Duke’s Barbershop

It’s the same guy, in the same location. The other guys, the regulars – at least the ones living – still hang out there. And yes, they talk a lot of the same loud trash talk they did back in the day.

Welcome to Duke’s Barbershop located across the tracks in Auburn, Alabama.

Back in the day, we were forced to go there. No other options. Our coach made regular haircuts a mandatory team rule. No exceptions. Granted, this was before dreads and fashionable baldheads. Then, it was a time of huge afros and integration.

In 1969, James Owens had the courage to sign with Auburn University as its first black football player. In 1970, I joined him as Auburn’s second black football player. We began an odyssey that we still laugh, cry, and reminisce about today, forty odd years later.

What’s the big deal? Where have you been? College football has been king in Alabama since long before I was born and more than likely until long after I’m gone. Dragging it’s feet on civil rights and cultural integration, the deep south fought, scratched, and embarrassed itself in a fruitless fight against progress; preferring to fight to keep people from going to school, eating a hamburger or having anything to do with the Federal Government of the United States. It was serious business and those times should never be marginalized or forgotten.

But along with seriousness, lives lost, boundaries falling, and unbound courage there was also the absurd. This was one of those moments in time.

“Get a haircut,” we were told. We were reluctant but obedient. Contrary to my look today, I had a huge, sprouting, afro. James had what we described as, in those days, a TWA (teeny weenie afro).

James approached a barber in downtown Auburn who, upon seeing the strapping black athlete enter his shop with the intention of getting a haircut, nearly messed his pants. He begged James to leave his shop, “Please get out. I’ll lose everything. I can’t cut your hair.”

James asked, “Where do I go?”

We were directed to Duke’s Barbershop, across the tracks. It was literally across the railroad tracks that separated the black community from the university community. Rush, the barber, doubled as the local school bus driver; meaning, the shop was closed while Rush shuffled children back and forth to school. We had to time our haircut visits around football practice, classes, and Rush’s bus schedule.

After all these years, a film project took me back to Duke’s with James. It had been over forty years for me. Rush knew we were coming. He was waiting. We walked into the shop and time stood still. The small shop looked the same. Rush stood over the same barber chair. Regulars sat in the same waiting chairs, not to get haircuts but because Rush had told everyone he knew that James and I were coming by. “You gon’ film me?” Rush wanted to know.

The photos of Auburn athletes Cam Newton, Bo Jackson, Charles Barkley, and at least twenty more former Auburn football players hit me.

“All these guys come here to get their haircut?” I asked.

“All except Bo and Cam,” Rush answered. “The young boys, they cut their own hair now. Never cut Bo. He wanted me to open the shop up for him on my off day. Told him no sir.”

Unknowingly and unwillingly, James and I started something that lasted through the ages. The photos were a who’s who of black Auburn players down through the years, Byron Franklin, Doug Smith, James Brooks, Joe Cribbs, Harold Hallman, and many more.

“Where’s our picture?” we asked. Rush didn’t miss a beat. “Did they have cameras back then?” The laughter flowed until the phone rang. Rush answered, “Hey we filming over here, you better hurry up and get here.”

“I’ve been here since 1966,” Rush related. “Man we were proud when you guys started playing. Up until then we would go to the games and root for the other team if they had a black player.”

“We sat in Kinfolks corner,” he continued. Black spectators had to sit in makeshift bleachers in those days, separated from the white fans.

“We named it Kinfolks corner,” Rush explained. “Boy, when ya’ll started playing we had our own players then.”

James and I exchanged a look. We’d always said we felt the weight of the black fans on our shoulders. Now we knew.

More guys came in as the cameras continued to roll. They treated James and me as heroes.

Going back to Duke’s still brings a smile to my face. We brought joy to some old timers who, forty years earlier, had cheered us on in the social experiment of college football integration. Perhaps we should thank our coach for making us go in the first place.

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