I joined the picket line of white students who were trying to force the black-owned barbershop for white people to cut black people’s hair.
Two years earlier I had matriculated at Davidson College, an all male, liberal arts Presbyterian college of 1,000 students that had recently graduated its first black student and still had only five black students. The Davidson education traditionally includes rigorous academic standards and an emphasis on service to humanity. The strict Davidson Honor Code is to this day core to the values the college expects in its students. Back then ROTC (U.S. Army Reserve Officer Training Corps) was mandatory for two years. Sunday evening chapel and vespers on Tuesday and Thursday morning were mandatory. Women were not allowed in men’s dormitory rooms. Davidson had been a tranquil—almost monastic—Southern institution focused on educating gentlemen. But in the words of one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs of the era—“the times they are a-changin’.” Even the tranquil scene of Davidson College was not immune from the craziness and tension of the late 1960s.
The contradictions were manifold. The Vietnam war was raging. We were subject to the draft. Most students, including myself, were opposed to the Vietnam war as immoral. But we were not conscientious objectors, so we would attend ROTC classes during the day, march in ROTC drills on the athletic fields once a week, and demonstrate against the war through candlelight vigils at night. The Army officers who taught us joined in the vigils.
No issue of the time revealed the contradictions and tension better than our effort as students to integrate Mr. Johnson’s barbershop. Mr. Johnson, a black Davidson resident, had owned one of the two barbershops for white people in Davidson for over 40 years. In 1968, he had one of largest and best-run barbershops in the state. He employed six black barbers, and served most of the students and townspeople. When Davidson integrated in 1963 Mr. Johnson had agreed to cut any black student’s hair, but his barbershop would otherwise only serve whites. At 4:15 p.m., on April 2, 1968, two young black townspeople, dressed in suits, walked into Mr. Johnson’s barbershop. Mr. Johnson recognized them as local workers, who normally dressed in working clothes. Their dress and demeanor aroused his suspicions. He politely asked them what they wanted. They requested haircuts. Mr. Johnson explained what they already knew — barbershops were exempted from federal civil rights laws. Thus, North Carolina had no integrated barbershops. He politely refused to serve them, knowing that if he did serve blacks, other than students, he would lose much of his non-student white clientele. This clientele, referred to as townspeople, was considerably larger than his student clientele and was year around.
Within minutes, Davidson College students appeared with prepared signs and placards, picketing and denouncing Mr. Johnson’s policy of “discrimination against Negroes.” The students distributed leaflets signed by 13 respected student leaders:
“… It is Johnson’s policy to cut the hair of only those Negroes who are students here at Davidson.
“We feel that it is time for this situation to come to an end. We feel that it is unfair, unjust, and immoral. We simply feel that a community barber shop should be open to all the members of the community. ….
“We have decided to approach you, the students, to ask you not to get a haircut at Mr. Johnson’s until he gives written commitment that he will cut anybody’s hair whether they are white or black and whether they live in a dormitory or in the community.”
Davidson students embraced the cause, and joined the picketing of the barbershop.
The next day picketing was suspended while the students obtained the proper permit. On April 4 the permits were issued and the students supporting the action had organized and assigned times for picketing. My roommate, Peter Hobbie, and I, joined the picket line. The next day, the college paper, The Davidsonian, would feature Peter with a front page picture with the caption:
DEMONSTRATIONS CONTINUE – Peter Hobbie carries placard as Frontis Johnston (acting President) and Dean Burts observe. (Staff Photo by George Robinson)
Initially we all enjoyed a feeling of camaraderie. We had joined together to fight the good cause of desegregation. The action garnered the support of the Student Life Committee with a letter signed by Dean Burts. Faculty members came out in support of the action. We looked forward to the growing strength of our little movement. The boycott and picket line were in the Charlotte papers and on the TV channels. We students were pleased that Davidson was now seen publicly as actively engaged in the civil rights movement. On the other hand, Mr. Johnson told the media that he, as a Negro, would have embraced integration if mandated for all businesses. He was a descendent of slaves and knew the toll integration wrought on the Negro community. He was trying to make a living and provide jobs for his barbers within a system built by whites and imposed on Negroes. He asked, ‘Why did nobody first come to him? Why was he ambushed?’
On the night of April 4, an assassin’s bullet killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The country started to boil with racially charged anger. Urban areas saw riots. The next day, across from Mr. Johnson’s barbershop, two crowds gathered. One group supported the picketing students. The opposing group supported Mr. Johnson and his right to run his business as he saw fit without being dictated to by those who had no investment in his business.
Two Davidson professors tried to convince Mr. Johnson not to open on April 6 (a Saturday and his busiest day of the week). Presumably, the professors sought a cooling-off period. Mr. Johnson refused. The next day the crowd size and tension escalated. Many outsiders, including blacks from the Davidson area and unknown blacks, potentially agitators, joined the crowd supporting the students. Many whites from the surrounding area joined the opposing crowd. The student grapevine said that a white country boy had pulled a knife on a Davidson student and been told to run along before he got in trouble. The crowds then dispersed.
Later that evening, the student body was abuzz. The police had arrested a Davidson student. The buzz in the student body was that student had accidentally brushed an officer and was then arrested for assaulting an officer. I, like most Davidson students, was outraged. White country boy got a free pass, while a Davidson student got an arrest record. In our self-righteousness, we believed that the police were racists. But we had no real evidence. And I, like my fellow students, did not try to get the other side of the story.
On Monday, April 8, the picket was removed after negotiations between the college and the town, presumably to defuse the increasingly tense situation. The boycott would continue. But the next mandatory ROTC was Thursday. So, we had to get our haircuts. A group of five of us over dinner started brainstorming. Somebody, perhaps Peter, said, “Let’s go to the barbershop that serves the black people in Cornelius.” I said, “I’ll second that.”
On Wednesday night, we drove to Cornelius, the neighboring mill town to Davidson, the college town, crossed the railroad tracks and found the barbershop. We immediately recognized and then greeted the barbers as the ones who had cut our hair since we started at Davidson College. We learned that they worked for Mr. Johnson during the day and worked in Cornelius at night. Then I noticed the prices—25 cents per haircut cheaper than at Mr. Johnson’s. As my hair was being cut, I thought why would any black person ever go to “Mr. Johnson’s white barbershop” and pay more. We made sure as we left that, with a more generous tip, we paid the barbers what they would have earned at Mr. Johnson’s.
As I returned from my lesson in pragmatic economics, I first observed to Peter that no black person would go to Mr. Johnson’s barbershop. “Why pay more?”
I started asking myself if we students were solving the right problem. Had we failed to reach-out and understand Mr. Johnson’s world? What were we doing about the real poverty of the blacks and the segregation of the blacks, who were living literally on the other side of the railroad tracks? But I did not question the senior student leaders nor talk directly to Mr. Johnson or his barbers. I went with the flow and continued to boycott.
On May 7, Mr. Johnson quietly integrated his barbershop by cutting a young black employee’s hair. Davidson students celebrated. The boycott was over. Mr. Johnson’s business never recovered. On Nov. 15, 1971, Mr. Johnson taped the following note to the door of his barbershop:
JOHNSON’S BARBERSHOP CLOSED
Opened March 21, 1921
Closed November 15, 1971
50 Years Later: Reflections on Mr. Johnston’s Perspective
Over the years I would retell the story with ironic humor of white students picketing a black-owned barbershop to make black barbers cut black people’s hair. I only dimly perceived the problems we had created for Mr. Johnson until this year when I read Mr. Johnson’s autobiography, David Played a Harp.
He wrote his book in the decade after closing his barbershop forever. However, it was not published for another 20 years. By that time he was a respected elder of the community and noted raconteur. In the words of the publisher, Taylor Blackwell, “Our thanks to the author … for his courage, at age 96 to finally decide to release it for publication.” His book, now on my highly recommended reads list, challenged my perspective. I no longer take pride in our actions to integrate his shop. I feel guilt.
Mr. Johnson describes his many decades of hard work to build his business into what he was told was the busiest and best run barbershop in North Carolina. Then in Chapter 22, he tells how he was “attacked” on April 2, 1968—the victim in his words of a “plot … being laid in secret on the campus of Davidson College, an affiliate of the Presbyterian Church.”
Prior to the requests for service by the two black townspeople, nobody had reached out to him to discuss integrating the barbershop. Within minutes of the two blacks leaving, three Davidson students entered, asking why he refused service. He then opens Chapter 23 with the words, “Within a matter of minutes after the three students walked out, all hell broke loose.”
Picket lines formed with already prepared placards. His barbershop was under siege. He was both perplexed and angered because only his barbershop was picketed while the other black owned barbershop that served only whites except for all Davidson students was spared the picket lines. No suitable explanation for this disparity was even provided. I can now feel his anger at being told by white students, joined by supposedly wise faculty, at what he was supposed to do with his business, a business that provided good incomes for seven other black families trying to live within a system designed by whites to subjugate blacks. In Mr. Johnson’s words:
I did not originate the practice of segregation. I had been forced to live under its rule for sixty years. But these young white men behaved as if I had been the founder from the beginning and that but for me the whole evil thing would disappear from the earth. I, and I alone, was the last vestige holding together this odious practice they had so lately come to denounce. Their fathers and grandfathers and all the generations before them were absolved of guilt and all of this shame and scorn was heaped upon me.
I was one of those young white men, and now I feel shame.
I learned the truth behind the myth of the country boy pulling the knife. Two increasingly agitated groups were facing off in the churchyard across from Mr. Johnson’s barbershop. The groups were joined by outside agitators, drawn to the town due to the publicity. In the wake of the Martin Luther King assassination, riots were breaking out across the country. As the tension built, one policeman rushed across the street and had Mr. Johnson close his curtains and turn off his lights, so that the two crowds would know the barbershop had just closed. Then the police ordered both crowds to disperse before violence broke out. In Mr. Johnson’s view, the police were wise and heroic, not racists.
When the white Davidson student was arrested, the college paper, The Davidsonian, furthered the unfavorable and unfair portrait of the local police with a vicious and sophomoric satire. Mr. Johnson describes what really happened. After the angry crowds left and his barbers had safely escaped, Mr. Johnson went to leave his shop by the back door. A crowd of people including numerous students surrounded him to engage him in dialogue. At first, the conversation was civil. When it turned vociferous and threatening to Mr. Johnson, somebody slipped out to get the police. One Davidson student had chosen to stand very close to Mr. Johnson. The police arrived and ordered the crowd to disperse. The Davidson student did not leave and was handcuffed and charged with failing to obey a lawful order.
For 50 years, I had believed and told a very different story.
Three Davidson faculty—Dr. Workman, a psychology professor, Dr. Rhodes, a bible professor, and Dr. Patterson, an economics professor—tried to convince Mr. Johnson to just do the right thing and integrate his shop. They assured him any business losses would be minimal. They were moralistic and naïve. And they were wrong. He rebuffed their efforts. He observed to himself that they should start with integrating their own white churches and changing the town ordinance that supported segregation. He asked why the white students were not coming over to the black side of town to help the truly destitute in their squalor. He asserted because that would have been uncomfortable.
I know I would have felt the discomfort and I certainly never did try to work on the other side of the tracks.
Davidson students and the feelings of the times turned many members of the black community against Mr. Johnson. He and his family received death threats. His mother, in her 80s, who lived with him, was terrified. Her health declined. He starting carrying a pistol and checking his car for bombs before starting it.
In Mr. Johnson words, “I had become a pawn in a wanton game and I would have to pay the price for all of this.”
After three weeks he chose what he thought was the least of his terrible choices and integrated the barbershop. But his business problems had only started. And his mother’s health declined to the point where she was hospitalized and lost consciousness. He wrote:
I knew at that instant that a terrible thing had happened to me. Hate had been stamped hard into every fiber of my being as fear had been driven and fixed into our mother’s mind. It was a hate for everyone who had in any manner been a party to the situation that brought this about, whether by act or sentiment.
Meanwhile, we Davidson students had gone back to our normal, privileged lives.
Over the next three years, most of his non-student white customers abandoned him and his student business declined. He gained a small number of new black customers but had to deal with intoxication and fisticuffs, problems he had never had before. His business was in a vicious downward spiral. More and more of his barbers left. After three years of increasing despair and bitterness, he realized his only way out was to close his business.
The closing words of David Played a Harp captured Mr. Johnson’s angst:
It was over. Alone now, in my dead and empty place of business, I was filled to overflowing with tears that washed my face and blinded my eyes. Then the convulsive sobbing came and I screamed to let out of my body the bitterness and hurt that held me shaking in its grasp. After a long while, when the crying was through and I could see again, I wrote on an index card the following notice and taped it to the glass in the door:
JOHNSON’S BARBER SHOP CLOSED
Opened March 24, 1921
Closed November 15, 1971
Then I locked the door behind me and went home to stay.