From the Ohio Historical Society Blog
The Best Barber in America: George A. Myers
by David Simmons, TIMELINE editor
Even after his death in 1865, Abraham Lincoln cast a long shadow over the Republican Party. The “party of Lincoln” held the near-universal allegiance of African Americans as the nineteenth century drew to a close and a new century dawned. George A. Myers was a black barber from Cleveland during this era whose counsel was sought by both state and national party leaders. Cleveland scholar John Vacha told his story with “The Best Barber in America” article that appeared in the January 2000 issue of TIMELINE.
Near the end of his life, George Myers drafted a set of recommendations for the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce on improving black conditions in the city. High on his list were issues related to equal pay and segregation as well as giving the race proper recognition “in all public affairs.”
Myers was a native of Baltimore, where his father worked as a shipyard caulker and became the president of the black wing of a national labor union. After finishing high school, Myers was denied entrance into the city college because of his race, and he was forced to learn the barber trade. He moved to Cleveland in 1879 and was soon the foreman of the barbershop in the Weddell House, one of the city’s most prominent hotels. Here he first became acquainted with many of the Forest City’s leading white businessmen. Impressed with his tonsorial skills, a group of these men fronted Myers the money to establish his own shop at the Hollenden Hotel when it opened on Public Square in 1885.
Decorations on the storefront of George A. Myers’s barbershop in the Hollenden Hotel in Cleveland made clear his unwavering support of the Republican Party during the 1896 presidential campaign. Myers (second from right) proudly joined his staff on the sidewalk.
The Hollenden was celebrated for its modern and lavish appointments, including electric lights, and it
quickly became a meeting place for the city’s elite. Myer’s barbershop was in an ideal location, and no fewer than eight presidents and luminaries such as Mark Twin took turns in his chair. It became a “mark of distinction” to have a personal shaving mug on Myers’s own rack. Perhaps most important among those who did was Mark Alonzo Hanna, the shipping and street railway magnate who managed the gubernatorial and presidential campaigns of William McKinley Jr. Myers affectionately dubbed him “Uncle Mark.”
Myers was soon involved in Republican politics, or “the game” as he referred to it. Named a delegate to the 1891 state Republican convention, he helped nominate McKinley to the governor’s office and later worked on his presidential bids in 1892 (failed) and 1896 and 1900 (successful). The barber’s organization of black delegates for McKinley was not limited to Ohio, and he performed similar services in Louisiana and Mississippi. Hanna installed Myers on the state executive committee for the party, where the barber worked to integrate African Americans into the Hanna political machine. In that role, he became the Ohio’s leading politician of his race and a force to be reckoned with in Ohio GOP politics.
With McKinley’s death in 1901 and then Hanna’s in 1904, Myers’s interest in politics waned, and he devoted his attention to improving his barber business. Among the innovations he instituted was telephone service at each of his chairs.
While his influence had diminished, he continued to work behind the scenes as an advocate for equality in wages for African Americans and by denouncing all forms of segregation. He strove to prevent the establishment of a separate city hospital in the 1920s and fought to get equal access for blacks to the city’s hospital facilities and equal employment opportunities for black interns and nurses. City council finally opened the hospital to both in 1930.
When he learned that the Hollenden owner planned to replace his all-black staff with white barbers upon his retirement, Myers remained as the head of his shop even after developing serious health problems. When, on January 17, 1930, he could no longer avoid the inevitable, he worked in the morning and told his staff that he had some important things to discuss with them after lunch. While out, as he purchased a ticket for a southern rest-cure trip, he collapsed and died of heart failure. The strain of finally having to lay his staff off had been too much. George A. Myers was 70 years old.