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Knights of the Razor

, 232 pages

6 halftones

September 2009



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Knights of the Razor

Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom

Black barbers, reflected a freed slave who barbered in antebellum St. Louis, may have been the only men in their community who enjoyed, at all times, the privilege of free speech. The reason lay in their temporary—but absolute—power over a client. With a flick of the wrist, they could have slit the throats of the white men they shaved. In Knights of the Razor, Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr., explores this extraordinary relationship in the largely untold story of African American barbers, North and South, from the American Revolution to the First World War.

In addition to establishing the modern-day barbershop, these barbers used their skilled trade to navigate the many pitfalls that racism created for ambitious black men. Successful barbers assumed leadership roles in their localities, helping to form a black middle class despite pervasive racial segregation. They advocated economic independence from whites and founded insurance companies that became some of the largest black-owned corporations.

Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr., is an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi.

"An insightful and well-written analysis of race, racism, and the resourcefulness of black enterprise in the long nineteenth century. Douglas Walter Bristol has illuminated a history that well represents the process of African American men transforming themselves from enslaved workers and servants into successful businessmen and community leaders."

"In this imaginatively researched and engagingly written book, Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr. provides a rich historical study of a long-neglected and much-deserving subject."

"The Knights of the Razor definitely get their due in this wonderfully crafted and highly entertaining book. It is a cornucopia of themes, insights, data, and mini-biographies about fascinating characters... What Douglas Bristol accomplishes in this book is to give black barbers real faces and personalities, and their profession much redeeming dignity beyond the stereotypes of racial and ideological politics. He restores them to American history."

"This is a valuable book that makes clear that African American barbers have long been due more attention from scholars. Bristol succeeds in returning them to their place in the history of both the black middle class and the struggle for racial equality, humanizing and giving voice to hardworking, dignified men whom many scholars had long unfairly dismissed as unavoidably compromised because of their chosen paths to success."

"A well-written, tightly packed history that confronts pressing questions and will appeal to readers interested in African American history, race, and slavery as well as those concerned with the larger implications of practicing social history."

"A fascinating look into the largely unknown lives of black barbers from the American Revolution through the early twentieth century... This book effectively underscores the role of barbers and barbering in the African-American struggle to attain equality and respectability... A stimulating and informative work."

"The book's broad chronological and geographical scope that allows Bristol to examine many critical aspects of the black barber experience makes his study the most comprehensive work written on this topic to date."

"[A] well-written exploration of the lives of so-called knights of the razor... [A] fine study that will do much to advance our understanding of race relations in nineteenth-century America."

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