Monday, August 12, 2013

"David Played a Harp" by Ralph W. Johnson (2000)

I live less than 20 minutes from the Main Street where this book takes place. I read it for the first time in 2000 when it was released. Mr. Johnson wrote the book in the 1970’s, and let the manuscript lay around for over 20 years before he decided, at the urging of friends and family, to publish it at the age of 96. And what a book it is.

It is the story of the old Jim Crow south and how the author, Ralph Johnson, managed to deal with the inequities of those times. Over the course of 40 years, in the midst of racial segregation, he was able; with great difficulty; to open, operate and maintain the area’s largest barber shop. It is also the story of how the misguided elite students and professors of Davidson College, helped to tear it all down with idealism at a time when the country was rife with racial division in the days before, and just after, the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Ralph Johnson was a victim of the Jim Crow era, but in a much different way than one usually thinks. He was not beaten, nor lynched. He was, instead, the unique victim of hostility from his own people; who saw his efforts at bettering himself as an affront to their own lack of initiative; and, at the same time, also the victim of the young white students and faculty at Davidson College, who looked to alleviate the racial discrimination in the town as a way to assuage their own guilt at having benefited from it.

Indeed, even as they were protesting the segregation in Mr. Johnson’s barber shop, they themselves were the employers of Negro laundry workers, janitors, and cooks on their own campus. These employees had no rights, no benefits and were paid substandard wages for the time. When they grew too old, or too sick, to work anymore, they were simply dismissed and could be seen wandering in rags, sometimes living with relatives who took them in, or else in camps in the local woods, living like tramps. There were no student protests about these unfortunate victims of Jim Crow from the students of Davidson College.

The book begins with Mr. Johnson’s childhood and his scant memories of his father. He recounts his own efforts to obtain an education, which was not possible in Davidson for a person of color at the time. By hard study through correspondence courses taken over many years, Mr. Johnson was able to earn a high school diploma, a college degree and even studied law. As a matter of fact, in 1937, just before the law regarding taking the Bar exam in North Carolina changed, he had been taking law courses in preparation to take the Bar. He was even offered a position with a locally prominent white attorney, but it was economically impossible for him to abandon the barber shop in order to do so.

Eventually he was able to move his shop to Main Street without causing too much backlash. Later, when moving his shop to its final location, he was able to buy a building at the Corner of Main and Depot Streets, which was unheard of at the time. There were several incidents of vandalism and even an attempt at arson on his home as a result of this, but Mr. Johnson, plagued by illness and anxiety, shouldered on and eventually had the best barbershop in the region, drawing customers from every nearby town. By state law he was not permitted to cut the hair of Negroes in his own shop, and even had to have his own hair cut there at night, with the shades drawn.

I moved to this area of North Carolina in 1998, two years before this book was released. I had become familiar with the Town of Davidson by that time. It is a beautiful college town, fully integrated and with a lively economy in spite of the superhighway which runs parallel to it by about 1 mile and has sucked the life out of most of the small towns it breezes through. A lot has changed in the years since Mr. Johnson wrote his story.

The building where Mr. Johnson ran his business is a bank now, which has changed hands over 3 times since we moved here. The author’s description of the town allows you to walk down Main Street and identify every building and what businesses used to occupy them. The steeple of the Church across the street from the old barber shop still stands on the grounds of Davidson College, and at certain times of the year, at certain hours of the afternoon, the sun casts the shadow of that cross over Mr. Johnson’s old barber shop, in the building he once owned. I think he would find some comfort in that.

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