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Our Gathering Places
Charles Nichols (left) and barber Sylvester "Chubby" Young (right) look like they may have had to convince Charles Nichols Jr. that a haircut would be a good idea. This photograph was taken at Chubby's Barber Shop at the corner of Sixth and Lyndale in Minneapolis in the 1950s.

Our Gathering Places: African Americans in Minnesota

David Taylor remembers his childhood visits to Eli Martin's barber shop in St. Paul. He recalls seeing the mirrors and the chrome-plated barbering equipment, smelling the scents of hair products, and hearing the conversations that filled the place as Martin cut a customer's hair and others waited. "Now I have introduced my children to that barber shop environment as a way of showing them an institution in the Black community," he says.

Taylor, dean of the General College at the University of Minnesota and an expert on the migration and settlement of African Americans in Minnesota, is about to introduce many more people to the cultural world of Black barber shops and beauty salons. As guest curator of a new exhibit at the Minnesota History Center, Taylor, along with the Society's exhibits team and a ten-member exhibit advisory board, offers these hair care businesses as windows to the long and multifaceted experience of Black people in Minnesota.

The genesis of Our Gathering Places: African Americans in Minnesota, according to Taylor, traces back to the creative thinking of the advisory board, which was charged with brainstorming the idea of an exhibit on Minnesota's African Americans. "It's impossible to relate almost 200 years of history in 2,500 square feet of exhibit area," Taylor explains. "The board decided that the key was not to look at the total experience, but at a selection of the contributions of African Americans to Minnesota's social, economic, cultural and political history. We needed a vehicle that could serve as a lens to look at that collective history, something that cut across the entire community."

Board members hit upon the idea of using hair businesses as that vehicle. "They were the places where everyone at one time or another would have to come through," Taylor observes. Barber shops and hair salons were also places where youngsters learned from their elders, news was passed and discussed, and Black hair professionals, often denied employment in white shops could exercise their entrepreneurial skills.

Fortunately, the Society had received in 1991 the donation of a wealth of African-American hair-business equipment from Pauline and Sylvester "Chubby" Young, proprietors of styling and barber shops in the Twin Cities for decades. Thanks to those artifacts, visitors to Our Gathering Places will see the gallery transformed into authentic barbering and hair styling environments complete with counters, hair-cutting tools, chairs and mirrors.

Some of those mirrors, however, will do more than reflect. Two will dissolve into "object theaters" that use narration, high-tech lighting and multi-media storytelling to show the experiences of three African-American women in Minnesota who encountered obstacles on their way to finding their niche in the community. Visitors will hear stories about the fight for desegregation in Minneapolis' restaurants, finding a job, and battling workplace discrimination. "Those stories will resonate across racial, gender and social lines," says staff curator Mary Weiland.

In much the same way, Our Gathering Places draws upon a group of volunteers from the African-American community to help interpret the exhibit, explain the artifacts, and use their own experiences to show the personal dimensions of the story of Black Minnesotans. Their contributions to the exhibit are crucial, Taylor explains, because "not all visitors probably will have had contact with African Americans or aspects of their culture." To locate 30 to 40 of these volunteers, the Society put out a call for people with leadership qualities and firsthand knowledge of the historic gathering places of the African-American community. "There's been an overwhelming outpouring from the community," Weiland says.

"The history of African Americans in Minnesota has not yet been told on a wide scale," she adds, "and there will be a lot of basic learning going on in this exhibit." Taylor agrees, noting that few realize that the history of Black involvement in Minnesota dates back to at least 1802.

His goal for Our Gathering Places is to show that even though Minnesota has had a relatively small Black population, the state's African-American community has not been out of touch with the concerns and issues of Blacks in other areas. "This continues to be one of the better places in the nation for African Americans to live," Taylor says, "but that is because of what others have done before us. To show all that is a tall order for any exhibit. But if we don't have challenges, we won't rise to them."

Eula Murphy and her sons (top to bottom) Vant, Clarence and David in about 1952. Photo courtesy of Eula Murphy.

barber pole

Funding for "Our Gathering Places" was provided in part by the Honeywell Foundation.