El Hajji El Shabazz has been cutting hair on the South Side throughout some of the city’s, and nation’s, most turbulent changes. Born Thomas Anthony Williams Jr., El Shabazz has manned the shears at his 87th Street Truth & Soul barbershop since the throes of the civil rights movement. The walls of Truth & Soul feature the owner with the likes of Martin Luther King, Curtis Mayfield, Oprah, and Vidal Sassoon. He hesitates neither to express unorthodox political views nor to talk up the fantastical events surrounding his life. As El Shabazz himself put it, “In my whole life I have met a very large number of well-known people, or did they have the chance to meet me!”
Â When I turned on the recorder, he got going…
IÂ put the history out first. I came here in sixty-nine. I got this shop because of what they call the white flight. During that time I got it, they had two white barbers here. The thing that changed, the quick change, the blacks around here always thought it [the barbershop] was white, and the whites finnaÂ thought it was black, so I’m stuck in the middle, you understand? Ain’t nobody coming in. So I would put my white smock on and go out front when the buses is going past to let the brothers know, “Hey, I’m here now!”
Can you talk about the biggest changes you’ve seen on the South Side?
Â Yeah, during the time that I came here 87th Street was one of the top shopping centers in the world. And it were black. 1984 came, the crack hit. And that’s when that revolving door of young black boys being locked up for this crack [began]. They were taking the Robitussin there and crack, and robberies started happening.
This neighborhood… it was a whole full community. People be shopping all up and down the streets. Well when that crack hit in eighty-four. [smacks table] Muhammad Ali lived right here on 85th and Jeffery. You know, all these celebrities was all up and down here. They be shopping, you know, buying clothes and Tuxedos and things. The property taxes was nice, now they going up on the property taxes, a lot of people leaving out because of that. So that was a change, it was a big difference between now and then.
Can you talk about your experience in the civil rights movement?
Â I marched with Martin Luther King for the march on Washington, I marched with Martin Luther King on Marquette Park, Gage Park, and I’m a tell you something: ain’t nothing nice… I seen some Caucasian faces made that I can’t believe what I seen. Your manure out your body is thrown at me. Beer bottles thrown at me. Piss thrown at me. Rocks too. Police gotta try to cover [us]…all this type of hatred, just hatred.
Martin Luther King said this is the worst place he ever been, where segregation is. Martin Luther King, that’s what he said. He ain’t never seen a place like this than Chicago. He came in the West Side to speak to a lot of people in the neighborhoods. But Martin Luther King also said that civil rights don’t run out. I think that Desmond Tutu said that you got to listen, you try to stop it with non-violence, but a lot of times something else will happen. I’m looking for equal rights, I want the same pie that you get. That’s the way I look at life. And my children and my grandchildren. I got some of my best buddies, I got my friends is white.
I remember one time Martin Luther King came by, and he told us when we was gonna march, and he say wear your Levi’s jeans. This used to be called a freedom suit, with a little Levi jacket, we would wear that because everything was gonna be thrown on you. So when we went to march, we would wear that.
He also used to go to a Press conference on Roosevelt and Ashland called the Christian Parish…There’s a lot of history over there. The Black Panthers, that’s on Western and Madison. They killed Fred Hampton on Western and Monroe, but the Black Panthers HQ was on Madison and Western. They used to trade fire with the police out there. And I lived right around the corner from them.
I used to come home, I had a big fro, and come home with my pick, and an old army jacket. Police say “AH” and they come out from somewhere, I don’t know where. [Stiff, chipped imitation of white police officer] “Alright guy, alright come here come here. Lemme see whatcha got on you.” Ain’t got nothing on me. “Where you going?” I’m on my way to my house. “Where you live at?” Right here. “We gonna give you two or three seconds, guy, till you get to that house. If you don’t be in that house, we’re locking you up.”
Now, all I had to do was go to the alley, and go up into the Black Panthers HQ. I can go out the back door, right across from them. And so, like I said, I seen the Black Panthers, I met Edward Hanrahan, I don’t wanna talk about that though. You know who Edward Hanrahan is? He killed out the Black Panthers. I seen him downtown… but during the Civil Rights movement also, you know, everybody wearing their hair in Fros and everything.
So that was a civil rights symbol?
Yeah. Like black power.
What’s your favorite haircut?
You know what, I like fading, you see, this hair is like a Fro. I cut this hair with shears, this thing in my hand. I like blending in, it’s like a pain. You see, they use that word barber, I don’t like that word, barber. Why I don’t like that word barber is because, what do it show? What do it say? What do it mean?
Now, a hair artist? An artist? Where you take that hair, and you take it from one way to another. That’s artwork! Or you take it and you blend it in. You can make a ball at the bottom, and clean right on up into a fade. And just fade out. That’s artwork, man. I’d like to meet that guy that said, “you a barber.” I don’t call myself that. I call myself an artist.
I seen this guy, LeRoy Neiman [noted paint artist], when I was little. And, he was at the fights, he was in the boxing gym. And he making a painting, and LeRoy Neiman put the brush on that canvas, and he was doing this. [makes hair-cutting motion] And, when I use that shear, I’m doing the same thing. Blending in, or taking out, or leaving a length. It’s artwork! I don’t like the name barber. But somebody got it, you barbers! I’m not that.
Do you still cut hair? Or is that just a side thing now?
No, see, I’ll be seventy three on February 8th of this year! [Interview conducted on February 4.] So, I’m what you call, “coasting.” You know, just like you get in a boat, you just lay on the boat, and it just rocks! I’m coasting off. I had all my friends, all of them are older now, a lot of them are sick. They bald-headed. They don’t give a damn which way they look, because they’re at that age now. They ain’t chasing nobody. So I’m mostly coasting. You know.
How about your name? It’s taken from Malcolm X’s. What’s the story behind that?
I was proud of my name, I remember, when I was young. I went to school with Italians and Mexicans. My school was on Taylor and Fillmore, an Italian neighborhood. We lived right across Roosevelt. The Italians lived on Taylor Street. And some Mexicans. And I used to hear the name Galilinni, Fiori, Luna, those were some of my old friends up in the grammar school. I look at them, and they would show some of their Italian culture. And I would notice, and I read them National Geographics, and I see Al Capone, and they identified with the Italians.
Your name identifies who you are. From the soil that you came from. You know, you identified. Â I belonged to a plantation of that name [Williams]. And when I found out about that, I never did like it.
I want some identity of who I am. Friends of mine is named, O’Shea, O’Quinn, that’s Irish. I just want something to identify with. I don’t want no slave past name, that’s the way I felt. I wanted a name to identify with me. Â It scare a lot of white people now, because the Arabs over there is fighting now, that have these names, And not, they don’t wanna trust nobody, and plus they don’t wanna trust me because I’m black. Now they double don’t wanna trust me!
When you hear a person say, my name is Rodriguez Gonzales, he’s Spanish. What’s his name? The dancer from Russia, Berzinoff?
Yeah, I seen something in the paper about him the other day. That’s an identity from where he’s from. And that’s the way I want it with mine. Now actually what it does is supposed to cut that off, my other name was Williams, it supposed to cut that off from now on, and El Shabazz is supposed to be the family’s name now. So that slave name has stopped! You know what I’m saying. Muhammad Ali, that’s why he got a lot of kids, to cut that “Clay” off, there won’t be no more Clay [Cassius Clay, Ali’s given name].
My first encounter with racism was when I went to Potomac River, Maryland. I was about fifteen, sixteen years old. And I was with the Catholic Youth Organization boxing team. And we went there to fight some of the Navy fighters, on the ship. So my coach, Phil, told me, “hey all, let’s get out of here and go, go around the town.” There was two black boys, me and Fred. We walked into the place…they got bar stools. And they got slot machines. First time I’d been in a place like that. So we run and we jump up on the stool like this, ready to play. So I had to get some change. Put nickels in it. So my buddy Fred got change for a quarter, and dropped it in the machine, and it hit the jackpot!Â WHRINGWHRINGWHRING!
But the thing about it was this, I didn’t play yet. So the white guy came from around the counter, and went up to my boxing coach, and said, “look, these two guys have to leave.” So, I didn’t know nothing about this racism stuff. So I say, “we got to leave? Phil, we just got here!” I didn’t know what was going on. It was racism.
I said, “I’m a get me some change, because I’m gonna play the game! I’m gonna make a telephone call!” Cause I called my mother, to tell her I had made it to Potomac River, Maryland. She said, “you just be careful!” Now I’m in a place any kind of shit could happen. So, when I came back around, to say Phil, “I need some nickels cause I wanna play ping,” he told the guy, “what I ought to do is turn all four of these guys on you and kick your ass.” That’s what he told the white boy.
So I’m looking at him, like what? What the hell is going on? So he said, “Sir, I’m sorry, but those two guys gotta go.” That’s all he said. Phil said, “we gotta go, but I should have them kick your ass.” So we walked out. Â Â In the middle of the street, [coach] told me and Fred, “what do you see? We’re in another state over here, you got to be careful. If you’re not careful, you’ll walk into some shit on you.”
That’s racism. That’s when I first found out about it. And so, he say, “turn around and tell me what you see.” I was looking at the store. But I wasn’t reading, and it hit me: WHITES ONLY… That’s the first time it hit me, now. That’s the first time it opened up my ear, my eyes to see that. And I’ve been careful ever since.