For far too long, historians who wrote on inter-racial and inter-ethnic relations focused almost exclusively on the victimization of various groups while ignoring the entrepreneurship and mutual aid that took place within those same ethnic groups.
Fortunately, the situation has been changing in recent decades. In my article “The Trouble With Public Accommodation,” for example, I looked at how some relatively recent scholarship has chronicled the economic importance of ethnic enclaves and small business development in increasing entrepreneurship among non-Anglo ethnic groups and among immigrant groups in general. Works of note on this topic include An American Story: Mexican American Entrepreneurship and Wealth Creation by Mary Ann Villarreal, and a collection of essays called Landscapes of the Ethnic Economy.
Now, a new book by Douglas Bristol examines how barbershops became an economic fixture for black business owners and black entrepreneurs during the 19th-century, both before and after the Civil War. Bristol’s book, Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom, examines not only how barber shops formed both a social and economic function within the black community, but also how barbers were able to build barbershop-based capital into other ventures such as insurance firms.
As with so many businesses founded by Japanese-American and Mexican-American entrepreneurs, many black-owned barbershops (and the other businesses they spawned) were founded to fill a need in the face of legal and social barriers to economic advancement, such as anti-Japanese and anti-Mexican laws in California and Texas, respectively.
Bristol also notes how barbering assisted established black business shop owners in mentoring and training younger men who would go on to build businesses of their own.
Bristol notes, however, that after the Civil War German immigrants used political influence through labor unions to lobby and win government regulation of barbershops through licensing.
By the 1880s, new barbering schools had led to an influx of new barbers who, as Bristol explains “drove down prices for shaves and haircuts.” There was still no shortage of the so-called “first-class” barbershops where higher prices could be had, but new young barbers were providing more low-cost options to lower-income customers.
In the minds of interventionism-minded barbers, of course, this had to be stopped. Fortunately for them, it was also at this time that reformers began to complain that barber shops were rife with disease and were a menace to public health.
Bristol explains how the first barber licensing laws soon followed. In this interview, Bristol notes:
There was a union, the Journeymen Barbers International Union of America which was associated with the American Federation of Labor. The leaders, mostly 2nd and 3rd generation German immigrants, saw their opportunity to seize on the issue of sanitation to limit competition, and while they’re at it finally exclude blacks from the first-class barbershops. The pretext for the licensing laws was to ensure sanitation of barbershops and protect public health…They really traded on gross stereotypes about Italian-Americans or African-Americans being disease carriers… So starting in the 1880s, we see the first [licensing] laws being passed.
In the decades that followed, advocates for marriage licenses, minimum wages, and controls on private ownership of weapons also capitalized on racial and ethnic stereotypes to increase government power. The state, of course, happily played along.