A black barber’s century-long struggle

“Then I locked the door behind me and went home to stay.” These are the closing lines of David Played a Harp, the autobiography of 96-year-old Ralph Johnson — an African-American who for more than 50 years ran a successful barbershop in my hometown of Davidson.

Johnson’s shop catered exclusively to “the white trade” until a few years before he closed it in 1971. Ironically, he attributes the closing of the shop to his decision in the summer of 1968 to “admit Negroes” to his shop as patrons — and the subsequent loss of many of his other customers.

His decision to open the doors of his business to blacks was not a cheerful one — far from it. A boycott organized by Davidson College students and strong pressure from the community forced Johnson to change his way of doing business. Johnson’s anger at those who confronted him burns up from the pages of his book. How could it be fair for him to be the target of a “civil-rights” boycott organized by white college students and supported by some college and community leaders? For all of his life, Johnson had suffered the indignities of a social system that had been imposed on him by whites, including some of those who pressured him to change his exclusive business practices.

But it is better that you hear his feelings directly from Ralph Johnson: “I was flooded with a conviction that I had been lynched and my life destroyed by zealots, who, in trying to expiate their own guilt resulting from their long practiced racial abuses, had only added another shameful episode of abuse to it. They had made me a scapegoat for their own offenses against black mankind. I was at the same time the victim of their age-old wrongs and now the object of their wrath because they had done these wrongs. … It was fixed in my mind that they had done this to me because I was a Negro, and that in so doing they were continuing the old practice of putting a nigger in his place.”

The picketing and boycott of Johnson’s business that began in April 1968 was a brief footnote to the main civil-rights story of those days: the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and the confusion and rioting that followed. But in Johnson’s eyes, the protests led to a tragedy that defined his life. Reading Johnson’s side of this story gives a rare look at a personal dimension of the civil-rights revolution that I have not seen any other place. For that reason alone, it is an important book.

But there are other reasons to read it. Johnson’s life spans the last century. His stories of small-town life from the perspective of an ambitious, very proud African-American business owner are compelling. Sometimes they read like fiction, sometimes better. His complicated family tree included slaves and some prominent whites. When pressed on his ethnic origins, he once referred to himself as “Scotch-African.”

His bitter feelings toward his uncle, the town’s other black barbershop owner, are so deep that they touch Johnson’s story at every turn. For instance, his anger at the civil-rights boycott of his barbershop is compounded because the boycott didn’t extend to his uncle’s shop, which also refused black customers. Johnson and his uncle never spoke, even though their businesses were just “40 steps” away from each other on Davidson’s Main Street.

Johnson’s own civil-rights struggles are a poignant reminder of how petty and mean-spirited our social systems were. When Johnson registered to vote in the 1928 election, he was the only Negro on the voting rolls. When he tried to borrow a book from the public library, his request was politely declined. When the librarian later stopped by to offer to bring Johnson books, he also politely declined. But when the owner of the segregated movie theater offered Johnson the opportunity to view movies from the projection room for free, Johnson didn’t let his pride get in the way of the great pleasure he found at the movies.

Johnson reflects on his struggles to educate himself though correspondence courses, and on his resulting estrangement from much of the black community and the church, as he isolated himself in his work and study. There are tales of his rivalries and one-upmanships in his social and business dealings. As a black man catering to the white trade, Johnson had to walk a fine line — never knowing when something or someone might pull the rug out from under him.

This book’s greatest strength is its weakness as well: Johnson’s stories are one-sided. If someone opposed him, that person was wrong. Johnson’s passionate narrative of injustice and struggle is given strictly from his perspective. His strong opinions give his book real power. But his inability or unwillingness to see and explain the other side makes it less authoritative than it would be otherwise.

Right now, I feel myself once again in his barber chair — where I spent some time, growing up. And I can just about hear Ralph Johnson’s slow, quiet response to my criticism — almost whispering in my ear, as he used to do when he had something to say to me that he didn’t want the other customers to hear: “D.G., I don’t have to explain the other side to you. You are the other side. What you need to hear now is my side. And that is what I have told you in my book.”

David Played a Harp will be available in many North Carolina bookstores this month. The publisher is Blackwell Ink Inc., P.O. Box 434, Davidson, NC 28036.

North Carolina Bookwatch, the UNC-TV program that Martin hosts, will return to the air on Sunday, Oct. 15, at 5 p.m. More information about upcoming programs can be found on UNC-TV’s Web site (www.unctv.org ) under the “local programs” category.

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