Boston Globe Feature, 1998

Boston Globe Feature, 1998

Ericka Lawson | October 7th, 2022


Businessmen and cops, young men and old-timers, people awaiting a trim and people just hanging out -- they sit in vinyl-covered chairs, watch TV, gossip amid the fragrances of bay rum and Clubman lotion in the Lawson brothers' barbershops.

Freshly buzz-cut little boys dart about, poking impertinent questions into big people's conversations. Outside, traffic bustles through the city's neighborhood centers: Mattapan Square, Egleston Square, Tremont Street in the South End, Washington Street in Dorchester, Dot Ave., and Gallivan Boulevard -- each is home to a Lawson brother's barbershop.

The Lawsons grew up sharecroppers, sweating in the North Carolina tobacco fields, looking for a way out. "It wasn't that we were doing badly," says Henry, the eldest at 67. "We just saw farming was going to be so slow. We talked it over and decided to get out ahead of time."

Then Herman, the second-oldest, got his idea, and the brothers embarked on a course that would make them building blocks of Boston's urban renaissance. As commerce returns to some long-neglected corners of the city, the Lawson brothers' shops serve as landmarks and meeting places.

"I got my hair cut in the barbershop [in Carolina], and I watched real closely what he did," Herman says. "I believed I could cut hair, and one day I asked the boss man if he would bring me back a pair of clippers from town. Maybe, if he'd have known what was going to progress, he wouldn't have.

"People saw I cut my brothers' hair and it looked good, and folks started coming to the house on Saturday -- 50 cents a head. I set up a little barbershop in the house, and people started coming during the week."

The income was welcome in the three-room house in the fields, where six Lawson brothers and six sisters lived with their mother. Their father's death in 1945 had led the landlord to cut back their allotted acreage, and had ended the meager formal education that Herman and Henry had been receiving.

On a 1957 visit with an uncle in Boston, Herman decided to enter barber school here. Once again, "we sat down and talked it out," Henry says, "and we all decided to go for the same thing."

All six Lawsons initially worked as orderlies at the old Boston City Hospital. There was some wavering over whether to enter the barbering business, but Herman wasn't about to tolerate that.

Thurman, the third brother, "didn't want to give up his good times" for the grind of simultaneous work and school, Herman says. "He said, I don't have tools.' I said,I've got extra tools.' He said, I don't have money.' I said,I've got some.' I just pushed him in."

Henry and Sam were next, and Willard and Robert came along after they finished high school. Herman's first barbering job was in John Tracey's shop at 626 Shawmut Ave. When Tracey's health failed, Herman bought him out and al six brothers cut hair there.

But they quickly discovered that "the only way you can really do well is to have your own shop," Herman says.

In 1965, their labors produced a bumper crop. Pontiacs, to be precise. Every Lawson got a new Pontiac that year -- convertibles for Henry, Herman, and Thurman, hardtops for the rest. They were on their way as small businessmen and homeowners. For over two decades, as Boston's neighborhoods lost people and businesses, the Lawsons hung in.

The worst time, business-wise, came in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "Things were pretty rough, and then business kind of dropped when Afros came out," says Thurman, 62, whose shop is on Blue Hill Avenue across from St. Angela's Church, on the doorstep of Mattapan Square. Today's Afro is highly trimmed and edged, but in the early 1970s people let their hair grow and did their own teasing and shaping.

"We just had to open on time, work hard, and treat the customers’ right. Some of the shops did better than others, and the ones that were doing better moved right in and helped the others out."

When stability and a measure of prosperity began to return to the urban core, the Lawsons were prepared to capitalize. All own their own homes now; most own their own businesses. Some, like the youngest brother Robert in Egleston Square, are among the most senior and prosperous merchants in their neighborhoods.

"I like church. I believe in God," says Robert, who attends New Fellowship Baptist Church near Franklin Park. "There's people who got where they're at with drugs or gambling. All this I got, I stood behind that chair and did it."

Despite some incidents that have given Boston a bad name in race relations during the Lawsons' time here, the brothers have found the city a friendly, pleasant place.

"It's beautiful here. I find it better than down home," Henry says. "I think it's very friendly. We all love Boston. We never looked back."

The brothers don't pretend that race is not an issue, but, Henry says, "We know there is racial stuff everywhere -- white on black, black on black. You got to remember to love yourself, and know that everyone loves a winner. So figure out how to be defined that way, and you should be satisfied."

As Henry explains that outlook on a slow, rainy Tremont Street morning, Kenyatta Malone, 25, sits in one of the barber's chairs, leaning forward, forearms on his knees, nodding agreement. He came to Boston from Virginia early this year to learn in grandpa Henry's school of life.

"Yes, there's a lot of nationalities here," he says, "and that's going to be hard to deal with. But you can't let that stop you.

"I'm proud of my grandfather," Kenyatta says. "He works hard, he's pure -- he doesn't drink or smoke. He's a good man, a tough man. This man and my uncles teach me a lot. How to make it the right way: You got to get up. You got to work hard. You got to be hungry for it."

The Boston Globe Author(s): Charles A. Radin, Globe Staff    Date: September 1, 1998 Page: B1 Section: Metro