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The community role of the Black barber shop

In a post-pandemic world, the barber shop serves as a place where folks can gather and talk, alleviating loneliness.
The community role of the Black barber shop
Posted at 11:09 AM, Aug 25, 2023

Along the stretch of Jefferson Avenue in inner city Rochester, New York, with corner stores and empty lots, New Creations unisex barber shop is a neighborhood staple. It’s where Willie J. Lightfoot and his team have served the community for two decades. 

Stop by the shop and folks will hear about local politics and families. It’s a gathering spot to catch up on news and with friends. 

“We’re like a community counseling center,” Lightfoot said. “The beauty salon and the barber shop are where people come to talk.”

In a post-pandemic environment, the role of the barber shop as a gathering place for Black communities is ever more important as people seek solace from loneliness, Lightfoot said.

The neighborhood barber shop has served a critical mission over the decades in American history. Barber shops and salons have been special places for the Black community since the 19th century, as featured in a Smithsonian exhibit. They are not just utilitarian places to get haircuts. They are also places where Black people can talk about issues that are important to the community. Scholars have cited salons and barber shops as sanctuaries for Black communities.  

Owning a barber shop is no easy task, but it’s imperative to keep it going, Lightfoot said. 

“It’s one thing to do business as a small business. It’s another to try to do business in a very impoverished neighborhood,” he said. 

The street where Lightfoot built his barber shop and plaza was once home to a number of Black-owned businesses in the 1960s and 1970s. Lightfoot grew up in the area. But families and businesses exited in the 1990s. Yet Lightfoot still decided to build his business and a plaza there in 2003.

The Willie W. Lightfoot Square is now celebrating its 20th anniversary as a tribute to his late father. Along with the barber shop, the 4,200-square-feet building has a Jamaican restaurant, and Lightfoot recently opened a laundromat. 

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The plaza has come a long way since Lightfoot went to banks asking for loans and was turned down due to the location. With persistence, Lightfoot was able to secure a city loan to grant as well as bank loan. For the project, he cobbled together other funds to get it built for more than $300,000. 

Lightfoot and his wife Verdina are parents to four children. They have sometimes had to use personal savings to pay the mortgage when a tenant leaves. 

“It’s a constant challenge of filling tenants. A lot of vacancies and turnover,” Lightfoot said. The one mainstay in the community has been the barber shop. Lightfoot has been able to garner a loyal clientele and establish the barber shop as a state testing site for apprentice barbers. 

“The barber shop is a staple,” Lightfoot said. “It’s the most stable, the most unique. A place for everyone.”     

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