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With Limited Options For Black Hair Care In The Upper Valley, One Barber Draws A Crowd

Rebecca Sananes
A Dartmouth student gets his monthly haircut from Sean Taylor in the basement of a Dartmouth dorm. The college has contracted Taylor, who is from Philadelphia, to provide his services for students who have limited options in the Upper Valley.

For the 5 percent of Vermonters who do not identify as white, finding a barber who has experience with a diversity of hair textures is challenging. But a barber contracted by Dartmouth College to cut hair for students of color is making a difference.

In 2015,95 percent of Vermonters identified as white. Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire are the whitest states in the country.

In the Upper Valley, once a month, Sean Taylor sets up a swiveling barber chair, clippers and scissors in the basement of a Dartmouth dorm.

All day, students stream in to get a haircut.

“It's just one of those places where everybody is welcome. Everybody's just kind of there for the same purpose — to look good and feel good,”  he said, running a razor around the edge of one student’s ear.

Taylor is from Philadelphia, and has been contracted by Dartmouth to cut hair for students of color.

Dartmouth's Office of Pluralism and Leadership has a web page devoted to finding black hair care in the area;  Taylor is one of two people the office lists in the Upper Valley who have the experience.

“If you're a barber, I think you should be able to cater to all hair, and not think about it in a race,” Taylor said. 

He continued: “It's just basically straight or curly. If you can cut straight hair, you can cut curly hair, you should be able to cut everybody's hair. But a lot of these shops out here, people aren't able to get what they want, especially the black kids.”

When he's not at Dartmouth, Taylor cuts hair at the River Valley Club in nearby Lebanon. He says people are willing to travel miles to have him cut their hair.

“I have quite a few clients that stopped driving to Boston, stopped driving to Manchester, stopped driving to Burlington, because I'm here ... It's been struggle for a lot of people to get a haircut in this area, so since I've been here I think it's been welcomed by a lot of people,” he said, pushing a customer around in his barber chair to inspect his work.

"I have quite a few clients that stopped driving to Boston, stopped driving to Manchester, stopped driving to Burlington because I'm here ... It's been struggle for a lot of people to get a haircut in this area." - Sean Taylor, barber

Carlos Tifa waits to get a trim. He moved from New York City to come to Dartmouth and is meticulous about his hair.

In the Upper Valley, that's a challenge. “Back in New York, I'd have my specific barber I'd go every two weeks, I'd have appointments. Then, coming here, I didn't factor in the fact that, hey, there may not be an outlet where you can cut your hair,” he said, patting his dyed red hair. “I think ethnic hair, you have to use a certain technique, you can't use scissors and expect it to be good.”

A handful of men chat, do homework and watch TV waiting for their haircut in the basement of Cutter Hall, the historically African American dorm on campus.

Hassan Hassen, a Dartmouth junior, is one of them. He's there to get his beard trimmed.

“The interesting part is, we get our hair cut in Cutter. That's usually a place where a lot of African American students live, and it's in the basement, and everyone's here and you're able to talk,” he said, tilting his head up, letting Taylor get a closer cut on his short beard.

“If you go to any of the shops here, there are usually just people who are not minorities who get their haircut, and they don't know how to take care of black hair," Hassen says. "So I guess that is the main reason that people come here. There's a sense of community in barbershops, and minority populations have a different feel, I believe."

Sean Taylor says the barbershop is the place where you "solve the problems of the world."

Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR
Dartmouth senior Jalen Benson says he's late to work, but it's worth it. He can only get a haircut once a month from Sean Taylor, but needs it before he sets off on job interviews.

Quincy Mills, an associate professor of history and the director of Africana Studies at Vassar College, agrees.

His book, Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in Americalooks at the history of black hair care and Civil Rights.

Mills says since the late 19th century, black barbershops have been a space for people to feel safe about their identity and to discuss politics.

“They knew that the barber would know how to cut their hair, they knew that they could walk in with their afro and talk about black politics or civil rights activism, things that they could not do or probably would not want to do in a white-owned barbershop,” he told VPR over the phone.

In fact, a Civil Rights protest in the 1960s boycotted a campus barber in rural Ohio who said he couldn't cut black hair.

“They would argue that, 'What does it mean that a barber had to be licensed by the state to cut hair, but yet could claim that they didn't have the skill to cut all types of hair?' What did that mean? And I think this larger principle was at stake,” Mills said.

Students say some licensed barbers in the area still turn away clients with different hair textures.

Mills thinks in places that are disproportionately white, there are larger systemic barriers to changing demographics. But a space to find community and get a good haircut may be one place to start a conversation about it. 

Rebecca Sananes was VPR's Upper Valley Reporter. Before joining the VPR Newsroom, she was the Graduate Fellow at WBUR and a researcher on a Frontline documentary.
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