Thurgood Marshall’s Coming
Had you by chance been in Manhattan in the early 1950s, and gotten off the IND subway at 148th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, in upper Harlem, and had you after reaching Amsterdam Avenue, which was pretty much deserted, walked down two blocks, passing old dilapidated store fronts that sold everything from food to machinery, you would have been particularly struck by one that stood out with its white curtained window. Spelled out on the plate glass window in large black block letters was Dismukes Tonsiltorium. Then, discreetly in the lower left hand corner in bold Corinthian script was Emmet L Dismukes. Prop.
Once you stepped inside the Tonsiltorium you entered a world quite different from the Harlem outside. Emmet L. Dismukes operated the only elite colored barber shop in the city of New York, and conceivably in the whole world. It catered to the Harlem elite, who were admitted for their social standing in the community and were served by appointment only. I was admitted only because I happened to be a distant cousin of an elite.
I had just come to New York from a small town in Ohio where everybody knew my name. After a few months, the anonymity of Manhattan had become unbearable. I desperately needed to feel part of an establishment. Once a month I traveled from my room in Greenwich Village to Dismukes in upper Harlem, if only for the half hour it took to get my hair cut.
It was not a large shop; the floor boasted Mediterranean white and black marble tiles as did the counters. A long mirror ran the length of the shop on one side. There was no joking and joshing around as I had enjoyed in other colored barber shops, where someone would invariably start the dozens, talking about each other’s mama. The Tonsiltorium had no pictures of Jackie Robinson, or Christian calendars announcing that Christ died for us, or girls in bathing suits. Instead, paintings of Provence farms, Spanish castles, and sailboats in pastel shades, the kind you might find in The New Yorker magazine, graced the walls.
As New York’s, and perhaps the world’s only elite colored barber shop, Dismukes felt it imperative that hierarchy be adhered to. There were only three barber chairs, the big one belonging to Dismukes, or ‘Dizzy’ if you were one of the Harlem elite, was custom made with extra padding and a gleaming steel frame. The other two chairs were average run-of-the-mill variety.
Dismukes had a long, lean frame, was dark brown, and stood just less than six feet. I imagined he was about 50 at the time. He wore a neatly manicured mustache, and his horned rimmed glasses gave him a studious look.
Next in rank was Harry, who had one of the ordinary chairs but kept his tools in a leather pouch strapped to his waist. He never knew when he might be called to one of the Harlem elite’s home to give their child a haircut. Harry was pushing 60 I’m sure, light brown skinned, he was acquiring a pot belly, and sighed loudly when anything displeased him, which was often.
At the bottom of the heap was Joe. Simply put, Joe was ‘street.’ Dark complexioned with a patch of white hair on the left side of his head. Joe was the Peck’s bad boy of the shop.
When Dizzy spoke he carefully enunciated his words in a fashion that would befit such a high class establishment. Good enunciation came naturally to Harry who had a Master’s degree in Art History but had to work nights at the Post Office. No jobs for colored in Art History at that time. Joe on the other hand was ‘hep’, peppering his talk with, “hey boom buddy,” and ‘lay some skin on me’, and other expressions that were in fashion at that time in 125th street bars. Dizzy and Harry, not wanting to be embarrassed by Joe’s speech tried to steer any conversation away from Joe whenever one of the Harlem elite was in the shop. But Joe didn’t give a “good goddamn”, as he expressed to me once.
Near the entrance was Mrs. Morison the manicurist, whose work place had an assortment of soaps, manicure tools, and a stack of clean towels. She hummed continuously whether she was happy, mad, sad or glad. I imagined she must have been a knock-out in her day. She was just beginning to age but still looked good in her too-tight smock. Speaking of smocks, all three of the barbers wore white smocks. Dizzy’s was tailored.
There was a very strict protocol in the barber shop. The first time I went to the Tonsiltorium I made for an empty barber’s chair. An embarrassed hush immediately fell over the shop. It was the kind of hush that comes after someone farts during a sermon. It took only a few seconds for me to realize I had transgressed. Joe looked at ceiling and whistled softly. Dismukes busied himself cleaning his tools. Mrs. Morison sighed and re-painted her nails, and hummed. Harry came over to the chair put his hand under my elbow, pulling me up. “You are sitting in Dismukes chair”, he whispered to me and guided me back to his chair. “Dismukes only barbers the elite”, and besides,” he continued, “Never take a chair because it’s empty, you have to wait until you’re invited.” I settled in Harry’s chair and the shop returned to normal. Dismukes, put down his tools, and asked Mrs. Morison, who also acted as secretary, “Did Mr. Marshall call?”
“His Washington office called, said he had to cancel, something about an important meeting at the White House.” Dismukes nodded knowingly at Harry who wore a proud smile. We all knew that this was big time stuff, but we would have to read about it in the Times. Of course Harry would have to tell Joe because he only readThe Daily News. When he finished my hair Harry ventured that when I finished school and became true Harlem elite I might aspire to Dismukes’ chair but, in the meanwhile, he, Harry would cut my hair.
Harry took me under his wing to explain the mores of the Tonsiltorium. Several months later I got a practical demonstration. The little bell on the door tinkled, and in walked a laborer dressed in overalls covered with cement dust. Again the shop went silent. Harry found something fascinating about my hair, Dismukes began cleaning his barber tools, Joe hummed as he cut his customer’s hair. The man took off his hat, flicked some cement dust on the floor, sat down and picked up a magazine. Mrs. Morison who didn’t have a customer was humming and filing her own nails at a rapid pace showing her agitation, every now and then holding up her hand to admire her work. After ten minutes of absolute silence the laborer put down the magazine he had been reading, and announced, “I needs a haircut!”
“Do you have an appointment?” Dismukes asked.
“A what? You a barber shop ain’t you?”
All attention was now focused on Joe. He was obviously the point man to deal with the non-elites.
Joe tapped his chair with the scissors, and said, “This is a different kind of barber shop, you got to telephone for an appointment.”
The laborer pondered over this as if it were a complex mathematical equation. “Gots to telephone for a haircut?.. I’ll be damned. ” He scratched his head, put on his cap and walked out.
“Now see Bob,” Harry explained, “If we get too many of that type, the elite will stop coming.” As if to drive his point home, he continued “Why, Mr. Marshall or Mr. Wilkins might come in at any time.” I knew he was referring to Roy Wilkins head of the NAACP.
“How about Jackie Robinson or Nat King Cole?” I asked, “Do they ever come?”
Harry scowled, shook his head vehemently, “Not elite.”
Harry’s mentorship didn’t last very long. After cutting my hair, one day, he gave me the hand mirror as usual to admire his work. I suggested he might take a little more off the top. Harry froze, pursed his lips and said in a low whine, “Obviously I don’t please,” and whipped off the customer apron, thereby dismissing me from his chair. I was stunned. I paid and slunk out the door, not even a goodbye from Mrs. Morison. I was never again invited to Harry’s chair. Any self respecting person would have found a new barber shop, but alas, I still needed to pretend that I was an elite.
This of course left only Joe who was at the bottom of the hierarchy. If I didn’t make it with Joe I knew I’d be out the door, no matter how needy I might be. Joe’s invitation was, “Hop up in the chair Bobby, I’ll lower your ears – chicks will be wild about you.”
Before the Black Revolution of the Seventies, colored folk’s hair had been defined as either good hair, or nappy hair. Most of the Harlem elite had good hair and were vaguely aware that there must have been a slave master in the wood pile somewhere. Nappy hair however, descended unadulterated, straight from Africa. After the black revolution, colored people became black, and then African American. Now hair is defined as straight hair (rather than good) and curly hair (rather than nappy).
Whenever the odd elite had nappy hair he was steered to Joe who didn’t consider himself above cutting nappy hair, he himself having nappy hair. I must report that Dismukes had nappy hair, but then he was the proprietor. To round out the picture my hair before I became almost bald, fell in between good and nappy. (under the pre revolutionary definition).
One bright spring day I walked into Dismukes and the little bell on the door tinkled. Joe was just finishing with a customer.
I settled in and looked up at the TV that was showing the Yankees game. I knew that Harry and Joe took turns choosing channels and this was obviously Joe’s day since the Yankees were on. Dizzy only watched educational programs on TV.
The telephone rang and Mrs. Morrison answered. “For you,” she said looking at Dizzy. She would be out of place calling him anything but Mr. Dismukes, which she obviously didn’t want to do.
Dizzy picked up the phone, listened, then said “Why yes sir, no problem!”
There was pride in his eyes as he stood to full height and announced,” Thurgood Marshall’s coming.”
Joe continued to watch the Yankee game.
I wanted to see in flesh, this man that had desegregated the nation’s schools.
Harry looked at Joe, “You’re not going to have that Yankee game on with Thurgood coming?”
“Why not?” Joe asked his scissors snipping the air and looking at my head deciding where to start.
Harry reiterated. his voice several octaves higher. “Thurgood’s coming Joe!”
“Harry’s voice descended to a whine. How can you watch a team of bigots while he’s here? What do you see in the Yankees anyway?”
“They play winning baseball.” He turned the chair so I could see the other side of my head in the room-long mirror, I could see Joe’s wide smirk.
“They don’t have one colored player. The Dodgers have Robinson and Campanella. Giants have Willy Mays.”
“Yeah but they don’t win no games.” countered Joe.
The bell on the door tinkled. Mrs. Morison jumped to her feet and smoothed her smock and curtsied as he passed by giving her a smile.
The tall man with the heavy mustache looked just like the picture of him standing in front of the Supreme Court and on the cover of Time Magazine.
Dismukes dashed to the front and took Thurgood’s heavy leather satchel.
“Hey I can carry that.” Marshall protested.
Harry came up behind Thurgood with a beatific smile and began pulling off Thurgood’s camel hair coat and battered brown hat.
Dismukes looked at Joe and the television set. Joe got the message and cut off the set.
Joe grumbled as he continued cutting my hair.
Thurgood told Dismukes, “The same as usual”
“Yes sir, Mr. Marshall.” Thurgood grinned at Dizzy’s formality.
Thurgood settled into Dismukes chair and began to doze.
Dismukes came over to Joe’s chair, out of Thurgood’s earshot. Harry gathered around.
“Let’s all be quiet while Thurgood takes a cat nap.”
“That man works day and night for us.” murmured Harry.
“That ain’t no reason to make me miss my game.” Joe grumbled.
Harry was seething with anger, and said to Joe, “You’re just plain ignorant Joe. I’ll bet you don’t even know what he did?”
“He’s the cat that went to the Supreme Court to make them stop segregating in schools.”
“Brown vs the Board of Education.” Harry snapped.
Mrs. Morison who for a change was not humming so she could hear the conversation nodded her head sagely.
Then from Dismukes’ chair, “Anybody know how the Yankees made out?”
Born in Sierra Leone West Africa, Bob came to the United States with his missionary parents when he was eight years old. He attended school and college in Cleveland Ohio. He then pursued a career in business after earning an MBA. This career took him back to Africa, and then to many countries around the world. While working for ITT Corp he rose to become a Corporate Vice President.
After retirement Bob taught management and marketing at City University of New York and Ramapo College, and at the same time attended New York University’s writing program.
His first book, “Daddy Big Bucks,” tells the story of a wily black shoe shine man who turns out to be a millionaire. Bob’s second book, Haunted by Africa, is a memoir of his relationship with his father and with his son, a reflection of how he was able to forgive and then be forgiven.
Bob’s current work-in-progress is, “Black Sugar: How Sugar started and Sustained the Slave System for Four Centuries.”