Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Springfield, Illinois Barber College Shoe Shine Boys - Early 1960's

Back in the early 1960's my father would take me in to have a weekly buzz cut. I would have been very young at the time. We'd go to the Springfield, Illinois Barber College. I'm not really certain where it was located, but I suspect it was located in a building on Sixth Street - a building which no longer exist, as it was torn down to make room for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

I recall the first time I saw a black person was outside the Barber College. Shoe Shine Boys would be positioned just outside the Barber College entrance. Sometimes the Shoe Shine Boys would be boys, but mostly they were older men. I only saw black shoe shine boys. As you'd walk in, they often times open the door. After the haircut, on the way out they'd ask, "Get your shoes shined Sir?" They'd say it in an almost melodic manner which I'd never heard before.

I knew something wasn't quite right about it all. Perhaps it was in the quick glances from the older (old men) shoe shine boys? Those looks had a kind, but nervous quality to them. Sometimes one might crack a quick joke, and laugh at this own joke, and look down to the floor laughing. In fact they never kept eye contact for longer than just a glance.

These older black men had probably grown up in the South, under Jim Crow.

They seemed very kind, but I knew something wasn't right - almost like a secret was being screamed at me through the blazing eyes of these older black men.

My dad, who was raised in the South, was very polite to the black people who would shine shoes. My dad had had it tough during the Great Depression, and despite his southern ways, the lessons he learned while toughing it out on the streets changed him. He believed in racial equality. I could tell that my father was teaching me a lesson. My first lesson in race, from my father was teaching me to treat blacks kindly.

I know now what they were saying with their eyes. They were saying, you be a good little boy, and grow up to see the truth. Don't hate, and help to make a better world. Call me crazy, but that was the feeling I get today when I think back at those looks - or perhaps it's just my guilt.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Barber College was next to the old Coney Island. I had more than my share of Buzz Cuts done there. My dad would take my Brother and I there as soon as school was out for the Summer and make us look like mini marines for the rest of Summer. We hated it but would get a hot dog at Coney Island as a reward for looking like red necks.

8:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My ex-husband's father would take his three sons down to the Barber College for their haircuts. Buzz cuts every 3-4 weeks whether they needed it or not. He was a real hardass. Everyone called him Sarge.

11:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When i was a kid my dad used to take me to the barber college even after it moved to west jefferson

10:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember the barber college but never went there. My dad said he could do just as good a buzz cut with his clippers and he did. Then for a while I worked as a salesman at Bressmers & JC Penny's. I would go to Roy's Grill or Stake & Shake for lunch and once a week would get my shoes shinned at the BC. I never thought much about it at the time. To me, it was just what these men did for work. I never put a social label on it until much later and realized they were doing what they could because society wouldn't let them do too much else.

4:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i attended the barber college from 81-82, and it was like a step back in time to the early 60's. older black koken barber chairs lined both sides of the narrow floor. the building was in poor repair, especially the upstairs, which was partially used for classroom training. i was always afraid it would burn. loved going to the coney island, and the older gentlemen who ran the joint were characters! very fond memories!

11:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Abraham Lincoln presidential library was built where the Springfield police department and Fire station one was on Monroe around the corner from the barber college

8:55 PM  

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