From Days Past...The City Barber Shop A prosperous business of the 1920s
For the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum
In the Introduction of the book entitled, A Black Businessman in White Mississippi, 1886-1974, by Sadye H. Wier with John F. Marszalek (1977), Dr. Marszalek said, “the book is a wife’s memoir of a black man in a small Mississippi town during a major part of the twentieth century. Robert Wier was unknown outside his limited sphere, and his accomplishments were minor when compared to the giants of American history, whether white or black. Yet, knowledge of his life’s story does tell us about the life of an unknown black leader in Mississippi during the days of segregation, integration and afterwards.”
The following is a synopsis of the history of the barbershop as recalled by Sadye H. Wier. The City Barber Shop opened in 1920 at 212 Main Street and prospered for 46 years. The owners were Robert Wier and Charley Alexander. It was the first black business on Main Street. At that time, it was common for black barbers to cut the hair of white men but not common for black men to own their shop. In the very beginning Wier and Alexander could not purchase insurance because they were African American. Insurance companies during that time had a clause in their policies that African Americans were not permitted to have insurance. Mr. Carpenter, a white man, had owned the barbershop previously and Wier and Alexander had worked for him. When he retired, they leased the building from him. Nine years later, the building adjoining the shop came up for sale and Wier and Alexander decided to buy it.
The barbershop was quite large being 20’ x 50’ in size but not luxurious because the owners did not believe in luxury. The barbershop had 4 chairs, a National Cash Register, an enormous mirror that covered the west wall, a case for towels, and a sink in the middle.
There was an area for two or three shoe shine boys, ten chairs for customers waiting on service and for a long time, a pot bellied stove for warmth and two electric fans for ventilation. About 1940, the pot bellied stove was removed and replaced with a double gas stove. An air conditioner was installed in 1958.
In 1920, the charge was twenty-five cents for a haircut and fifteen cents for a shave. In 1966, when Robert Wier retired, the cost was one dollar and fifty cents for a haircut and seventy-five cents for a shave.
Barbers working for Wier were paid 40 to 45 percent of what they made. Wier took care of all the financial business himself.
The shop opened at 7 AM and closed at 6 PM. If people were in the shop at closing time, they kept working. On Saturdays, the shop opened at 6:30 AM and closed at twelve midnight. It was a happy day when stores in town began closing on Wednesday afternoons because it broke up the week and gave time for rest.
Every week 500 towels would be taken home and washed twice a week. Back then, towels had to be hung outside to dry because dryers had not been invented. This was a very difficult task in the winter when it was so cold.
Robert married Letha Annette Gilliam, a home demonstration agent for Oktibbeha County. The marriage lasted only from October 17, 1922 to January 9, 1923. A photo in the museum shows a large gathering at the farewell of Letha Annette Gilliam being put on the train to transport her body to Clarksdale. It depicts the love of the Starkville community much better than words can describe. Large prints of the “barber shop” and “farewell” are displayed in the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum.
In the book, Sadye Wier said, “ her husband had a reputation for fairness and hard work and he knew many of the city leaders on personal terms because he cut their hair.”
Wier not only owned the barbershop but also a house on Lafayette Street, two lots on Gillespie Street and a house on Short Curry. He also owned stock in the National Bank of Commerce of Mississippi (Cadence) and the Starkville Hotel.
While in his teens, Wier had moved to Memphis. In 1910 Wier received a telegram from his former employer, Mr. Carpenter, of the barbershop offering him a guaranteed $11 a week to return to his barbershop to work and he accepted.
Charlie Alexander died in 1929 and Robert wanted to buy his half interest in the building immediately, but he was not able to do so until August 1948 because of legal complications caused by there being no will.
In 1932, Robert married Sadye Wier, a teacher at Oktibbeha County Training School and an employee of the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service. Sadye recalled in those days Starkville was not what it is today. Segregation was practiced although things were not as difficult for African Americans in Starkville as they were in some other Mississippi towns. Starkville was better than most small country towns because of the influence of what was then called Mississippi A and M College (now Mississippi State University).
On January 31, 1966, Robert Wier sold his barbershop and went into retirement at the age of eighty. He retired reluctantly only after realizing that he had no choice. The coming of long hairstyles, particularly among young people, cut deeply into his business. He worried about his barbers’ future if he closed but he was concerned about the impact of integration. All these things and the accumulation of almost sixty years of barbering simply wore his nerves out. He finally came to see that he could not stay in business any longer.
For a haircut or shave or both, his shop was the place to go. He and his three assistants kept four barber chairs full with towns people, Mississippi State University faculty and students, and men from as far away as Ackerman, Eupora, and Kosciusko. During his few non-business hours, he was a leader of his church and his community; he helped put numerous young men and women through school; he made his home the gathering place for persons from all over the country; he was widely respected, admired and just plain liked.
Wier was a member of Second Baptist Church where he served as superintendent of the Sunday school for 22 years and church clerk for 44 years.
Copies of this book are available for sale at the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum.
John F. Marszalek, Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Remembers...
I met Mrs. Sadye Wier through the late Dr. Jimmy Shoalmire, then the head of Special Collections at MSU. Once we met, we hit it off immediately. It turned out that Mr. Wier and my father John F. Marszalek, Sr. both died on the same day in 1974. The famous radio entertainer, Jack Benny, died that same day, and Mrs. Wier and I agreed that her husband and my father were enjoying their time together in heaven with the man who was their favorite entertainer. Later when my widowed mother, Regina Marszalek, visited Starkville regularly, she and Mrs. Wier became very close. It is one of my best remembrances to think of these two ladies, a Polish American from Buffalo, New York and an African American from Mississippi, sitting together on our couch holding hands and talking about their husbands and their earlier lives.
I did not know Mr. Robert Wier personally because he died before I met Mrs. Wier. Still I came to think I knew him, through my conversations with Mrs. Wier and with Dr. Douglas Conner, with whom I later also wrote a book. Dr. Conner was very close to Mr. Wier and he lauded the leadership he provided in both the white and black communities. It was indeed because of Mr. Wier’s urging that Dr. Conner established his practice in Starkville. The fact that he married a niece of the Wier’s was also important in his decision. According to what I remember about Mr. Wier from these conversations, he was a quiet dignified man, who had good relationships with everyone he met or served in his barbershop. He was one of the first African Americans in Starkville to vote during those days of segregation, and, although he wished for integration to come, he worried about its effect on his business. He was indeed an important transitional figure as Starkville went through its change from segregation to integration.
C. L. Smith Remembers...
I went there on a regular basis to get my hair cut. The barbershop also had a bath. During those days many homes did not have a bathtub and people would go there to get a bath and massage.