'Long, deep ties'
Black barbershops have long been key to the black community and a proxy for a voting booth, but it wasn't always this way. The practice first began as an outgrowth of slavery, said Quincy T. Mills, a professor of history at the University of Maryland and the author of "Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America," which traces the history of black barbershops from the pre-Civil War era to present day.
In the 19th century, freed black men owned the shops and white enslavers outsourced their slaves to be apprentices. During that time, white patrons would openly discuss slavery and politics — some even used black barbers as political surrogates for the black community.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that the salons became central spaces for the black community, mainly black men, who kept the political conversations going.
"Black people don't have full access to public spaces at this time and so barbershops were one of the few public spaces that they had not just access to but they could escape the surveillance of a larger white public," Mills said.
They became places where the community at large — mainly black men — and the barbers could talk about the most pressing issues of the day. It's a freer space than a church or a bar, Mills said.
"Barbershops have historically been places where men have talked about politics and the larger public sphere," he said. "There are only a few leaders in communities that can do that — it's barbers and beauticians and preachers, who have deep, long, deep ties to a particular local community."
"Folks go inside this space and talk about certain things that they may not talk about in a public park, for example," he said. "They trust the larger space so that they can debate and argue."