Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Fall/Section010/Bill Reese

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methodist church in Athens, Georgia

Overview[edit | edit source]

Bill Reese was a widowed negro barber who descended from a freed negro slave father and a mulatto mother. He was a proud, well behaved, but weary man born soon after the Civil War in the small town of Athens, Georgia. His father had learned the trade of barbering through his master, and managed to open a shop in which he served white people.

Bill stayed in Athens his whole life, and worked as a barber until he was physically unable. He owns 4 houses, which he built with his wife. He had 10 children, 2 who died at an early age, and 8 who all received a college education, which he boasts.

He is passionate about his people, at least the ones he deems well behaved. In his interview, Bill claims to have “catered to colored people,” in his shop as “they wasn't nigh so aristocratic about the way they looked then as they are now." He maintains that black people should be humble. Subsequently, he doesn't vote for he knows how little power black people hold in the US.

(Hornaby 1-27).

African American Barber

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

At the age of 6, Bill began performing maintenance work in his fathers shop and took it over by 14. Being tasked with "sweeping out the shop, washing spittoons, and shining shoes," Bill learned responsibility from an early age. By the time he was eleven or twelve he made "from a dollar-and-a-half to as high as three dollars in one week." During these times money was hard to come by and all of his profits were given to his mother to purchase the bare essentials. His family was very poor, as were all those around him. To him it was normal for colored children (Hornaby 1-27).

Working Life[edit | edit source]

Bill was once married, but his wife left him and his kids had since grown up and moved away. Nonetheless, Bill was happy with his life. He did well for himself in his shops, especially during annual commencement at the university, tournaments, and circuses. In addition to his work in his fathers shop, Bill worked at white barber shops on reserve. His father developed a habit of alcoholism as bill turned into a young man. By the time his father died, Bill was running the barber shop that his uncle sold to him alongside his brother in law. He would go on to move the location of his shop 7 times, until finally settling down in a shop near his home. He was able to maintain a simple life from renting houses out to others and reaping barber shop profits (Hornaby 1-27).

Later Life[edit | edit source]

After moving his shop from the Main Street to his neighborhood Bill settled in a picked up a few hobbies such as; breeding and selling hogs and chickens, hunting, and growing/ selling pecans from a tree outside of his home. He wishes to find another wife but is afraid it would end badly. He owns a large, run down house which his sisters and nieces live in. Bill converted to a Methodist at 35 and took up church at 60. He never visits his children, but writes them regularly (Hornaby 1-27).

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Southern Blacks and Public Education[edit | edit source]

After gaining freedom, southern blacks worked their hardest to pioneer a public education system. As W.E.B Dubois says "public education... was, in the south, a negro idea," due to the ideology of poor and rich whites that education was for the rich man (Anderson, 6). However despite the collective efforts for black schooling, this attitude permeated the minds of many African Americans as they met such great conflict to their social mobility. Exploring these barriers makes Bill's point of view more understandable.

During this time, the Planters-- agricultural aristocrats/ plantation owners of the south-- opposed education of their laborers because they feared it would make them idle and too noble to work. The planters also believed that "state government had no right to intervene in the education of children and, by extension, the larger social arrangement," as it "violated the natural evolution of society" (Anderson, 4). Therefore, the revolution among former slaves to initiate state funded education was "the central threat to planter rule and planters' conceptions of the proper roles of state, church, and family in matters of education" (Anderson, 4).

Many poor whites also subscribed to this hierarchy, which was paired with racist sentiments of blacks being uncivilized and incapable of intellectual labor. As a result, white farmers and plantation owners joined forces in combatting black education. After years of collaboration, the groups managed to get the state to divert funding for black children to white children, undermining the movement for universal public schooling. Consequently, black rural southerners settled into agricultural labor such as sharecropping because a quality education was not available (Anderson, 4).

Social Mobility/ Access to Jobs[edit | edit source]

Another cause of the stagnation of southern blacks during this time were ethnic niches, or high density areas of one race, which caused blacks to remain in their communities and upkeep generational ways of life. They rarely found new sources of wealth, and when the depression hit white people stepped into more lucrative roles as they exited urban areas in search of jobs (Boyd, 4). According to Boyd, "if a group is in a saturated niche, then the opportunity of the group’s members to find relief from economic decline is constrained." He adds that this concept, "could be useful in comparative and historical studies of the rural labor market and of economically depressed areas, such as the southern sub-regions of Appalachia, the Black Belt, and the Mississippi Delta" (Boyd, 4). Another result of ethnic niches was the inequity in the worth of black farms, as Holmes adds "the value of (black) farms was always less than half of those operated by whites" (Holmes, 314).

In addition, few blacks were able to explore other trades, but some were lucky. Masters liked to have a slave who could perform "valet service," and would train at least one slave to perform specific services (Hornaby, 4). As a result some ex slaves passed these skills onto their children and took up retail. Many places in America forbade blacks from obtaining business licenses, but they often operated within their own community or worked for a white man to get around this block ("Evolution of Black American Entrepreneurship").

Works Cited[edit | edit source]

Anderson, James D. “The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935.” University of North Carolina Press (1988). http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unc/detail.action?docID=880026.

“Evolution of Black American Entrepreneurship.” National Black Chamber of Commerce, https://www.nationalbcc.org/news/beyond-the-rhetoric/935-evolution-of-black-american-entrepreneurship.

Holmes, Michael S. “From Euphoria to Cataclysm: Georgia Confronts the Great Depression.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 58, no. 3 (1974): 313–30. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40579989.

Hornaby, Sadie. Hall, Sarah. Booth, John. "I cater to colored people." Federal Writers Collection. Augusta, Georgia: 1939, North Carolina Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Robert L. Boyd “Urban unemployment, the Rural Labor Market, and Southern Blacks in Farm Labor During the Great Depression: A Research Note” The Social Science Journal 39, no. 2 (2002): 295-299. DOI: 10.1016/S0362-3319(02)00170-2.


Delano, Jack. African American Barber. Chicago, Illinois.jpg. Apr. 1942. United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Young Harris Memorial Methodist Church, Athens, Ga.jpg. 1930-1945. Print Postcard. Boston Public Library, Print Department. 11 Feb. 2011.