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Journeymen Barbers in Minnesota

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Black and white photograph of African American barber Prince Honeycutt in his Fergus Falls shop, c.1900.

African American barber Prince Honeycutt in his Fergus Falls shop, c.1900.

Journeymen barbers were skilled craftsmen whose labor organizations helped shape the barbers’ trade in Minnesota. Politically active from their first arrival, they allied themselves with third-party movements after World War I. Shopping mall barbershops, consumer choices, and lost union membership led to organizational decline in the 1970s.

In St. Anthony and St. Paul before the Civil War, black barbers Ralph Grey and William Taylor helped refugees escape slavery. As villages grew into towns and cities, the barbers’ trade remained open to black men.

By 1875, black barbers resided in Fergus Falls, Maple Plain, New Ulm, Stillwater, and Winona. In Minneapolis (St. Anthony renamed) and St. Paul, “first-class” barbershops employed journeymen black barbers in white uniforms. One claimed to be the leading colored barbershop in Minneapolis.

The first-class shops imitated those in the South that catered to white elites. Twin Cities versions avoided the color line by serving both black and white customers. First-class shops symbolized economic progress for their black owners.

White journeymen barbers were in oversupply and earned low wages. Immigrant German barbers formed independent craft unions in the Twin Cities by 1883 and agitated to reduce hours of work. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) invited craft workers to form separate national unions in 1886. The Journeymen Barbers International Union of America (JBIUA) joined the AFL and began organizing in Minnesota in 1890.

The JBIUA used trade union tactics to organize non-union barbershops. It highlighted hours of work, pricing, and working conditions in negotiations. Boycotts, shop cards, and “do not patronize” campaigns were common. Legislation eventually required licensing, sanitation, and apprentice training. The JBIUA eyed first-class shops for the wages they could offer and pledged to improve working conditions for all journeymen.

Journeymen worked fifteen-hour days and seven-day weeks. They supported the closing of shops on Sundays. Local ordinances, however, proved ineffective, since owners like Napoleon Laburie of Minneapolis could pay small fines and remain open.

The union also discouraged journeymen from Sunday work, as six black Merchants Hotel barbers learned when they were arrested in St. Paul. A campaign for a statewide law added teeth to union enforcement by 1894.

With journeymen’s support, the Minnesota Legislature passed a Sunday closing law in 1894. The state Supreme Court noted that journeymen worked more and later hours than most tradesmen. The 1900 U.S. Supreme Court affirmed normal Sunday work was off limits and gave journeymen a day of rest.

Thomas Henry Lyles, a black barber from Maryland, had led the push for Sunday closing in St. Paul. In 1890 he lobbied the JBIUA local to grant blacks full membership. Lyles and the union probably encouraged Republican Governor Samuel Van Sant to appoint black barber Samuel Hedge as the barber of the state capitol. The St. Paul local became integrated.

In 1897, the JBIUA helped pass Minnesota’s barber licensing law—the nation’s first. It required barbers to obtain licenses and closed unsanitary shops. A three-member board, including one union member, administered the law. Union shops advertised hygiene, linking it to the union shop. Although the law was criticized, the courts said it benefited public health and welfare.

By 1902, over twenty-five hundred Minnesota barbers were licensed. Eight percent of them were black. Of the twenty percent who were of German heritage, many were barber and union officials. M. P. Miller, active in efforts to pass the state licensing law, became Secretary of the State Board of Barber Examiners. J. C. Meyers was national president of the JBIUA and Secretary-Treasurer of the St. Paul Trades and Labor Council.

Swedish immigrant barber Charlie Kleist was a more typical small-town barber. He welcomed shorter hours, running hot water, and women customers in his Cokato barbershop. In Springfield, on the southwest prairie, Ike Black worked in his brother’s shop by age thirteen. Later, he owned one of the six barbershops in the small farming town.

Journeymen in Minneapolis who worked in downtown high-price shops were members of an independent Barbers Protective Association. When the Minneapolis journeymen’s union and the Association pressed separate wage demands on employers, the independent barbers debated joining with the union in order to strengthen their position.

Despite a Sunday closing law, journeymen continued to struggle with employers. In 1908, East Grand Forks barbers struck their shops. The battle between labor and capital intensified. It spilled across the state line into North Dakota, where organized business groups demanded no preference be given to union barbers. Journeymen and boss barbers in Grand Forks nevertheless supported the Minnesota strikers.

By 1910, journeymen unions dotted the state. They formed in Brainerd, East Grand Forks, Faribault, New Ulm, Red Wing, Rochester, and Winona. Locals affiliated with central bodies and the Minnesota AFL. A state JBIUA council coordinated barbers’ legislative affairs. Journeymen in Twin Cities hotels and first-class shops lived modest, if not middle-class, lives on union wages. St. Paul union journeymen earned fifteen dollars a week plus fifty percent of their revenue.

With regulation came higher costs. Shops without access to capital moved from center-city locations to adjacent neighborhoods. Downtown black shops like Peoples’ Barbershop moved to Rondo or the North Loop in St. Paul. In Minneapolis, black shops moved to Franklin Avenue and North Minneapolis. Over time, licensing drove some barbers out of business.

In 1913, Booker T. Washington challenged the JBIUA to open its doors to black journeymen barbers. He proposed that black proprietors and the white union work together to end prejudice. Urban population growth allowed black businesses to serve black customers in segregated Twin Cities neighborhoods. Some young blacks’ distaste for the barbers’ trade, however, impeded black and white cooperation.

In January 1920, Minneapolis union barbers struck eight downtown owners who adopted open-shop policies and voided union contracts. The Duluth JBIU local joined the Farmer-Labor Association. Trade unions supported Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) candidates in city, county, and state races.

Minneapolis journeymen barbers had challenged downtown shops to raise wages when prices were raised. Union grievances grew when employers cut wages and discharged journeymen. The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance pushed downtown shops to void the union contract. A 1920 strike by journeymen won wide support from city trade unions, but the Citizens Alliance campaign to block union members from jobs continued into the 1930s.

During the worst of the Great Depression, JBIUA members gave haircuts to orphans and the elderly. They asked customers to avoid fake union shops. One thousand barbers and their friends enjoyed carnival attractions, dancing, food, and baseball at the June 1936 local union picnic at Wildwood Park.

The FLP was swept from office in the 1938 general elections. Republican Governor Harold Stassen purged JBIUA leaders Nick Delmont and Mike Coleman from the Barbers’ Board. CIO unions organized twenty Twin Cities barbershops. When the JBIUA charged CIO collusion with owners, the CIO counter-charged that the JBIU had abandoned black barbers. The JBIUA tried to hold onto one-man shops.

After World War II, a generation of barbers who had guided the JBIUA retired as GIs came home to claim jobs. The JBIUA continued to challenge non-union shops. The AFL and CIO merged; labor union membership peaked. Suburban growth and changing consumer preferences created new markets for corporate barbers and beauty shops that out-competed traditional barbershops.

In 1972, the two locals in the Twin Cities merged. The JBIUA pledged to organize suburban mall barbers. Two hundred union barbers attended the 1972 state AFL-CIO convention to learn new styling techniques.

Twin City JBIUA membership dropped to 130 barbers by 1977. After a run of ninety years, the Minnesota JBIUA ceded jurisdiction to the United Food and Commercial Workers in 1980. Only two union barbershops still operated in 2013.

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  • Bibliography
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“At a Meeting of the Barbers’ Union.” St. Paul Appeal, May 24, 1890.

Bristol, Douglas Walter, Jr. Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2009.

“Barbers on Strike: Union Workmen at East Grand Forks Demand Enforcement of Sunday Closing.” Minnesota Union Advocate, May 24, 1908.

“Barbers Union to Note Its 63rd Anniversary.” St. Paul Minnesota Union Advocate, May 21, 1953.

“Barbers Shave Close.” St. Paul Minnesota Union Advocate, May 31, 1907.

“Barbers Union Meeting in New Hall Monday.” St. Paul Minnesota Union Advocate, September 7, 1917.

“Barbers’ Advanced Class Stresses Styling.” Minneapolis Labor Review, January 13, 1972.

“Barbers’ Strike When Employers Break Agreement.” Minneapolis Labor Review, January 30, 1920.

“Barbers’ Union Gains Steadily.” St. Paul Minnesota Union Advocate, September 28, 1917,

“Barbers’ Union Merging with Food, Commercial.” St. Paul Minnesota Union Advocate, January 14, 1980.

“Barbers’ Union to Entertain Huge Crowd at Picnic.” St. Paul Minnesota Union Advocate, July 30, 1936.

“Beauty Workers Banner Ellen’s Beauty Shop.” St. Paul Minnesota Union Advocate, August 12, 1937.

“Delmont Warns Labor Against Scab Shops.” St. Paul Minnesota Union Advocate, March 18, 1926.

“Eight Barbershops Listed As Unfair Return to Fold.” St. Paul Minnesota Union Advocate, August 23, 1945.

Foner, Phillip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States: From Colonial Time to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor. New York: International Publishers, 1947.

Green, William D. A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equity in Early Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.

Hall, Scott W. “The Journeymen Barbers International Union of America.” The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science 54, no. 3 (1936).

Mills, Quincy T. Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

“Negroes Are Not Barred From Barbers’ Union.” St. Paul Minnesota Union Advocate, October 23, 1947.

“Question of Pay Satisfaction Settled at St. Paul.” Minneapolis Labor Review, July 12, 1909.

“Shaved on Sunday.” St. Paul Daily Globe, September 28, 1887.

“Sound Reasons for the Barbers’ Law.” Minneapolis Labor Review, November 7, 1907.

Spangler, Earl. The Negro in Minnesota. Minneapolis: T.S. Denison, 1961.

Springfield: Town on the Minnesota Prairie. Marceline, MO: Walsworth Publishing, 1981.

“Stillwater Globules.” St. Paul Daily Globe, August 10, 1883.

“St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly.” St. Paul Minnesota Union Advocate, January 17, 1946.

Swanson, Deborah, ed. “Joseph Farr Remembers the Underground Railroad in St. Paul.” Minnesota History 57, no. 3 (Fall 2000): 123–129.

Taylor, David Vassar. “The Blacks.” In They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State’s Ethnic Groups, edited by June Drenning Holmquist, 73–91. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2004. First published in 1981.

“Veteran Barber Recounts Observations and Changes During Past Three Decades.” Cokato Enterprise, April 25, 1929.

Washington, Booker T. “The Negro and the Labor Unions.” Atlantic Monthly, June 1913.

“20 Barbershops Sign With CIO.” Minneapolis Labor Review, December 13, 1945.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of African American barber Prince Honeycutt in his Fergus Falls shop, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of African American barber Prince Honeycutt in his Fergus Falls shop, c.1900.
Cover of the March 18 1918 edition (vol. XIV, no. 2) of the <em>Journeyman Barber</em>, the national newsletter of the Journeymen Barbers International Union (JBIU).
Cover of the March 18 1918 edition (vol. XIV, no. 2) of the <em>Journeyman Barber</em>, the national newsletter of the Journeymen Barbers International Union (JBIU).
Black and white photograph of Governor Elmer Benson signing a barbers’ fair trade bill. Photograph by the St. Paul Daily News, 1937.
Black and white photograph of Governor Elmer Benson signing a barbers’ fair trade bill. Photograph by the St. Paul Daily News, 1937.
Black and white photograph of the exterior of Fisher’s Barber Shop splashed with red paint, c.1940s.
Black and white photograph of the exterior of Fisher’s Barber Shop splashed with red paint, c.1940s.

Turning Point

The East Grand Forks barbers’ strike of April 1908 foreshadows more confrontation with the open-shop policies of the Citizens Alliance.



African Americans begin to introduce the barbering trade to Minnesota.


First-class barber shops and craft unions, run by African Americans and European immigrants, begin to spread throughout the state.


Workers associations fight for shorter barbershop hours.


The Journeymen Barbers International Union of America (JBIUA) is organized in Buffalo, New York.


JBIUA local unions are chartered in St. Paul and Minneapolis. African American barbers seek union membership in St. Paul.


The Minnesota Supreme Court upholds a Sunday closing law for barbershops (Petit v. Minnesota).


Minnesota passes the nation’s first barber licensing law.


JBIUA outstate local unions emerge; twelve locals eventually organize.


The Minneapolis Barbers Union and African American Barbers Protective Association discuss a merger.


Union barbers strike over hours of work in East Grand Forks.


A large strike by union barbers takes place in Minneapolis.


Union barbers organize community services in worsening economic conditions.


The Minnesota Fair Trade Act passes with union backing; its aim is to benefit small business owners.


Labor union membership in Minnesota peaks.


Corporately owned, non-union barbershops emerge. Minnesota is home to the largest non-union barber and stylist chains.


Union barbers in St. Paul number eighty, and in Minneapolis fifty. The two local unions merge.


The JBIUA disbands. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union assumes jurisdiction over union barbers.