“Get a haircut from Vernon Winfrey,” for weeks that thought kept going through my head–and it frightened me. I am a white guy and I had never had a haircut in a black barber shop. Mr. Winfrey is Oprah Winfrey’s father and runs a barber shop in East Nashville.
Deciding to act on this strange “leading,” I called Winfrey’s Barber Shop. He answered. I asked how much a haircut was. He said ten dollars. I said I would be there soon. I got on the internet, found the directions, then drove to his shop. As I turned on Vernon Winfrey Avenue, my throat felt dry. I saw the shop. There was Mr. Winfrey standing outside with several other men. I felt panic and drove out of the neighborhood. The next morning I got a haircut at my usual place.
“At least I tried,” I thought. But I knew–I had “chickened out”–and was going to have to go back when my hair grew out. So why was I so afraid? I didn’t fear physical harm–although I remembered how those courageous black people who integrated lunch counters in the 1950’s were treated–(those folks were real heroes). But all I was being asked to do was get a hair cut in the Twenty-First Century.
A few weeks later, I drove to his shop again, with a determination to succeed. Fortunately, no one was standing outside when I got there. There was a parking space by the door. I jumped out and rushed into the shop, before I could think about what I was doing.
My abrupt entry startled me. The building was small. Three barber chairs were to my right and Vernon was standing behind the first one cutting a 12 year-old’s hair. Five men were in the waiting area.
I glanced around and then stared at Mr. Winfrey who had stopped cutting and was staring back at me. No one spoke. I could feel my heart pounding.
Finally I got some words out: “I, uh, would, uh, (pause) like to, uh, get a haircut.”
“Sure, take a seat,” he replied.
“I’ve got to be somewhere in an hour,” I said. “Can you get me before then?”
“I can’t get you in an hour,” he said.
Whew, did I feel relieved–for about two seconds–until the thought popped in my head, “Ask if he can get to you tomorrow.” I got those words out and Vernon said tomorrow would be better for him because he wouldn’t be so crowded. “Ok,” I said, “See you tomorrow.”
The next day I walked in and sat down. Vernon was cutting a young man’s hair and talking with another gentleman. Another barber was cutting hair in the third chair. I flipped through a magazine and waited.
“I can get you next,” Mr. Winfrey said. In a few moments the clippers were going and we were engaged in pleasant conversation. I noticed an old newspaper on the wall with a huge headline that read: “Vernon Winfrey–# 1 Barber in Tennessee.”
I asked: “Were you really the best barber in Tennessee?” He chuckled. Then I noticed the masthead of the newspaper. It read: “Hillbilly News.”
“A friend brought me that from Gatlinburg,” he said.
Several people came in: a former Nashville city council member, a preacher who works with drug addicts, a current city council member, a lawyer, and a retired Fisk University professor. I quietly enjoyed their conversation so much I didn’t even notice the time.
Mr. Winfrey spent about an hour on my haircut. Toward the end he whispered: “When I first moved my shop here, this was a white neighborhood. I had one white man who started coming to me and I cut his hair for many years, even after the neighborhood changed.”
I was pleased with my haircut and with the time and attention Mr. Winfrey devoted to me. I really enjoyed the people. And I couldn’t have asked to be treated any better. It was a wonderful experience.
So why was I afraid to get a haircut with a college professor, city council members, a preacher, and a lawyer? Could it be that the “color line” still plagues us in 21st Century America?