By Karel Bond Lucander | Photography by Lisa Turnage
Posted: Wednesday, Dec. 04, 2013
Raefords Barber Shop, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, has long been a Davidson mainstay, a place where both old-timers and newcomers come for a cut and shave, to swap stories, and to get their shoes shined.
Situated in the heart of downtown on Main Street, the shop in many ways personifies Davidsons quaint and easy charm. But James Raeford, the man who opened the shop in 1993, was around when things werent so easy, and he was part of an incident that played a pivotal role in the towns history and changed his life.
Raeford began cutting hair as a teenager in Grays Creek, N.C., near Fayetteville. His father was a sharecropper who would subsidize his earnings by barbering, and James was an eager apprentice. A year after graduating high school, he attended Bull City Barber School in Durham to get his barbering license.
Soon after finishing, Ralph W. Johnson called James to come work at his shop in Davidson. It was 1957, and James took the job. Before long, he met the woman he would marry, Daisy, and they had two sons. Business was humming along, but change was about to come.
In spring 1968, Johnsonwho had successfully run his shop since 1921would become embroiled in a civil rights controversy that also swept Raeford and the other barbers into the fray.
Two African-American men came into the barbershop for haircuts. Even though Johnson was also black, he followed the same policy of other area barbershops: to cut the hair of white customers and only black Davidson College students. The two men were not students, so he turned them away.
Minutes later, several college students milled around his door with signs denouncing his shop. Thirteen Davidson College students then signed a petition urging fellow students to boycott Johnsons. Within days, on April 2, 50 students picketed his shop. The fervor to not patronize Johnsons spread like wildfire to members of the faculty, administration, and community. The Davidsonian, The Charlotte Observer, and The Charlotte News ran stories about it, faculty and college administrators sent Johnson letters, and the window to his shop was broken. More tragic news would also come crashing down: two days after the picketing began, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
After a difficult month of unrest, Johnson, at the urging of Raeford and other barbers, instated a policy to cut everybodys hair, but by then the damage was done. Neither white nor black men were getting haircuts at Johnsons Barber Shopincluding the students who started the boycott.
Raeford, who had too few heads of hair to cut, left Johnsons in 1969 to sell cars for area dealerships. With business drying up, Ralph Johnson closed his shop in 1971.
For Raeford, now in his 40s, the itch to barber eventually brought him back to Davidson in 1976. He began again at Potts Barber Shop, which eventually moved to Cornelius.
In 1993, Russell Knox, then mayor of Davidson and owner of the building that today houses Raefords, had a vacancy. Knox encouraged Raeford to open his own barbershop. He agreed and put his name on the window.
After running the shop for more than a decade, Raeford was sidelined by health problems. In 2004 he turned over the business to his youngest son, Ron.
I am thankful for all that dad has done in his life, says Ron, 51. And Im proud to follow in his footsteps.
On a typical day at Raefords, 60 heads have their ears lowered. Part-time barbers Ken Norton and Joe McClain, now in their 80s, share a chair on alternate days. Thomas Marsh, Tim White, and Quenton Feagins work their chairs full time, and theyre always ready to fix someone up.
Spend any time here and its obvious that for many people, Raefords is far more than just a place to get a haircut. Some, like Allen Chisholm, 23, have been getting haircuts here most of their lives. Chisholm, of Charlotte, grew up in Davidsons River Run neighborhood and first came to Raefords at age 8.
Raefords is the best, he says. When I was in college my hair looked its worst because I had to wait until breaks to get here.
Michelle Musewho sports a short, shaved stylestarted coming here five years ago.
The stories they tell, the laughs you have; its hard to leave here after two hours, she says.
Like his own father, Ron has passed along that special hair-cutting entrepreneurial spirit to the next generation. He and his wife Barbara have four children, and their daughter, Kenya, owns Raefords Salon 326 in Cornelius. And Ron is already thinking about who might replace him at his own shop one day to help continue the family tradition.
A town like ours really needs a barbershop, Ron says. As long as were able, wed like to keep it going.
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