BY JEANETTE LENOIR
Black barber shops in the U.S. represent a unique and significant component of African American culture. It’s a place similar to a church where folks gather to share stories, strengthen community bonds all while getting their hair cut and styled as needed. The black barber shop is more than its namesake and Freeman’s Barber Shop in Utica is right in line with this cultural designation. Even so, times have changed drastically and the closing of Freeman’s Barber Shop is a sad reminder that the people have to. Freeman sufficiently captures this shifting cultural change when he says, “The people at that time, their words were their bond. What they said, they meant it. And, I didn’t have to worry about putting what they owe me in the book or anything because on Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, they was here, taking care of business…it’s a lot different from now.”
Henry Freeman was born in Alabama but has called Utica, NY home since 1960. And, after 57-years in business, he’s closing his long-standing barbershop. He says, “Everything is beginning to come to a close…I’m retiring this year. Age is telling me to retire.” Freeman moved to Utica because he had family in the area. He says he’s had many ups and downs during his years in business and living in upstate, NY but attributes his longevity to his spirituality and faith in God. When he was held at gunpoint and robbed in his barber shop he remained resolute in his determination to continue his work, which he calls “a gift from God.” He said, “God was on my side. He put me here and he took care of me. I had ups and downs but I know having downs is part of life, it’s part of the learning process. That’s what I figured it was.”
Freeman didn’t set out to be a barber. He went to school to be a mechanic but due to an illness had to readjust his life’s path, which led him to becoming a barber, but not just any barber…Freeman became a fixture and pillar of strength and support in the lives of many black families in Utica. “Sometimes it gets hard for me to talk about because I get emotional,” he says. One of his loyal customers, George Gaston says, “He’s always been part of the community that we’ve all cling to. We come here and we have our conversations, we laugh, we talk, we have a good time. We look out for each other, we look after each other and that’s why he’s been a pillar of the community.”
Freeman says he worries about the future of black barber shops and the legacy attached to them and it being carried on by the next generation. “Each generation has a certain part they have to play…if they don’t play it, we’ll fall. So, I try to set an example for the younger people to come around because somebody’s got to take my place. They might not say they want to but each generation has to step in to take somebody else’s place because we’re not going to be here always…so, we got to have somebody else come along and carry on what we started. If they don’t, it’ll be lost.”
Freeman had hoped to pass along his shop to his own children but says the real fear of getting robbed again remains a deterrent. In the meantime, this chapter in the lives of three generations of Uticans is inching to a close. During this interview with him at his barber shop he shared many stories of his engagement with the community he has served for nearly sixty years. “Parents would drop off their children and come back to pick them up in a couple of hours or so and they expected them to behave while they waited their turn to sit in my chair and I never had any problems with unruly children.”
Freeman’s Barber Shop is one of the last remaining reminders of a long gone era. The Project’s that sat behind his building near the train tracks have all been torn down and the community dispersed. And, until now, Mr. Freeman has remained in his spot cutting hair for generations of people that have come through his doors. He says it’s with a heavy heart he’s closing his shop but the time to retire is upon him. His last day of service is May 27. The closing of his barber shop is a stark reminder of an ever changing American culture and that the only certainty in life is change. With any luck, the inevitability of change won’t negatively impact black barber shops that remain a culturally significant part of African American lives, especially in Utica, NY.