Ron Potts still remembers how integration happened at his father’s barbershop in Cornelius.
Though Ron and his father, Wilson, are African-American, their shop served only whites until the late 1960s. But, said Ron Potts, “when the first black customer came in, dad said, ‘OK, have a seat.’ ”
Such a response wasn’t the case at the first challenge to integrate a barbershop in the neighboring town of Davidson. Two black customers had come in and were denied service.
A protest ensued that caused a stir of media attention and eventually depleted business until the shop closed, opening later under different ownership.
About his father’s actions, Potts said, “It was the right thing to do.”
Potts’ story, and the story of fellow Cornelius barber Ausie Rivens, will be told at the annual Black History Month Celebration Feb. 28 at Cornelius Town Hall.
Tonya Rivens, granddaughter of Ausie Rivens, and Ron Potts, son of Wilson Potts, will paint the picture of the rich black history in Cornelius and the roles their ancestry played in it.
Tonya Rivens, a WBTV traffic reporter, still owns and operates the shop started by her grandfather in 1956.
“Barbershops were integral to the community at that time,” Rivens said. “It was the place where things happened.”
Rivens’ grandfather also had a diner in the barbershop that she said shows his “incredible spirit of entrepreneurship.”
The community didn’t just know Rivens from behind the barber seat. He served as the janitor at Cornelius Elementary, where three of the first four black children to integrate in 1965 were his grandchildren, said Rivens.
He also co-owned a baseball team in Cornelius that was a part of the Jackie Robinson all-black league. His son, Marcus Rivens, went on to lead the team and rename it the “Davidson Jets,” which played where the Our Town Cinemas is now located in Davidson.
“Playing ball was a part of coming of age in my family. My grandpa was a huge sports fan, and our last name is synonymous with baseball,” said Rivens. “As girl I learned how to keep score in the dugout at a very young age.”
The Potts family has a different, but equally rich legacy in Cornelius, particularly in the Smithville community that Ron Potts still supports through the Smithville Community Coalition.
At one time, Smithville was outside the Cornelius town limits, and his father helped bring water and electrical service to the community, as well as the first street light, Potts said.
He also knows first-hand the changes that took place due to the civil rights movement. While his dad was running the barbershop, Potts attended Torrence-Lytle all-black high school, and was in the last graduating class under forced segregation.
Potts continues his father’s legacy by supporting programs to help revitalize the Smithville community. Some of the projects include an annual cleanup, the community garden, and the future splash pad planned at Smithville Park that is sponsored by the Kiwanis Club. He said they are working with the town to rehab some of the homes as well.
Adrienne Babbitt is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Adrienne? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to go?
The Black History Month celebration will be held 2:30-5 p.m. Feb. 28 at Cornelius Town Hall. The black history event is free and offered by the town of Cornelius and the Smithville Community Coalition. The presentation will include music, dance, children’s activities and a variety of memorabilia including an original barbershop chair from the shop owned by Rivens’ grandfather. For information, go to http://www.cornelius.org/index.aspx?nid=162