Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2018/Fall/Section 3/Ned Davis


Nathaniel Davis, also known as Ned Davis, was an African-American barber based in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was interviewed for the Federal Writers' Project by Cora Bennett in 1939.[1]

Ned Davis
BornNathaniel Delano Davis
August 13, 1897
Hartsville, South Carolina, U.S.
DiedJanuary 24, 1963 (aged 65)
Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S.
Cause of deathCerebral thrombosis
OccupationFarmer, Chauffeur, Barber
SpouseOra Lee Springs
Mildred Kennedy
ParentsCharles Davis
Klara Cuffie
Arthur Anderson Barbershop Which Only Served White Customers ca. 1920


Early LifeEdit

Davis was born on August 13, 1897 in Hartsville, South Carolina. Following the deaths of his brother and mother, he was raised as an only child by his father, who was a sharecropper and farmer. [2] He attended school until the third grade, where he began working as a babysitter for a Caucasian family and received meals as compensation.[3] As a teenager, he was hired as a caretaker for a separate family. Through this experience, Davis learned the basics of business. The family were farmers that lent cows to tenants, and on one occasion, Davis was able to retrieve a cow after a particular holder didn’t pay their mortgage.[4]

Adult LifeEdit

Ned Davis cycled through many jobs as an adult. It ranged from construction work to cooking.[5] As a cook, Davis met his first wife, Ora Lee Springs, who was a servant for the same family he was hired under.[6] After losing his job, the couple moved to West Virginia where he worked as a waiter and his wife took classes in Beauty Culture.[7] However, after the birth of her second child, she became bedridden resulting in a financial struggle in the Davis family. Davis's wife would confide in him about the classes she took at Beauty School, and how she wished she was able to become a beautician.[8] As a result, he began experimenting with herbs his step-mother previously used to create her own grease products.[9] Unexpectedly, his wife died, leaving Davis with two children to raise on his own.[10]

Davis remarried six weeks after the death of his first wife, to Mildred Kennedy, and moved to Charlotte. His investment in the hair industry became prominent, as he obtained a patent for his hair product and began selling it to local communities.[11]

Gypsy Beauty ShopsEdit

After Davis's creation of his own hair product line, he opened his first barbershop in Gastonia, North Carolina. Lacking the proper equipment to professionally wash and take care of hair, Davis took it upon himself to create his own, including using a five-pound keg as a hair washing basin. He gained popularity through several strategies, including attending public events to distribute hair product samples and learning how to create hairstyles based off popular hair trends at the time. [12]

Seven salons were open under Davis in 1939, referred to as the Gypsy Beauty Salon Shops. He also opened the first Negro Beauty School where approximately one hundred students attended and earned certificates in the beauty industry.[13]


Davis died aged 65 due to cerebral thrombosis. He died at Good Samaritan Hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina on January 24, 1963.[14]

Social IssuesEdit

Entrepreneurship Among African-AmericansEdit

As a result of the Great Depression, many black people became "survivalist entrepreneurs," a term used to describe people that “start small businesses to find an independent means of livelihood.”[15] In 1890 to 1940, barbers and hairdressers were some of the most popular entrepreneurship jobs in Black businesses, retailers being the second most popular job.[16] Exclusion from employment due to segregation was a driving factor of African-Americans creating their own source of incomes.[17] Black unemployment rates were as high as fifty percent in metropolitan areas, and in 1935, over 25 percent of all African-Americans were on welfare.[18] Black-owned barbershops were also created due to White people’s refusal to provide such services to African-Americans as a result of segregation in the 1900’s.[19] Thus, African-Americans created a space for them to receive efficient grooming by fellow black people. Lack of education for working class jobs may have also caused black people to create businesses, as public schools were segregated to accommodate white children while providing less emphasis on black children. This pattern was especially seen in the South, who was slow to build their public education systems in comparison to the North. Revisions to white public schools were made, though little-to-no revisions were made to black public schools.[20]

Barbershops in the 20th CenturyEdit

Barbershops were catered towards white people in the 1900's. Popular African-American barbers denied cutting black people's hair, as middle-class white customers would likely turn away shops that used their tools on a black man. Although black barbers likely knew how to style kinky hairstyles, they refused to do so.[21] Favoring Caucasian customers allowed African-Americans to "capitaliz[e] on the racial stigmas of barbering to achieve class mobility and yet staying connected to black communities."[22] Profit was maximized with white customers, allowing black barbers to maintain a steady income and increase their socio-economic status. Welcoming black customers would solely hurt business and thus hurt the income of barbers in that barbershop. White people were also able to less directly maintain the “master-slave” relationship with black people in a “patron-client” relationship post-slavery. Barbershops became a public space for the white elite, black people grooming white middle-class customers and catering to them, a similar pattern seen before the abolishment of slavery at the end of the Civil War.[23] Particularly in the South, few white people were barbers since it was seen as a service job intended for African Americans. Thus, they enjoyed being serviced by black people, allowing them to maintain an indirect power over them, and benefiting white people by maintaining their role as superior.[24]

  1. Interview, May 3, 1939, folder 293, Coll. 03709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/03709/id/681
  2. Ibid., 3.
  3. Ibid., 4.
  4. Ibid., 5.
  5. Ibid., 6.
  6. Ibid., 7.
  7. Ibid., 10.
  8. Ibid., 11.
  9. Ibid., 3.
  10. Ibid., 11.
  11. Ibid., 12.
  12. Ibid., 14.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Nathaniel Davis, “North Carolina Death Certificates” (North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina).
  15. Robert L. Boyd, “Survivalist Entrepreneurship among Urban Blacks during the Great Depression,” Social Science Quarterly (Unviersity of Texas Press) 81, no. 4 (2000 December): 974 accessed October 1, 2018, https://auth.lib.unc.edu/ezproxypass:[_]auth.php?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=4100141&site=ehost-live&scope=site
  16. Ibid., 975.
  17. Ibid., 983.
  18. “No Jobs for Niggers Until Every White Man Has a Job,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Winter 2008-2009, accessed October 2, 2018, http://bsc.chadwyck.com/search/proxyProquestPDF.do?PQID=1660308281&collectionsTag=&format=&fromPage=
  19. Boyd, “Survivalist Entrepreneurship among Urban Blacks during the Great Depression,” 975.
  20. Diane Ravitch, “A Different Kind of Education for Black Children,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education no. 30 (2000-2001): 98, accessed October 1, 2018, 10.2307/2679111
  21. Quincy Terrell Mills. “‘Color-Line’ Barbers and the Emergence of a Black Public Space.” The University of Chicago no. 3240112 (2006): 75, accessed October 1, 2018, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/304952142?accountid=14244
  22. Ibid., 78.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 80.