In recent years, Ward 8 has become a magnet for new businesses, tantamount to the final frontier for fledgling operatives unable to meet the exorbitant startup costs required in other parts of the District.
But for some, like Davis Barber and Beauty Service, located on Livingston Road near the Maryland state line, they’ve been doing quite well in Southeast for decades, becoming a model for success that newcomers seek to emulate and a popular venue for Blacks seeking a stylish haircut.
“My family has been in the barbering business for years,” said Derek Davis, co-owner of the shop along with his brother, Marsten. “When I was a young man, I would come by the shop and help my father by sweeping the floor, dusting off the customers and running personal errands.”
A graduate of Anacostia High School in Southeast, Davis attended the University of Maryland, College Park, earning his bachelor’s degree during the 70s with racial tension then at its zenith.
“I learned a lot there and learned how some people operate and how they thought about others who were different from them. I also learned how to deal with that,” he said.
Davis says upon graduating, he sent out hundreds of resumes but failed to receive a satisfactory response. He decided to work for his father, Willie Davis — a decision that reaped lifelong benefits.
Besides cutting hair, he taught the rubrics of the profession at Armstrong High School in Northwest, eventually ending his 27-year teaching career at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast. Along the way, he obtained certification to work with special education students which helped him better connect with potential barbers eager to get their feet in the door.
“I worked with young people to master the math and the anatomy that it takes to be a barber,” he said.
In the annals of Black culture, the barbershop has long existed as an inviting venue for both Black men and boys to get their hair cut and to hear the latest gossip and debate over issues ranging from the best sports figures and teams to the latest news on the national and local scene.
Scores of Black barbers have hung up their licenses in successful ventures in the District — a place that welcomed them as far back as the pre-Civil War era, perhaps because they proved themselves capable of providing quality service for men of all races, including whites.
In the past, Davis Barbershop served such luminaries as former D.C. mayor and councilmember, Marion Barry. In recent years, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has paid for free haircuts every August to assist young boys as they ready themselves for school to resume.
Davis, a leader in the barbering industry, both locally and nationally, became president of the National Association of Barber Board of America in 2013. The former high school instructor has also served on the D.C. Barber and Cosmetology Board and regularly reviews textbooks for barbering schools. And in 2009, the family patriarch received induction into the Association’s Hall of Fame.
Several years ago, contrary to the hype that smaller, Black-owned barbershops faced the way of the dinosaur due to the growing popularity of national chains such as Super Cuts, as well as the increased move of Blacks away from cities and into the suburbs, Davis says he and his colleagues have prospered.
“As a matter of fact, barbering is on the uptick,” he said. “People are coming in and not only are they getting their hair cut but they are being shaved. Some barber shops are now doing massages and full facials on men using mud and clay.”
Davis points out that barbering even continues to withstand economic and governmental downturns.
“When the brutal 2008 recession took place, our business did just fine,” he said. “And while the recent government shutdown hurt some industries shops like ours continued to have our normal amount of clientele.”
As for Ward 8 undergoing changes, as long as they’re for the better, he says he’s in full support.
“We have been in this community for 50 years — we’re part of it,” he said. “As long as the people are here, we will be here for them, too.”