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Hidden History: Uncovering the barbershop chair at the Valentine


VPM’s Hidden History with Brian Bullock takes a look into the rich history and importance of the barbershop in the Black community.

In neighborhoods across America, the Black barbershop is more than just a place to get a fresh haircut. It's a sanctuary, a hub of camaraderie, and a center for cultural exchange.

Its roots are deeply embedded in African American history; the barbershop serves as a cornerstone of community communication and activism. Join Brian as he delves into the rich history of Black barbershop culture in the city of Richmond, Virginia.
Barbershops, much like country clubs, foster a sense of belonging and kinship among patrons. As one visitor to a Richmond barbershop said, "The people that come in here, they become like family here. Everybody knows everybody."

These spaces provide more than just grooming services; they offer a platform for community engagement and support.

At the heart of the Black barbershop experience is the exchange of information and knowledge. Customers don't just come for a haircut; they come to learn about their community and seek assistance from the other folks in the shop.

"You might need a mechanic. Most barbers know those people because they cut those people's hair," said one barber.

Conversations in the barbershop span a wide range of topics, from politics to religion, but perhaps most of all, the folks love to talk sports!

But, there’s still an unwritten rule among barbers: never give unsolicited advice.

"If they go home and get in trouble, first thing they gonna say, 'My barber told me that!’ Now they’re mad at you,” said Butch Lyons, a barber at Fleming’s Barbershop.

The significance of Black barbershops extends beyond their role as social hubs. Throughout history, Black barbers faced challenges in navigating racial segregation while building successful businesses. During the Jim Crow era, many barbershops served exclusively white clientele, perpetuating inequality within the profession.

Yet, amidst these obstacles, trailblazers like Charles Robinson emerged. Robinson, a second-generation African American barber in Richmond, defied the norms of the time by finding ways to serve Black customers discreetly. His entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to his community laid the foundation for future generations of barbers and business owners.

The legacy of Black barbershops in Richmond's Fulton neighborhood reflects a spirit of resilience and determination.

Here’s what Charles Robinson III, Robinson’s grandson had to say: "Fulton was this very unique place in that this was the coming of the Black age of, can we make a way out of no way?"

The barbershop served as a beacon of hope and empowerment for Black residents striving for a better future. This was especially true in Robinson’s mind.

His grandson recounts how important the tradition of cutting hair was in their family and shares his memory of the first time his grandfather asked him to cut his hair for him.

“I gotta cut the master barber’s hair,” Robinson’s grandson shared. As he shared this memory, the emotion behind the significance in the moment is clear in his face.

“As he aged and [eventually] passed, I told my father, and I told my uncles ‘I want the chair.’” He is referring to the barber’s chair that his grandfather used at this moment. “And then finally, my cousin Leonard said, ‘Chuck, I got a phone call from the Valentine Museum. They want to know if you would donate the chair to the museum.’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ And I had probably the greatest joy of my life to write the inscription.”

As is evident by the connection Charles Robinson Sr. and his grandson have with the culture of the Black barbershop, this business is often much more than just a place for a haircut.

Today, Black barbershops continue to thrive as vital community institutions. They provide not only grooming services, but also a space for fellowship, mentorship, and cultural preservation.

As we celebrate the enduring legacy of Black barbershops, let us also recognize their role in preserving and honoring the hidden history of our neighborhoods. The next time you visit your favorite shop, make sure to build in some time not only for a haircut, but also great conversation, and maybe even learn more about your neighborhood's hidden history.

You can learn more about Charles Robinson and his Barbershop chair at the Valentine in the latest episode of Hidden History with Brian Bullock on the new VPM History YouTube Channel. Check out the Hidden History website to catch up on past episodes and stay tuned for more Hidden History!

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