The racist graffiti was removed, but months later the shop’s front window was busted for second time. The shop closed that same year.
Coming back from such hostility isn’t easy. Just ask Sharie Thompson-Wilson, who owns DreamGirls Fine Hair Imports in Elk Grove. The same year that Supreme Barber was vandalized, Thompson-Wilson discovered a racist note on the door of her salon, located in the city’s historic Old Town. The note threatened a “hunt” of black people and included a racist epithet. The incident made national headlines, but wasn’t the first time Thompson-Wilson endured racism in the area.
“I’ve had people say racist things to me. That was just the first time I’ve ever had a note,” said Thompson-Wilson, whose shop has been in its location for 10 years. “I’ve had feces thrown at my front door before. We’ve had people call and be like, ’Go back to South Sac, niggers.’ But that’s been going on since I’ve been here.”
Now, barbers and salon owners have another thing to worry about. A California Supreme Court decision in April redefined who can work as an independent contractor. More simply put: If a barber works inside of a barbershop, he or she can’t be considered an independent contractor and will have to be classified as an employee of the shop.
Giannotti’s Bottle & Barlow lost its entire crew following the ruling, prompting the owner to hold a workshop on how the ruling would affect businesses like his.
Muhammad, who now owns Fadez on 20th, says the ruling is just another obstacle those in his resilient profession will adapt to and overcome.
“Being a barber, most people just have to worry about paying their rent, and most don’t pay taxes,” Muhammad said. “So I see it as a gift and a curse. They’ll learn how to run the business side of things, but it’ll come at a cost. Either way, it’ll be a while before it changes—if it does.”
Prentice White pointed the remote at the flat screen TV mounted on the wall.
“What’s that one DMX movie where he’s getting back in the dope game?” he asked no one in particular.
“Was that Cradle to the Grave?” one customer asked.
“Naw, that was the one with Jet Li,” said the man sitting in White’s barber chair waiting for a haircut.
“I thought that was the one with Aaliyah,” I offered.
Here’s the thing: You can describe any DMX movie from 1998 to 2004 and you’d get the same synopsis. The rapper-turned-actor plays some sort of drug dealer in a hyper-sensationalized film showing black people as gangbangers and drug dealers about to leave the dope game before something pulls them back in.
Black barbershops and salons are sort of like DMX movies of that era, in that they’re all the same, yet different.
Then again, Chicago’s isn’t just a barbershop. On the first Tuesday of every month, it serves as a gathering place for a small fellowship of black men, teenagers and young boys to discuss the intersection of God, culture and social justice. On a Tuesday night in August, about a dozen mostly older black men and one young boy came to talk about mass incarceration.
“Anybody have any idea what mass incarceration is about?” moderator Shawn Williams posed.
The question sparked a lively discussion about how the prison system affects the home, the school-to-prison pipeline and even the National Rifle Association’s hypocrisy when it comes to black people’s Second Amendment rights.
“If every black person went out and got the Saturday night special—bought a gun and 100 bullets—and joined the NRA, the NRA would shut down,” one deep-voiced man said.
“It’s like when Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party went to the state Capitol armed with rifles and the NRA wasn’t having it,” another man shouted from a couch.
“Why do y’all think that is?” Williams asked.
“Because that ain’t for us,” the child said in an almost hushed tone.
The discussion hopscotched. Participants disagreed, contradicted and debated about who to blame for oppression, when to stop blaming the school system and start blaming the parents and when black people will collectively stop blaming white people for all of society’s ills. Guys auditioned provocative stances without fear of shame or reprisal. They refined their thoughts in real time. They created a space for each other to grow.
That’s what barbershops are about, says ESPN’s Tinsley.
“Yeah, people talk a lot of dumb shit in the barbershop, but there’s honestly some really good discussions about being a man and how to operate in the world,” Tinsley said. “It’s eternal in a sense, because it’s a safe haven.”
“It’s about the bigger picture, and the bigger picture is helping each other,” White said after the meeting. “If you got something good, it’s not good to keep it for yourself. Let’s give it to each other so that we can uplift and edify each other on the things that we don’t know.”
The barbershop as a pretense for personal improvement is one reason White became a barber. The Inland Empire-born, Sacramento-raised White said he started cutting hair at 11 years old. He was cutting hair as a side hustle out of his house when one of his clients, Petri Hawkins-Byrd—known to many as the bailiff of the daytime court show Judge Judy—asked him if he ever thought of making it his profession.
“I told him I had never really thought about it,” White said. “[Byrd] told me if I was serious about it, ’I’ll go ahead and take care of you up front with the cash, and you just pay me back in cuts.’ That’s what I did, and that’s what got me moving.”
In 2001, White began his apprenticeship at Another Look in South Sacramento, a local shop where many current barber and salon owners got their start. Two years later, White left Another Look for Chicago’s on Broadway, one of many black-owned barbershops on the north side of Oak Park.
“They used to call this the barber haven,” White said as he began listing all of the barbershops he remembers on Broadway. Many are still there today.
Looking out his window, at a neighborhood still figuring out what it wants to be, White hopes his business will stand the test of time.
“I hope and I pray that my barbershop will be a beacon in the community, man,” he said.