Friday, April 30, 2010
Goodwin's Spencer Street Barbershop: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too
Growing up, I knew of a certain barbershop in northeast Omaha for one reason and one reason alone, it is where former Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers held court as a barber and firebrand activist. I never drove past Goodwin's Spencer Streeet Barbershop nor walked into it until a few years ago, when I went there to file a story on the special place it holds in the local African-American community beyond the usual gathering and gossip stops that barber and beauty shops serve.
Chambers is one part of the story, but another is the shop's namesake, Dan Goodwin, who in his own way is an activist every inch that Chambers is. When they worked the shop together at the height of the civil rights movement and racial tensions in Omaha, they made a formidable duo of strong, socially conscious black men cutting their way to freedom.
A version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 2006.
Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too
©by Leo Adam Biga
The splintered front window of Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop, 3116 North 24th Street, might as well read: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too. Amid all the jive, the shop’s a forum for street-wise straight talk, scholarly debate, potent ideology and down home lessons from its owner and master barber, Dan Goodwin, and the gallery of young fellas and Old Gs (old guys) that hang there.
That was never more true than during the Black Power movement and Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s and ‘70s. That’s when the Spencer was a must-stop for anyone partaking in the vital brew of philosophy, polemic, dialectic and rhetoric coursing through black America. The “star” attraction was a then-young Ernie Chambers, the barber-provocateur-activist turned-politician. Between razor cuts, relaxers and jeri curls, he and Goodwin made like Malcolm and Langston, interpreting the times in an eloquent spoken word style that was part call-and-response sermon and part lecture. They were variously protagonists or antagonists. The customers and curious onlookers, their disciples or students or foils.
“It was like open line every day of the week down there,” said Omaha photojournalist Rudy Smith. “All the conversation topics were about relevant things that were not talked about on radio/TV or written about in newspapers or discussed in school. Whenever you went there you were always intellectually challenged and stimulated.
“People would always bring in books and articles and things, and they would read them there and discuss them. Sometimes, people would come there and not even get their hair cut. They’d just come to listen. Others would come just to vent.”
“You’d go at ten in the morning and you may not leave until two or three in the afternoon. You’d sit around and listen to a lot of positive things,” Omahan Richard Nared said. “You’d go and get a lot of ‘mother wit’ (knowledge).”
Things could get intense. Smith said Goodwin, Chambers and company “could be confrontational. Sometimes they’d take the opposite position just to stimulate your thinking and to broaden your perspective. But it wasn’t meant to destroy you -- it was meant to strengthen you. Now, I didn’t always agree with ‘em, but I didn’t always oppose ‘em either. I enjoyed it and other people did, too.”
Smith said “the salient” subjects batted around included “Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Hughie Newton, racism, economic development, the lack of black teachers in the public school system, housing discrimination, police violence” and any “issues relating to our people.”
Memories of Vivian Strong and other victims of police gunfire still elicit strong responses. Goodwin refers to the 1969 fatal shooting of the 14-year-old Strong as “murder.” The incident ignited disturbances that he said were branded a riot.
Unlike some leaders who’ve done more reading about The Struggle than living it, Goodwin speaks from the harsh experience of a man who’s encountered his share of police harassment and brutality, including the cold hard steel of a double barrel shot gun pressed to his temple and the butt of that same gun jammed into his gut. He’s been rousted and arrested for “driving while black.”
His social consciousness was stirred in the U.S. Navy. He left Tech High at age 17 to enlist. “It was a good experience. But I went through a lot in the military. I went through boot camp with only one other black in my company. In the tent I was in in the Philippines, I was the only black. I’d hear things. I didn’t start nothin’, but I wouldn’t take nothin’. Every time I had a fight, they thought they could just say anything -- the ‘n’ word, you name it -- and I didn’t take it. But, you know what, it wasn’t that I was tough. I was dealing with cowards and they weren’t looking for much of a reaction. I must admit sometimes after I finished off one of those people, the other Caucasians would say, ‘Man, he had it coming.’”
Back home, he hit the streets protesting injustice as a member of the 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties). Unlike other organizations here reluctant “to confront” the system, the 4CL “believed in going out and demonstrating. It was an action group,” he said. “We integrated different places and we petitioned for jobs and open housing. We marched on city hall. We did things like this that brought about some changes. We were considered troublemakers and that’s what it takes to get the changes.”
He marched on Washington in 1963, a witness to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He helped sponsor a 1964 Omaha speaking appearance by Malcolm X, a personal favorite whom he met. In 1996, Goodwin got on the bus and went to Washington again for the Million Man March.
Over the years, he’s filed complaints about police misconduct and other improper behavior directed at him and his people, making enemies along the way. All that’s bound up in him and in his shop is symbolized in the cracked glass out front he’s never fixed. Bullets hit it one night years ago. It’s a reminder of past incidents. Once, he got an anonymous call saying cops shot out the window at his old place. A warning to tone it down and to play like Uncle Tom. For many, the broken glass at the present site symbolizes hostility toward blacks. It’s also a defiant proclamation that Goodwin will not be intimidated or silenced or run off.
“I can handle anything that comes down,” Goodwin said.
As a visceral reminder of that resolve, he’s made the shop a fertile ground for developing not just the mind, but the body, too. The muscular Chambers introduced weight training there. Goodwin started lifting at age 40. With a ripped body that testifies to his dedication, Goodwin has in recent years become a world-class power lifter in the masters division. He’ll wear you out in the makeshift gym he has in a corner of the shop or wear you down with his treatise-like arguments. Some of the trophies, plaques and ribbons he's won take up one side of the shop, whose walls are filled with clippings/photos of some of the sports greats to get their hair cut there (Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Sayers, Ron Boone, Johnny Rodgers, etc.).
Along with the Fair Deal Cafe, the shop was the place to be for any politically aware person interested in serious dialogue about the black experience.
If you were a Black Muslim or Panther or garden variety activist, then you went there to hear the latest thinking. Whether you supported Malcolm or Martin, read Cleaver or Chrisman and marched in step with the NAACP or the Urban League, you were ripe for the Spencer Street indoctrination.
“Dan Goodwin and Ernie Chambers had a great influence on us. They made sure we were accountable. They had high standards for us,” said Frank Peak, a former Black Panther member in Omaha. “They were mentors.”
If you were a minister, you’d better go prepared to recite the Bible chapter and verse or defend your theology. If an elected official or a candidate seeking the black vote, you tested the waters there.
If you were an idealistic white student or adult civil rights sympathizer, you came as an acolyte to learn at the feet of the black men who, by virtue of the oppression they endured and resisted, earned the right to hold court there.
If you were a reporter looking to measure the pulse of the community, you no sooner flipped open a note pad or switched on a tape recorder then you got more than you bargained for in the way of unvarnished views.
“It wasn’t always serious, now,” Smith said. “There was a lot of laughter. And sometimes people laughed to keep from crying.”
Nothing much has changed. The same issues persist, only the incendiary talk has been somewhat muted and the rallies that got their start there have been relegated to the history books except for an occasional revival.
At age 77 Goodwin commands respect from young and old alike for still being a relevant spokesman and soul brother.
“He’s like the father of this barbershop,” customer Charles Taylor said. “I’ve noticed a lot of the young men that come in here refer to him as Mr. Goodwin. That shows respect.”
Goodwin’s not lost the fervor to fight injustice or to do the right thing. But there is an edge of resignation in his words and in his voice today. Chalk it up to all the shit he’s seen go down from his perch on North 24th, where the promise of a better tomorrow hasn’t been realized the way he hoped.
“I feel a lot of frustration. I was naive enough to believe that by now it would be different for our youngsters,” he said. “Racism is everywhere. It’s just a little more sophisticated now, that’s all.”
His vintage red brick building, only a stone’s throw from Lothrop Magnet Center, Littlefield’s Beautyrama and Church of Jesus Christ Whole Truth, is a symbol for the once teeming area gone to seed. The upper floor windows are boarded up. On the north wall, a faded advertisement for “Uneda Biscuits, 5¢,” faces a vacant lot upon which other buildings and businesses once stood. The south wall is awash in a celebratory mural portraying “the way things used to be,” said Goodwin. The mural depicts a parade in which young people hold a banner that exclaims, “Beating the Path to Freedom,” something he’s invested the better part of his life doing.
It hurts him to see his community a shadow of its once vibrant self and to be still embroiled in the quest for equal rights, yet unable, in this era of divided ranks, to marshal the support a systemic movement takes.
“I think this community like all communities in the inner city in America has big problems and the problems are even bigger now than they have been. Schools are in trouble. The job situation is bad. Drugs. There are so many things plaguing us now. It’s really interfered with what we called The Struggle. In my judgment, were a lot more fragmented today, to the point where we can’t come together to bring about real change. I miss the unity and the organization -- when people were more focused on trying to bring about improvements. A lot of our young people are not even enlightened about the things we did struggle to try to change. I don’t feel real good about it sometimes, but you can’t put up your hands. You just do what you can and keep pushing.”
He rues the loss of moral constraints that allows, as he sees it: an unjust war to continue; elected leaders to lie; war profiteers to flourish; corporate execs to cheat; celebrities to set an indecent example; and drugs and gangs to proliferate.
“There used to be rules. Nobody was perfect, but at least we knew right from wrong. There were certain lines you wouldn’t cross. Now, there’s no line. The message now is, Whatever you want to do, it’s OK. It’s out there. It’s a whole different culture, the drug and gang culture. I don’t blame kids. I blame my generation. We allowed the rule book to get thrown out. And I’m not a fool or anything. I’m not even into religion. I’m into right. I’ll believe in right till I die.”
He sees a corrupt ruling class setting a precedent of greed and malice that only serves to widen the gap between the haves and have nots and to reaffirm the anything-goes mantra.
“Too many people can’t see past what’s happening to them right now. They don’t look at the consequences of what they’re doing today,” he said. “There was a time when you really felt like there were people that really wanted to see some things different. But there just wasn’t enough people that wanted to see the right kind of change. Now we’ve reached a time when liberal has been turned into a dirty word and decent people run from it. That says a lot about this country. I don’t feel good about that or the fact black people get done in just for telling the truth.”
Lively discourse has always been part of the scene at the Spencer Street, but was at its peak when Goodwin took on Ernie Chambers, a loquacious minister’s son and law graduate who used his barber chair as a lectern. Chambers proffered doctrine there from the mid-'60s through the early '90s, a period that saw him build a constituency, first as a grassroots leader, and then as a state senator (District 11). He was the only black in the Nebraska Legislature during the entire four-decades he served as a member of that conservative, otherwise lilly-white body.
Chambers came to the shop after being fired from the U.S. Postal Service. The then-Creighton Law student was an outspoken activist. It was a perfect match.
In Goodwin, Chambers found a kindred spirit. “I liked the kind of person he was. We got along very well. He’s true to his beliefs. He rented me a chair and I stayed there for years and years,” Chambers said. In Chambers, Goodwin found “a young man who could articulate like nobody I’ve ever known. He always had answers. He did his homework. He knew what he was doing and saying. People were really impressed with him. And we communicated real good. We were really seeing things so much alike.” Not that they didn’t disagree. “Oh, we used to argue nose to nose. We had some good ones,” Goodwin said.
“It just so happened Ernie fit in with the atmosphere and then he began to exert himself,” Rudy Smith said. “I think the shop gave Ernie a platform to grow, as it did a lot of other people.”
They made a formidable team. Their give and take, something to behold. They were arrested together. They traveled together when Chambers made lecture stops.
“As Ernie grew, so did Dan,” Smith said. “Dan wasn’t an intellectual, but he became that as he expanded his knowledge and his sphere of understanding issues socially, politically, psychologically. Ernie spearheaded that. He’d stimulate him.”
“Dan didn’t go to college, but whatever conversation came up he could talk about it. No matter where he goes, people stop and talk to him” Richard Nared said.
The pair’s persuasive powers are immortalized in the 1967 Oscar-nominated documentary A Time for Burning. The film filters the era’s militancy through the charismatic figure of Chambers, who’s captured, alongside Goodwin, eloquently making points in the manner that made the shop a hotbed of impassioned ideas. Amid sports memorabilia on the walls were images/articles/cartoons that graphically illustrated the opression blacks lived under. An in-your-face reminder to pale-faced do-gooders of what The Struggle was all about.
“A lot of people came down to this barbershop to hear him speak to the problems. To be honest, a lot of people feared him because he spoke out so strong. He’s tough. Even now, he asks no quarters and he gives no quarters. He says what he wants to say and he’ll say it the way he wants to say it,” Goodwin said.
“A lot of people came to talk to me to discuss issues and it was a place where others would meet when they wanted to talk and just speak freely about what was on their mind. It was like a gathering place,” Chambers said.
Roger Sayers of Omaha said the shop was “kind of the northside human relations department for folks who felt their rights were being trampled on by the police or the school board or the city. If Dan and Ernie thought you had a case, they would try to help you resolve the problem with a letter or a referral or a phone call.”
Richard Nared said the duo were among the cooler heads to prevail at a time when agitators interpreted “by any means necessary” as a call to violence. “A lot of things happened in north Omaha,” Nared said. “People would come in and talk to them about wanting to hurt somebody that’d messed them over. ‘Man, I ought to go kill him.’ Well, Dan and Ernie would say, ‘Hey, man, do what you’re supposed to do, and walk away. It’s not that serious. Life is too short to get hung up on some petty mess. It’s not worth it. You’ll end up two ways -- in jail or dead.’ I feel to this day Ernie and Dan were a big factor in keeping the peace.”
Even though Chambers long ago left his barber chair, the two men remain close. “We talk all the time,” Goodwin said. “He’s a great influence. I’m just impressed with his brilliance. So, it’s friendship and mutual respect.”
He loathes the possibility of Chambers being forced out of office by term limits. “It’ll be a big void. Nobody’s more committed. His whole life is what he does in the legislature. I mean, everyday he’s working on something involving the people.”
As much as Goodwin’s been influenced by Chambers, he’s his own man.
Goodwin set the agenda for the shop and made it into what Smith calls an “institution of higher learning.” “That’s exactly what it was,” Smith said. “It fostered an arena of ideas. It’s still going on -- without fail. The barbers there were all like teachers and professors and in many ways they were more articulate in espousing their points of views. I was stimulated more sometimes in the barbershop than I was in college. It’s the only barbershop of it’s kind. It should be on the national historic registry.”
Goodwin’s much admired for remaining in the community, where he and his shop provide stability and continuity. “And especially when he continues to grow personally and intellectually,” Chambers said. “It lets people know that not everybody who could go someplace else is going to do that. This is home and this is where we stay. People do need to see that, especially the young ones. When they can see people (like Goodwin) who are in a position where they don’t have to hang around, but they choose to, that lets them know there’s something of value in our community and a benefit to staying here.”
For Goodwin, staying put is a matter of “this is where I feel comfortable. I don’t even consider retiring. I’m doing what I like. I’m doing what takes care of me. It’s mine.” There’s no chance he’ll mellow. “I don’t believe in turning the other cheek. I do believe in non-violence. But the truth is the truth. I have to tell it like it is.”