THE HACKLEY REPORT by Eric Donald Hackley
The following is an interview with Scott Williams, son of Jesse Williams, founder of Jesse & Sons Barber Shop—the oldest black-owned barbershop in Fort Wayne:
Eric Hackley: Scott, come and tell us about your dad, the founder of Jesse and Sons Barber Shop and how you got into the family business.
Scott Williams: Of course, I have to give honor to the Lord first. My father was the founder of Jesse’s Barber Shop. He was a black man from Newbern, Ala. As soon as he graduated from high school, he wanted to get out of there and he moved the same day as his graduation.
My father moved to Pittsburgh, Penn., in the early 1950. He soon discovered there wasn’t much work there, so he joined the military. Shortly thereafter, the Korean Conflict broke out, but he was never engaged in combat. He stayed in Korea throughout the duration of his military career. After his completion and honorable discharge, he moved to Fort Wayne. In the mid 1950s, it was hard for blacks to find good paying jobs here. He was hired at International Harvester. One of the managers confronted him as asked, what are you doing here? He told my dad he was 50 pounds too light to work the job he was on and fired him.
My mom tried to persuade dad to go to barbering school, but he kept putting it off. He ended up going to barbering school and that turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him. He and my mom moved to Indianapolis as he went to school and worked.
After graduation from barbering school, my mom and dad moved back to Fort Wayne and was soon employed by the late City Councilman John Nuckols for his first barbering job. He ran Councilman Nuckols barbershop so that Mr. Nuckols could spend more time working in the political arena. The arrangement worked out perfectly for the both of them.
My father ran the shop for a while, but he became aware of an old ice cream shop on Hanna Street at Brackenridge. He purchased the building in 1957 or 1958, and it became Jesse’s Barber Shop and later Jesse & Son’s Barber Shop.
The shop went very well for him. He had four children. I was born in 1964. In 1967, he had a house built on the south side of Fort Wayne. This was very unusual for a barber and almost unheard of about blacks of that time. A lot of people thought my father was a doctor or lawyer. When I told them he was a barber, they wouldn’t believe it.
My father raised us while he worked in his barbershop. When the long hair of Afros became popular in the 1970s, that knocked him down for a few years. So, my mom went to work and helped out.
I got involved in barbering business in the 1980s because my father’s problems with sugar diabetes were getting worse. The business was flourishing and he said one day he will have to leave it. At this time I was a commercial artist working for a company in Indianapolis. It took me a while to decide to quit that job. I eventually resigned from my job and then enrolled in barbering school. I graduated and moved back to Fort Wayne to work with my dad in May of 1992.
It took me a while to make the decision to do this because my father, as Eric knows, was sometimes a very hard man to get along with because is was very opinionated. It took me a while to decide to work with him because I thought we would be bumping heads. Of course we did, but that’s not what I gained from the experience. Our bumping heads is really nothing to think about.
Like I said, I started working there cutting hair in May of 1992. I got mad at my dad one Saturday because I had made so much money and I didn’t realize how much money I could make barbering. It was phenomenal. In working in my dad’s shop and learning from other black barbers, because our clientele was primarily African American, was an invaluable experience. Learning from and listening to older black men on how to raise your family, the importance of keeping your word and they taught me all about entrepreneurship.
So after cutting hair, I opened up another barbershop called Barber’s on the Boulevard located at the corner of South Anthony and Rudisill Boulevard. I didn’t cut there in the beginning, but I put three chairs in the facility and hired three barbers, James Hopkins, Chris Cork and Harvest Higgins. They ran the shop and handled business very well. Then they moved on and opened their own shop. It’s like a chain link fence, you keep moving on. Of course you occasionally bump heads, but I admired them for what they did. Once they left, I moved in and cut hair there for a while until another gentleman named Jeff Hill came in to cut hair.
I then got an idea from one of my clients about another opening another business. So I started up called Technicom, a company where I provided telecommunications technicians to subcontract for other companies. The ideas for starting businesses all stemmed back to my father, Eric’s father and brother and older black men on how they were doing things and working their businesses. They were teaching me how to pass things on and even if you had a business and got rid of it, still passing on the legacy of getting another business started or at least the entrepreneurial thought process.
I’ve noticed that people put Fort Wayne down a lot. At times, there is not a lot to do here. I’ve been to different places around the world, but I always liked to come back to Fort Wayne. It’s a good place to raise a family. You don’t have too many problems here and it’s been good for me. That’s basically my story on how I got stated in business. I have to thank older black men of Fort Wayne and I had to knock barriers down for myself.
You touched on several important points. You mentioned reluctance to work with your dad because your personalities may clash.
I never really knew my father that well because he was at work all the time, taking care of business. My mom raised us. My mom took care of the house business and when my dad came home, he was told what happened during the day. I wasn’t afraid of my father, because it’s not like he ever spanked me, in fact he only hit me twice in life. The spanking was needed at the time. But, my father was a strong man and I tried not to make him mad at me. I just never tried to cause any problems. Looking back on my relationship with my father, the reason we may have clashed as adults was because I was Jesse Jr., just like my dad because the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.
But, one thing I can say about my father even though we clashed, my father respected me very much because of my family life. I married a young lady named Tamarra Wallace (Williams now) and we have five kids between us and none outside our family. You don’t see that a lot from black families. If you do, usually more than the husband and wife are involved. When I was growing up, five kids in one family was a small family. Now if my wife and I walk down the street with our kids, people think it’s a hoard of kids. But it’s not. It shows how society is changing.
We have five kids and the oldest is 19 and the youngest is 12. So you know we’re stair stepped. I don’t mean to put any other parents down when I say this, but I will not even let my kids watch regular non-cable TV without being monitored because of the shocking programming that’s aired. The first Super Bowl I let my kids watch featured Janet Jackson at half-time when she had her wardrobe malfunction. I’m not trying to block them from life, but society has changed so much too where the village doesn’t raise the child anymore. If I brought your child to the house because I was driving by and he was in the middle of the street and grabbed him and brought him home, now day’s you will have to deal with an adult asking you what are you doing with my child. When I was coming up, the parent would be thanked for looking out for getting their kid out of harm’s way. But getting back to my father, he respects me on how I raise my family.
EH: When I was a kid, I hated getting haircuts because it took so long. That’s why I liked your father, he was known as “Fast Jesse.”
Scott Williams: He was about business. That was one thing about my dad. What ever he did, he wanted to have an edge. Back when my dad began until presently, barbers aren’t usually open on Mondays because of the union. My dad said, “Why would you have a union when you’re the owner and the worker?” It didn’t make sense to him. So he didn’t join the union and he cut hair on Mondays and made a killing financially.
But, my father was fast. He could cut your hair in under five minutes. That fact was so well known, that when people came up from Alabama or other places from the South, they would make a bet. The bet was that my father would tell the person how fast he would get too them and If he was wrong, the haircut would be free. He never lost a bet.
Also in the 1960s, he always had a new car. That’s because how well barbering was going for him.
EH: Did he ever get any negative backlash from blacks about the frequency in his buying new cars?
Scott Williams: No, because at that time, things were different. Now, it seems that we’re our own worst enemy. If someone sees you doing something positive or in someway prospering, it seems like they’ll down grade you. They won’t elevate or support what you’re doing. But back in the early 1960s, whether you needed a haircut of not, you did so to support a black business. Successful blacks were used as a testament to what other blacks could do and become. Their success was admired and respected. Jealously and envy had not yet infiltrated the black mindset.
My father was a flashy man. That’s just how he was. The only negative thing people could say about my dad was that he was a very opinionated man. He was like, in the barbershop scene of the movie with Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall “Coming to America.” A black barbershop was a social gathering place, a place for financial help, black community news and issue debate. We were located right next door to a church. More people would come to our shop for help and contributions than would go to the church. I’m not putting the church down, but that’s the way it was. My father told me you have to step up and help. You may not be able to give all the time, but always try to help because it will come back to you.
EH: You have five children. How do you control them?
Scott Williams” I’m like my dad. Child abuse is child abuse. But, there is also child rearing. When I was in school and you did something wrong, you got a swat. You didn’t want your parents to find out because when you went home, you got another swat. So we did right. My kids, if they need a spanking, they’d get it. A lot of times we may go out to eat in a restaurant. People all the time would walk up to us and give me and my wife compliments. We would hear people remark, “They’re so quiet and well behaved.” That’s because I raise my kids the way we were raised.
EH: Whenever I see you and talk with you, you never seem to be stressed, frustrated or in anyway upset. You seem genuinely happy and content with your life. I’ve never heard you complain about your kids or speak ill of your wife. Tell me about Mrs. Williams.
Scott Williams: I’m the Titanic and she’s the rudder. The man has the last say-so in the house. Not “man,” but a good Christian-based man. I’ve done my wrongs, the Lord knows that. But, I’m trying to be right and my wife see’s that. I’ve had a lot of money in my hands from the different businesses that I’ve had. I’ve had money, lost it and gained it back again. And I know I’ll have more, kind of like Job in the bible. It’s like living an adventure. If I have an idea, I speak with my wife about it. She gives me her insights and I use her input for my final decision. It may not always be what she said, but believe me it’s in the back of my head what she said.
Some people think we’re wealthy. We are wealthy with love and we’re wealthy with our family. One day the Lord said, “You’re going to be wealthy.” Then he woke me up and said go look in the other room where your kids are asleep. He said, “That’s your wealth. You take care of them and that’s all you’ll ever need.”
Eric Hackley is a veteran independent journalist, television show host and producer focusing largely on history, particularly family history in the black community. His award-winning public access television shows have featured a host of local and national icons. Hackley can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 7 print edition.