Not every interaction was so amiable. If barbers’ embodiment of gentlemanliness was too seamless, their knowledge of politics too extensive, or their jokes too pointed, customers might accuse them of overstepping racial boundaries—with potentially disastrous consequences. A Nashville, Tennessee, barber, for instance, found himself sharply rebuked by a customer when he had the temerity to ask about a piece of legislation his customers were discussing. Chances are, he didn’t make the same mistake again.
But appearance and conversation were just the tip of the iceberg. One of the barbers’ most vexing tasks involved maintaining order in their segregated workplaces. While the gentility of many shops helped restrain customers’ worst behavior, lapses were frequent. In moments like these, white patrons might squabble over politics, grow belligerent when “full of drink and insolence,” or even light each other’s hair on fire.
Keeping the peace required the lightest of touches. The laws of white supremacy—both written and unwritten—effectively forbade men of color from giving orders to customers or physically restraining them. Besides, many barbers understood the cruel reality that customers’ ability to flagrantly disrespect them was part of the space’s appeal.
But perhaps barbers’ most difficult challenge was the simple intimacy of the shop: the physical closeness of barber and patron. Here, men of color listened in on the schemes and foibles of the American elite, keeping their secrets in confidence.
Little did his customers suspect that Natchez, Mississippi, barber William Johnson was studiously recording the rumors that permeated his shop—from vicious acts of violence to white citizens’ gambling losses and marital infidelities. Johnson’s diary even refers to a moment of unexpected intimacy between two townsmen: “Mr [Blank],” Johnson confided, “attempted to suck Mr [Blank]s El panio.” Just as Johnson had intended, no one discovered this record until long after he had died.
That barbers successfully navigated these situations speaks to their discretion and grace—though many of America’s most-influential free people of color often proved harsh critics. Frederick Douglass, for example, wrote a scathing critique of the tonsorial profession in an 1853 edition of Frederick Douglass’ Paper: “To shave half a dozen faces in the morning and sleep or play the guitar in the afternoon – all this may be easy, but is it noble, is it manly, and does it improve and elevate us?”
Despite these criticisms, a number of 19th-century barbers parlayed their work into economic independence, and in a few cases, investments that brought them extraordinary wealth. In a number of U.S. cities, African-American barbers ranked among the richest and most powerful members of the free black community. By 1879, James Thomas, a former St. Louis barber who had become a real estate mogul, possessed an estate worth $400,000 (some $10 million in contemporary terms), making him the richest man of color in Missouri. His friend and neighbor, another former barber named Cyprian Clamorgan, was similarly affluent, penning a paean to black wealth and respectability entitled The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis.