MONMOUTH, Ill. — An interesting bit of local trivia is that one of Monmouth’s earliest barbers was an African-American who was the son of former slaves. Born in Pennsylvania in 1837, Robert Catlin came to Monmouth in 1857, running one of its most successful barbershops until his death in 1891. His sons Charles and Robert would carry on the family business until almost 1920.
Other black Monmouth barbers would follow in the Catlins’ footsteps during ensuing decades (catering to both white and black customers), but by 1963 only white barbers were operating in town. Had that not been the case, Monmouth might have avoided one of the most heated and unfortunate racial incidents in its history.
In the fall of 1962, Monmouth College opened the year with four black students enrolled — one man from Kenya, and two men and one woman from Illinois. The Kenyan was the son of a Presbyterian minister and had limited means. It became a hardship, therefore, when he discovered he could not get a haircut in Monmouth and had to travel to Galesburg to find a barber capable of and willing to cut his hair.
At Western Illinois University, 21 students from Nigeria had had the same issue and were forced to travel to Galesburg for haircuts until the university arranged for a black barber to locate in Macomb. The student government at Monmouth also looked for a solution but were told by local barbers that it took special training and equipment to cut African-American hair, and that they would have to return to barber school to learn how to do it. They also learned that Monmouth’s black population (at that time about 330) had been relying on Galesburg for professional haircuts.
Later that year, Monmouth College chaplain Stafford Weeks, preaching at a local church, mentioned the problem in his sermon. A prominent businessman from the congregation contacted some barbers to see if something could be done, but was unsuccessful. Algot Bowman, president of Bowman Shoe Co., became interested and went to considerable effort to find a barber capable of cutting hair of both races. He even offered to help pay for the barber to be established in the Rivoli barbershop but after a year’s search could find no takers.
What had been an inconvenience for some college students would soon turn into a full-blown controversy involving Monmouth barbers, city leaders and the press, due to a series of misunderstandings that could almost be characterized as a comedy of errors.
On Lincoln’s Birthday 1963, a meeting of the United Campus Christian Fellowship was held at Monmouth College. The organization, which met regularly to discuss current issues, included students from Africa, Indonesia, China and Japan, as well as the United States. Among them were James Gitau from Kenya and Kennedy Reed and Fredrick Mahogany, both from Chicago, all of whom were black and had been unable to get their hair cut in Monmouth.
When a question was asked about local problems, the barbershop issue was raised and a discussion ensued about possible solutions. When it was suggested that the real reason for not cutting the hair of blacks might not be incompetence, but rather the fear that barbers might lose white customers, the students asked two questions:
1. When barbers are licensed by the state of Illinois are they expected to be able to cut all kinds of hair and does the law forbid them to discriminate on account of color? and
2. How do the people of Monmouth feel about barbers cutting the hair of both whites and blacks? Would they stop patronizing their barbers if they did?
A committee was formed and government professor Carl Gamer was asked to get answers to Question 1. One of the students, who was taking an American government class, agreed to poll her fellow students about Question 2. The committee then met with President Robert Gibson to apprise him of their concern and to ask his advice.
Professor Gamer received a letter from the Department of Registration and Education stating the department’s belief that barbers who pass the licensing test should have the basic skills to cut all kinds of hair. Further, reference was made to the Criminal Code of Illinois, which stipulated potential fines and imprisonment for barbers who were negligent. After President Gibson suggested that the information be forwarded to the Chamber of Commerce, trouble began.
Professor Gamer would for a time be blissfully ignorant of the trouble, as he was spending the summer touring 10 southern states on a fact-finding mission about racial tensions. When he returned to Monmouth he visited his favorite barber, Hale McCurdy, for a haircut. McCurdy pulled him into a side room and apologized that he couldn’t cut his hair because Gamer had supposedly written a letter to the state licensing board in order to get the licenses of a Monmouth barbers revoked. Gamer then learned that his name and alleged deeds had been in the press throughout Illinois.
Stunned, Gamer immediately began a fact-finding tour on his own behalf. He contacted the Chamber of Commerce, the Review Atlas, President Gibson, radio stations WRAM and WKAI, three barbers, the Macomb Daily Journal, various Western Illinois University administrators, the Associated Press Chicago bureau, a Chicago newspaper editor, a black pastor in Galesburg, lawyers, doctors, ministers, the Monmouth chief of police, postmaster and two FBI agents.
The controversy was partially traced to a June 17 Associated Press story, datelined Monmouth. The story was rife with errors, including when the problem started, the number of blacks in Monmouth, the number of African students at the college and who had contacted the Department of Education and Registration (the story said President Gibson). Gamer also learned that the AP had originally been alerted to the story by a letter it received with Gamer’s signature — a letter which he didn’t write.
Days before, the Monmouth Chamber of Commerce had issued a resolution stating that racial discrimination had presented itself in regard to the cutting of hair by local barbers and resolving that local barbers to take all necessary positive steps to solve the problem. It was sent individually to all the local barbers. Unfortunately, one of the members of the Chamber board was a prominent member of the news media who decided to release the story before the barbers had been contacted and allowed to state their own case.
Monmouth’s 15 barbers got together and passed a counter-resolution, disclaiming racial prejudice and citing lack of adequate training as their reason for not accepting black customers. They suggested that Vincent “Sonny” Taylor, a local black man who had learned the barber trade in prison, be set up in Monmouth with a shop to cut the hair of blacks. This suggestion was met with anger by some in the black community, who resented that a man with a criminal record be the one offered to solve their problem.
The Monmouth chapter of the NAACP, which had only 30 members, decided to merge with the larger Galesburg chapter in order to have more clout. Robert McWilliams, a black letter carrier who was president of the former Monmouth chapter, was appointed to investigate any potential discrimination.
Bitterness reigned in the community, and president Gibson received an anonymous letter, charging: “You started all this! You and your cohorts should go to Russia, where you belong!” Gamer received in the mail a fake application to join the NAACP, which contained such racist questions as “Place of birth: Charity hospital, Free public clinic, Cotton patch, Back Alley.”
On July 10, Gov. Otto Kerner issued an executive order prohibiting Illinois barbers from discriminating against customers on the basis of race, creed or color.
In November, Kennedy Reed, one of the black students from Chicago, caused a stir when two of his white classmates accompanied him to downtown barbershops. They first entered McCurdy and Landuyt’s barbershop on South Main. Nothing was said as the trio entered the shop, and there were no stares as two older men were having their hair cut, while four customers waited in line. Not a word was spoken until one of the barbers finished with his customer and got on his coat and hat and left the shop.
Eventually, he returned and said to his fellow barber, “Well, let’s get it over with.” He addressed the trio as “Gentlemen,” and said, “I’m sorry, but we’re unable to cut his hair. I don’t know how, and I don’t know a barber in town who does.”
The trio then proceeded to a four-chair barbershop on the square, which had a customer in each chair and three more waiting. When Reed’s turn came, the senior barber said, “I can’t cut your hair. I’ve had no training and I’d give you a bad haircut. I don’t want to mess up your hair. You’d be ashamed to show yourself on campus.” At two more barbershops, the group was met with similar remarks.
Finally, Holly Sweeney, a south-side barber, agreed to cut Reed’s hair.
Monmouth College student Dick Smith had working as a newsman for WRAM that day and was driving back to class after a noontime newscast when he saw Reed and his friends walking downtown. Realizing what was about to happen, he made a U-turn, reaching the barbershop on the square at the same time as the trio. He took notes and broadcast the story. During the broadcast, two angry barbers walked across the street and stormed into his broadcast booth. Smith shared the story with the college’s student newspaper editor, who printed it in the following Friday’s issue.
That Friday, however, proved to be a momentous day in history, causing the story to lose a good deal of its impact. It was published on Friday, Nov. 22, the day President Kennedy was shot. (Kennedy Reed had been named for the father of the late president, as he was the first baby born in a Memphis hospital funded by Joseph Kennedy.)
Reed filed a complaint with the Human Relations Commission about the six barbershops that wouldn’t cut his hair, and the owners were summoned in 1964 to an informal hearing in the office of the Department of Registration and Education in Springfield. The department asked the barbers for “amicable compliance” with the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 1962, and their attorney was asked to inform the agency within a few days of their decision. Apparently, no response was ever made and no further action was taken by the state.
Kennedy Reed would go on to become a theoretical physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He was named by President Obama as a recipient of the 2009 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Engineering Mentoring.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.