Mined from the notebooks, December 14, 2017. Posted Sunday morning, December 31, 2017.
“Reverend Eugene Lyles in his Greensboro, Alabama,barbershop.” Copyrighted photo by Steve McCurry, featured in Deep South by Paul Theroux, via Slate.
Editor’s note: When Doug Jones won the special election for U.S. Senator from Alabama, I started re-reading the chapters in Paul Theroux’s travel book Deep South dealing with Theroux’s visits to Alabama, a state I’ve never been to, looking to get a sense of the place. Theroux is very good at that, giving the sense of places he travels through mostly because he’s very good at drawing portraits of the people who live in those places, like the barber-minister-restauranteur Reverend Eugene Lyles of Greensboro, Alabama:
Around the corner from Main Street, tucked into a brick building he’d financed himself, was Gene’s,the barbershop of Reverend Eugene Lyles. He was seventy-nine but looked much younger, and not just physically fit but scholarly too. He was seated at a small table peering at his Bible, opened to the Acts of the Apostles, while awaiting his next customer. In addition to his barbershop, Reverend Lyles had his own church, the Mars Hill Missionary Baptist Church, just south of town. Next door to the barbershop was Reverend Lyles’s own soul food diner, nameless except for the simple sign DINER out front.
I asked him for a haircut. Marking the page in his Bible with a tattered ribbon and shutting it, he went to the shelf beneath the big mirror and plucked his comb and scissors out of jar of disinfectant. I climbed into one of the two barber chairs and he tied a big around my neck.
In answer to my obvious first question, he said, “When I was a boy I bought me a pair of clippers. I cut my brother’s hair. Well, I got ten boy siblings and three girl siblings---fourteen of us. One mother. I kept cutting hair. I started this business sixty years ago, cutting hair all that time. And I got the restaurant, and I got my church. Yes, I am busy.”
“Tell me about Greensboro,” I said.
He sighed, then took a deep breath before he spoke. “There are good people in Greensboro,” he said. “But the white core is rooted in the status quo. And they have a way of indoctrinating their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. You’ve heard the words ‘separate but equal’? That means separate, not equal.”
“But that changed, didn’t it?”
“The school is separate yet,” he said, snipping away at my hair. “When it was integrated the whites started a private school, Southern Academy. There’s somewhere above a hundred there, all white.” He laughed, put comb and scissors down, and spun his glasses off to polish them with a tissue. “History is alive and well here.”