By SAMANTHA SMYLIE
If you were to walk toward Brown’s Master Barbershop, 1011 E. 53rd St., you might miss the neon sign that belongs to one of the oldest barber shops in Hyde Park. This end of 53rd Street is quiet; just a couple of businesses among the houses and apartment buildings. Kozminski elementary school is down the street. Cars breeze through this area with ease unlike the intersection of 53rd and Harper Ave.
Even though the scene outside the barbershop is mundane, inside you are inundated with Hyde Park’s – and by extension, Chicago’s – history. The shop is filled with the usual decorations of a barber shop: black and white tile floor, barber chairs and a large window. There are a few items that will make you nostalgic like jukebox and a coke bottle machine. As your eyes wander around the shop, you’ll stop to look at all of the pictures featuring prominent figures from Hyde Park such as former Mayor Harold Washington and a collection of hats from places throughout the nation. However, the centerpiece of the barber shop is 92-year old barber Robert Hunter.
Hunter, an animated storyteller and barber, was born and raised in Danville, IL. He got his start cutting hair in the Marine Corps, he said, “I was put on [Kitchen Patrol]; washing dishes and peeling potatoes. I was supposed to stay in there 90 days, but I stayed for 120 days. While I was there, I told a boy from Louisiana to get me a barber set. He went and got me a $9 barber set with clippers, scissors, brush, and a comb. So, I started cutting the peoples hair and I got good at it.”
After leaving the military, Hunter went into the tavern business until he saw a “Barber wanted in Chicago’ ad at a post office in Danville. He moved to Chicago in 1955 and settled in Hyde Park, and he’s worked in the neighborhood ever since.
While Hunter has been in the neighborhood since the 1950s, his early years in the neighborhood was marked with constant movement as the neighborhood saw dramatic changes due to the “Urban Renewal” initiative led by the University of Chicago. It was meant to revitalize aging neighborhoods, prevent “white flight” and create more housing for Black residents who were living in overcrowded homes due to segregation and racial violence. Hunter views that time as displacement for Black people in the area.
“You’ve probably heard of urban renewal, it was a vicious thing on black people,’ Hunter said. “They moved us around left and right. You’re in the building one day, they make you move the next day and tear the building down. What we called it was ‘Negro removal.’”
While Hyde Park is a racially and economically diverse neighborhood now, Hunter said it was a struggle to get there. He said, “Well, it was a battle because the first black family that moved in was at 53rd and Maryland. We were known as ‘blockbusters’ then — one Black move in and all of them would move out.”
After moving around to different locations for his early years in Hyde Park, Hunter was able to settle at the shop’s current location on 53rd Street where he was an apprentice under Henry K. Brown, a barber from Fort Smith, Arkansas.
“Mr. Brown comes from a place down in Fort Smith where, you know, in the South we all didn’t pick cotton. Some worked in hotels, restaurants and service industry and stuff. Brown comes from a shop where it’s called an ‘All White Shop.’ All Black barbers work on white folks only, but where you got the black people in the evenings, that’s where that pulling the shade comes from. You’d pull the shade and you let your Black customers come in and cut their hair. They didn’t sit side-by-side down there in an all-white shop,” said Hunter about his mentor.
In Hunter’s telling the story of his relationship with Brown, they were really good friends. However, tragedy struck when Brown was killed in an attempted robbery at his home’s garage in South Shore. Hunter took full ownership of the barber shop in 1982 and kept Brown’s name on the business because it was recognizable in the neighborhood and to honor his friend.
The next chapter of Brown’s barber shop begins with Ojo and Michelle Patterson, husband and wife team. Since Brown’s death, there hasn’t been another barber in the shop for over 30 years until Ojo showed up looking for a new business venture after working at the Hyde Park Hair Salon, on 52nd Street and Blackstone Avenue. After walking around the neighborhood to see what opportunities were available, Ojo found Hunter at Brown’s. Ever since their first conversation they really liked each other.
“He got hired in 10 minutes and gave him the keys in 15 minutes. You’d be surprised how many people have been in here asking for a job,” joked Hunter.
“We’ve even heard that from his clients! They were like, ‘What the heck, Mr. Hunter ain’t had nobody in 30 years. How the heck y’all get in here?’ said Ojo. “One day I was talking to him, I said, ‘Mr. Hunter, why us man? Why me and Michelle?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. It was, it was the vibrations or it was the vibes. I don’t know.”
Ojo and Michelle started working in the barbershop in September and ever since then it has been home for them.
“When I think of Hyde Park, I see it as another hub in the city for families, culture, politics, education; things that brings everybody together. That’s also what I feel about Brown’s barber shop here. Mr. Hunter has a wealth of information and history, we want people to know that Mr. Hunter is still here and that he’s actually still working — even though he’s 92 years old,” said Michelle.
“We are excited to work beside him and we look forward to someday being able to spearhead and move forward with the legacy that he left and build our own legacy.” she continued.
The legendary barber who cut the hair of Harold Washington (who referred to Hunter as “kiddo”), Malcolm X, Jesse Owen and many more important figures is still available to cut hair, and the Pattersons are looking for new clients. The barbershop hours are Tuesday- Thursday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.