Vassar Today

Shop Talk

By Thomas Hopkins

If there’s a standard academic path to being a historian, Vassar professor of history Quincy Mills didn’t take it. Mills was a business major as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and was, he says, “on the corporate track”: a business internship program, summers working at an insurance company, an M.B.A. from DePaul University.

But Mills loved history, and an Urbana-Champaign professor, he says, “saw enough in me to convince me to think seriously about becoming a historian.” Even as an academic, though, he hasn’t left his M.B.A. entirely behind. Mills studies African-American business history, with a focus on the history of black barbershops.

Mills first got interested in barbershops as a subject for study in the summer of 2000, when he “conducted an ethnography of a barbershop on the South Side of Chicago.” The research was for a chapter of a book by political scientist Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, published in 2004. Mills sat in the same barbershop four days out of each week for three months, observing the ways in which the shop, although a private business, also served as a public space for political discourse in its “everyday interactions.” The shop’s conversation ranged widely: sports to marriage, economics to bad jokes. But regardless of subject, a consistent thread in the discussions was “the dilemma of being black in America.” (“The barbershops and beauty parlors,” Harris-Lacewell writes, are the public spaces “where black people engage each other as peers” and “where nothing is out of bounds for conversation.”) Mills was doing the work of an ethnographer, but at the same time, he “couldn’t help but think about this space historically.”

A barbershop, in the mid-nineteenth century, required very little capital investment, and was therefore an attractive business opportunity for black entrepreneurs, in both the North and the South. Some slaves were actually able to use their barbering work to buy freedom not only for themselves, but also for members of their families. In the United States before the Civil War, Harris-Lacewell and Mills write in Barbershops, Bibles, and BET, black men “held a monopoly in the barbering profession that primarily served wealthy whites.” In the latter part of the century, competition from German and Italian immigrants, among other societal forces, forced the black-owned barbershop away from this white clientele, causing it to relocate almost entirely to the black community. There, while continuing to be an opportunity for entrepreneurship, the black barbershop took on the additional role of a forum for political discourse as well. “I can’t think of a better business than barbershops,” Mills says, “to explore issues of race, class mobility, the market economy, segregation, and public space.”

Mills joined Vassar’s history department in 2006. (He is on sabbatical this year, completing work on his book manuscript, Shaving Men, Grooming Race: A History of Black Barbers and Barber Shops, 1830–1970.) Mills’s scholarly work has influenced him “to encourage students to be imaginative in their historical inquiries.” Vassar’s history department embodies the college’s “go to the source” ethos, Mills says; history is about teaching students “to take a seemingly narrow subject to raise larger issues and questions, all anchored in the fullest engagement of primary sources.” His classroom may not have the same raucous energy as a barbershop — “but,” Mills says, “I certainly hope that students feel the same freedom and excitement to engage in historically grounded, critical, and sustained discussions every class session.”