Legacy of Grand Rapids’ first Black-owned barbershop lives on

Black History Month

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — One of Grand Rapids’ first Black business owners ran a barbershop in what was the first in a long line of safe havens in the Black community.

“We don’t think of a barber as a Jeff Bezos,” Dr. Randal Jelks, author of “African Americans in the Furniture City,” said. “But in his community, people thought of him like a Jeff Bezos.”

In the late 1800s, J.C. Craig ran one of the most prominent barbershops in downtown Grand Rapids.

“J.C. Craig was like so many post-Civil War African Americans, moving to cities, starting businesses, organizing themselves to fight for their own civil rights,” Jelks said.

A file courtesy image of J.C. Craig from his obituary.

Craig’s barbershop was in a prime position to change the city’s social norms.

“Craig was in the back of the gun store, upstairs,” Jelks said. “But it was right in the center of town at Monroe and Fulton.”

You can see a replica of the barbershop inside the Grand Rapids Public Museum, which has an exhibit of downtown in the late 1800s.

Inside the Grand Rapids Public Museum, a life-size recreation of downtown Grand Rapids in the late 1800s includes the J.C. Craig Barber Shop. (Feb. 12, 2021)

The absolute freedom found in Craig’s barbershop gave everyone a voice. From the big shots and leaders to the workers and the hustlers, everyone met there.

“They’re the second-best thing to a therapist,” Jelks said. “It’s been a safe haven to have free expression and express your blues, express your joys.”

It is a staple of Black culture that still thrives today.

“It’s more than just a cut with a lot of people, man,” said Mark Randle, the owner of Colecuts Barbershop in Grand Rapids. “You know, some people come here just to release energy, bad energy. Bounce off good energy.”

Randle has been cutting hair for 36 years, so he has heard his share of stories.

“You’d be surprised at how many people have just negative energy,” he said. “Wake up with an argument, feeling bad about the night before, and they get a chance to come in here and just get a different view of how they’re feeling. That’s a safe way, because you send people out into the street with that energy and you don’t know what happens.”

“Work, just everyday life, you know what I mean? Just need someone to talk to and get different perspectives on different things,” Les Thomas, a customer at Colecuts, said.

Mark Randle cuts a customer’s hair at Colecuts Barbershop in Grand Rapids on Feb. 12, 2021.

Craig helped mostly white customers at the turn of the 20th century. During that time period, it put a lot of pressure on his position.

“See, I come up in a different day,” Randle said. “My whole life I’ve been servicing both white and Black. And coming up back then, I can’t even imagine to think what that was like.”

Jelks said future generations can learn a lot from Craig.

“What we can learn is that even the smallest business owner can advocate for justice,” he said. “They can promote good will between people. And that’s what he did.”

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