—by Janet Alexander Davis and Thelma A. Walker
If you grew up in Evanston, then you probably remember numerous businesses on the Westside that were Black owned. Although many businesses stayed in place for many years, if one business left, another would take its place.
Although it’s been a trying time for tens of thousands of Americans during the latest recession, family-owned businesses have grown and increased in numbers, a clear indication of “reversing the trend of mega-businesses wiping mom-and-pop stores off the map.” Many entrepreneurial, like-minded people, along with the increased use of the Internet and modest priced website creation, have enabled people to market their own services and products. This has had a huge impact on reducing the costs associated with going into business for oneself. According to Forbes:
. . .family businesses account for a staggering 50 percent of the gross domestic product of the U.S., and it is not just in small storefronts or website businesses: 35 percent of Fortune 500 companies are private companies that are controlled by families. . .
. . .family companies are responsible for 60 percent of the jobs in America and nearly 80 percent of new jobs created.1
It has been reported, though, that a significant number of those business owners feel this trend will not last to the next generation to do it themselves. There is a fear by some that the next generation will not have the ability in many ways or the resources to keep a family business going. Only about 13 percent are passed on to the third generation.2
Generational businesses bring to mind Sam Johnson’s ability, consistency, dedication and discipline to maintain his business for 55 years. Sam has a fantastic memory with details that helps one look back on his life, when Black people lived with each other no matter their stature, supported each other economically and spiritually, friends bonded and the family thrived. We spent a delightful time with Sam reminiscing about his early childhood on Chicago’s Southside to his transition to Evanston, to learning the barber business and now, to his five-plus decades in the profession.
Samuel Johnson comes from a long line of barbers. His life’s path had been decided long before he entered the world on September 13, 1932 at Cook County Hospital, born to Samuel Johnson, Sr. and his wife Florence. He was the second oldest son born into a family of six kids—four boys and two girls. They were raised up in the church and all the boys would grow up to be barbers. Sam, who was called Junior, moved around, working at various shops on Chicago’s Southside and Westside, before arriving in Evanston in 1947 to work at Charles Peter’s shop.
He was a Southside kid with skills to survive the bustling metropolis that was and still is Chicago. As a Boy Scout, he enjoyed the camaraderie at the troop meetings on 39th and Indiana Avenue. And, he could never forget the South Side Boys Club on 40th and Michigan Avenue. With fondness he credited the Club with saving his life, “If not for the Boys Club, I’d probably be dead today.” He remembered the Bud Billiken Day Parade, where he saw his first National Guard and fell in love with the military. He confessed that he later forged his parents’ signatures, faked his age and signed up for the military. Stationed at Fort Benny, GA, in an all-black National Guard troop, the unit was never called to serve, despite the riots and tumultuous times of the ’50s and ’60s.
But this place, this Evanston, it was different. It was the ’50s, Sam was starting high school, and he was a good basketball player. He went to the coaching staff at Evanston Township High School (ETHS), because he had basketball skills and wanted to join their team. Unbeknownst to Sam, football was the popular sport there. “I don’t play football, but I’m a good basketball player.” Sam said, “Therefore, in my freshman year, I didn’t play sports because I was a basketball player.”
When football season ended, Sam tried to get on the basketball team, but was told by a coach, “We have our quota boy. . . go to the Black Y.” Well, Sam went to that YMCA, where George Edens, Kenneth Walker, Red Greene and a white boy that hung around them. “Last time I saw him, on 63rd and Cottage Grove, heroin had got him.” Sam said.
They would play scrimmage games. This group stuck together and a basketball team was formed at the Emerson Street YMCA. The next year, Sam approached ETHS coaches again, and they still wouldn’t let him play basketball, so he joined the football squad. This sophomore team was undefeated for five weeks. Just a few years ago, that same team was inducted in the 1952 ETHS Hall of Fame. It was an honor that was long overdue, but the recognition was much appreciated.
Sam looked back on the past, “You couldn’t go beyond Ridge Avenue”, the language of the times when Black people would say, “Let’s go up east and that would mean Asbury and Emerson” or “We’re going down Davis Street— you knew though— just not to be too long.” Sam went on to say, “When I got to Evanston, movie houses were open to Blacks, but sitting for us was only in the balcony. Our Black alderman, Edwin B. Jourdain of the 5th Ward, put an end to that when he refused to sit in the balcony, and then we started sitting downstairs, too. And Coolie’s Cupboard, you could work there, but you could not eat there.”
His memories continued, “Back then, in Evanston, a 15-year-old kid didn’t need a car. You walked everywhere. . . to Clayton & Marks on Dempster and Dodge. Another spot was Fanny’s Restaurant, later known as Fanny’s World Famous Restaurant, at the corner of Simpson and Ashland. Your mode of transportation was your feet.” Sam went on, “I remember when Fanny got married to Mr. Lazar. That was the best spaghetti— maybe I was just hungry— but it was just good.” We later discussed who cooked the best fried chicken and who worked there. “One thing you can say about Fanny’s second-generation business,” (her father previously ran a candy store) “they hired a significant number of Black people from the community, until the day they closed.”
When remembering Church and Dodge, he sadly stated, “We didn’t have businesses west of Dodge. Jack Moss’ store on Emerson was around where now stands the Jacob Blake Senior Building on Emerson. Back then, Moss’ store was the business Black people went to. On Church St. was Montecello’s snack shop/ice cream counter, a white-owned barber shop, a clothing business and Mrs. Powell’s record shop. All were on the south side of Church St. On the north side of Church St. was a flower shop, the animal hospital, a pool hall, Mr. Gibbs’ gas station, Norm’s Grocery, Bill Matthews’ gas station and auto repair shop, Charles Peters’ barber shop and Mr. Runge’s grocery store.
Sam’s start in the barbering business came by way of his good friend Charles Peters who owned a barber shop near Mrs. Powell’s business. Back then, once you were a sophomore in high school you could attend barber school. So, in 1950, Sam took that step by attending the Illinois Barber College. “In those days, everyone graduating out of school and completing their apprenticeship became a Master Barber. Today, Registered Barber is the distinction you receive, no matter what.” Sam went on to work under Charles and completed his apprenticeship and all the required steps to become a Master Barber. In the future Charles would impact Sam’s life in a huge way.
Sam repeatedly emphasized, “My father didn’t give me this shop,” proud that he didn’t get a handout. Sam’s father was a barber, too, and starting in 1932 he opened six barber shops in Chicago from 44th to 95th Streets. In addition to those locations were shops on Madison and Damen Avenues. Before moving his family, Sam’s father came to Evanston around 1945 and opened a shop here as well. It was the Church Barber Shop located at 1812 Church St. Sam’s insight into his Father was stated simply, “He didn’t stay in one spot long.”
“My good friend Charles Peters was with the First Church of God in Evanston. He was moving to Anderson, Indiana, home of the headquarters of Church of God. He said, ‘I know you don’t have any money, but I am going to the Evanston Credit Union and borrow some money and you’ll pay them back.’ That’s how I became the owner of the barber shop, with No Money!” Sam said with pride, “Starting a business was beautiful then, because we shopped in our community, supported the businesses completely. There were four grocery stores and a meat market within a block. It’s different now.”
History of the Westside is full of businesses owned by Black people. But, there was one problem that affected anyone who wanted to buy a house on their own — they couldn’t, even if they had cash. A Black physician, Dr. Penn, had cash and couldn’t buy a house then, not even on contract. A Contract purchase or Contract for Deed arrangement is where it is seller financed. You put down a hefty down payment then make monthly payments until you’ve paid the seller off. There can be problems with this type of financing, but many people took this as an option in order to own property of their own.
The other way early Evanston residents could buy was if their employer financed a deal to help them. Eventually, Dr. Penn did purchase a property on Emerson near Brown Ave. Another case was Dr. Elizabeth Hill who had cash, but couldn’t buy either. Eventually, as times changed, she bought two homes next door to each other on Darrow near Lyons. Dr. Hill conducted her business on the first floor of one of the homes where she saw patients. Our professionals resided in the neighborhood with all of us. Maybe, because of the discriminatory practices of housing then, way before desegregation, we lived with each other. It was the norm. “Now, I rarely see Black doctors living among us on the Westside,” Sam lamented. “Integration affected housing choices in a big way.”
Since I’ve always wondered what it was like to have basketball and football stars visiting the barbershop for service, we queried Sam about it. During the Michael Jordan era, we asked who was the most impressive sports figure to come to the shop? Sam replied quickly that he never liked it when stars came in because you had to lock out your regular customers. “Where are those stars now?” he asked. “My customers are still coming in today.” Sam said B. J. Armstrong read The Final Call newspaper, but he could not take it to his house in the north suburbs. Scotty Pippen came in, too; he was a regular. “There was gossip, but we’ll just leave that alone.”
He shared much about living on the Southside of Chicago and living side by side with well-known entertainers such as Billy Eckstine, Nate King Cole, and Olympian Jessie Owens. “I saw Joe Louis every day. Everyone knew each other. No one was better than the other. Today some of us tend to honor and put athletes on pedestals. In earlier years, we played together, lived together, and financially supported our own. There has been a drastic change in how so many of us look at each other.” Sam is a modest man and I know he won’t take credit for what he deserves, credit for being an example of what character building, consistency, dedication and love of people looks like.
Sam had strong opinions about the beauty business and work ethics specifically. “I don’t know what you guys do in the beauty shops, but it seems the way it works now is, they have sponsors and don’t have to work as much as in earlier years. In the old days, you came to work five days a week. Nowadays, some salon owners and beauticians only work 2-3 days a week. I had a beauty shop next door for many years; many of them didn’t come to work.” He continued, “In the early years, we had policy being run in the back; that’s how I made it. That was illegal, then. Today, the government says it’s a state lottery— and that’s legal!” Sam hates the lottery. “It hurts watching people in wheel chairs, who can hardly breathe, spending their money on the lottery.” Another irritation Sam brings up is “the boys wearing their pants down.” I don’t think they know where they got it from. I wonder, you mean you’ll follow someone’s lead that’s incarcerated?” It saddens him, because he raised six sons and a daughter, and knows how challenging it can be to reach and properly guide our young people.
Drawing a near close to our time with Sam, we wanted him to share some nuggets of wisdom and life lessons with us that he has learned over a business career that has spanned 60 years:
What did you learn from your mother and father? Love your neighbor. Treat them all the same.
What do you enjoy most about the business? I love people. I tell my grandson Brian, love everybody; shake everybody’s hand.
What’s your greatest success? Religion and a belief in God.
If you could give business advice, what is the one mistake you would warn not to make? Make sure to have money. You need money to go into business. The rent will kill you.
If you were 15 years old today, what would you say to yourself? Invest in the stock market and real estate. Buy a house; back then we couldn’t do it. Get a passport and own a tuxedo.
How did you manage home life and business responsibilities? I spent too much time in the barbershop versus my home life. We only ate together on Sundays.
What should a barber never do? Myself, I would never talk religion or politics to a customer. Talk sports; do not talk about personal stuff.
What’s it like working with your sons? It’s hard because the advice goes in one ear and out the other. They’re adults. I have to respect that.
Finally, what are your words to live by? Time flies, so enjoy. Love your neighbor. First you must love yourself, and then you can love your neighbor.
2Black Enterprise – Wealth For Life, Article name 5 Mistakes To Avoid When Hiring Relatives, by Carolyn M. Brown, Posted April 17, 2014.
Photos in order of appearance: Photo of Sam Johnson, his son and grandson by Richard Foreman for Shorefront’s “Portraits of a Community” exhibit series, 2010. Clippers, Storefront and Wall from Shorefront Archives. Photo of Thelma, Sam and Janet by James Davis, 2015.
Interview conducted by Janet Alexander Davis and Thelma A. Walker on July 22, 2015.