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Christiansburg Institute leaves long legacy in cosmetology, and a barbershop

Published: Feb. 5, 2021 at 5:58 PM EST
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NEW RIVER VALLEY, Va. (WDBJ) - We all know a Mr. Johnson. A barber who cuts hair and has been doing so for a long time.

“He been cutting for 60-something years and he been in this area for the majority of the time he been cutting. Being from this area and been cutting for that long— he cut like Michael Vick, he cut a lot of players that’s kind of like huge in the NFL and stuff like that,” said Chaz Fox, an apprentice and barber.

In the Black community, getting a fresh cut or style can hold so much history and so many lessons.

People like Mr. Charles Johnson know this.

His journey started in high school at the Christiansburg Institute.

The institute, known as ‘C-I’ for short, was the first high school in the region created to educate the former slaves. It was founded in 1866 and closed in 1966 due to desegregation.

Today, the institute is a non-profit with a large alumni association that works together to preserve its 100-year legacy of African-American education, Black empowerment, and storytelling.

“I chose barbering. I liked barbering, I liked better than some of the other courses and so that is how I ended up in barbering,” said Charles Johnson, Christiansburg Institute alumni and barbershop owner.

For Johnson, teachers like Mr. Graves and Amanda DeHart taught them everything they needed to know - all the way from cutting to coloring hair.

“And I liked the biology part. I was in biology, too, so barbering came easy to me because of the anatomy of the body,” said Johnson.

He said the school’s barbershop and cosmetology programs were on different floors, but they had one thing in common: keeping their legacy alive.

Clay Adkins and Taylor Bush worked for CI’s Museum and Archives. They helped organize and house the Amanda DeHart collection, but also work to preserve the school’s history.

They keep track of the pages and pages of documents alumni, family and friends of CI give to them.

Like newspaper clippings of when Booker T. Washington visited and became a board member. And graduation certificates of students who’ve come and gone.

“This may have not ever been known about if no one stepped up and said, ‘hey this needs to be recognized us needs to be saved and cherished’,” said Taylor Bush, Christiansburg’s Institute multimedia intern.

There are more than 95,000 entries on the National Historic Places Register and only 2 percent represent African-American or Black experiences in history in the entire United States. And the Christiansburg Institute is one of them.

Which is why Adkins, Bush and the entire CI network work hard to save its history.

“History is powerful and known; once history is very powerful and especially local history it influences our collective identity,” said Clay Adkins, a historian and former Christiansburg Institute intern.

“It can inspire people,” said Adkins.

People like Mr. Johnson, who was inspired by his time at CI, said what he learned at the school helped him get through the Korean War and segregation.

“I went to basic training in Georgia, they looked at my record and saw that I’d been a barber so they’d put me to work as a barber in basic training. I didn’t have to go to training on Saturdays,” said Johnson.

He says what he learned at CI taught him the professionalism he needed to cut hair for cadets at Virginia Tech.

“I was told I could not cut the Black cadets’ hair. So I could only cut their hair before at 8 o’clock or after six, normal hours, so mostly I did that and so that was around ’58,” said Johnson.

But later, he took a risk to integrate barbershops.

“So at around ’61 or ’62 I made an announcement to them, ‘Now on you’ll come in this barbershop at the same hours as everybody else from 8 to 6.’ So they came in and started coming in. I thought I was going to get in trouble for doing that ‘cause I was not supposed to do. That wasn’t my instruction. So they started coming in,” said Johnson.

And no one stopped him. He later opened his own shop in 1974, making him one of the first and most respected barbershop owners in Blacksburg.

“I employed whites, women, and Black men and whomever came up in as long as they had experience,” said Johnson.

Now, after 40 years, he’s the teacher, like Mr. Graves or Ms. DeHart, taking on apprentices like Fox, teaching them the value a of simple haircut and history.

“We forget that it doesn’t have to be a big elaborate act. It can be something small and it can be at home. And I think that’s where the progress. That’s why the work really matters is doing it right here where you are,” said Bush.

Whether at an old school building, or in a barbershop. Even through efforts like grassroots organizing or historic preservation.

“They can keep the trade going,” said Johnson.

And help the legacy live on.

Mr. Johnson’s shop is called Upscale Barber and Salon.

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