A barber's half-century of clipping hair in a changing Baltimore

Fri May 1, 2015 1:52am EDT
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By Emily Flitter

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - The view from Lenny Clay’s barbershop in a neighborhood just west of downtown Baltimore is bleak. Grass grows through the cracks of a broken sidewalk and weeds cover an empty lot where a row house once stood. Sometimes, the teenagers on the street are just talking to their friends; sometimes they’re selling drugs.

"Back in the '60s I couldn't keep the politicians out of here," Clay, now 80, said. "Now none of them will come."

In 1961, when Clay opened Lenny’s House of Naturals in this corner storefront, the neighborhood was busy, bright, full of hard-working black families and black-owned businesses. And Clay’s barbershop was at the center of things. His clients included prominent local and national politicians, the basketball star Earl "the Pearl" Monroe - even Oprah Winfrey, he says, came in for haircuts during the 1970s.

As Clay snipped and trimmed, his clients poured out their problems and talked about the city and about civil rights. In his autobiography, Monroe described Clay as “always there for me,” which was why, when Monroe bought himself a Rolls Royce, he gave his Cadillac Eldorado to Clay.

On Wednesday, visitors who stopped by the shop wanted to talk about the city’s recent unrest and how it was different from the riots that erupted in Baltimore in 1968, following the death of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

"In the '60s, we were fighting for equality," said Sterling Brunson, 50. "Now we're fighting for survival."

To the men who gathered at the House of Naturals Wednesday, the story of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man whose death from injuries he sustained while in police custody, was not surprising. What did surprise them was the intensity of the media attention focused on the violence that shook Baltimore Monday night.

And the men don’t expect the ensuing protests to change much. After all, they noted, the much more widespread unrest in 1968 didn’t lead to long-term improvements in the lives of poor, black families.   Continued...

Lenny Clay is seen at his barber shop in Baltimore, Maryland April 29, 2015. REUTERS/Eric Thayer