Herman “Smitty” Smith arrived in Falls Church in 1964 when haircuts cost $1, and he has cut hair inside 303 Douglass Ave. ever since.
Back then, he said, the area was sprawling with black families.
Smith, 72, came to the area for another job and to check on his sister who lived nearby, when a friend of his sister suggested the one time United States Navy barber take his talents to an area shop. The shop Smith took a chance on almost 50 years ago now bares his name, “Smitty’s Unisex Barbershop.”
“I’ve been working here since 1964 but I took over in 1986,” Smith said.
Constructed in 1959 as a barbershop by Dr. Harold Johnson, the shop has served as a meeting place in the black community. Smith said Johnson built the shop, which has a neighboring beauty salon for women, because there were no other local places blacks could go for their beauty needs.
Local historian and president of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation Edwin Henderson said Johnson was a black doctor and professor at Georgetown University’s medical school. Henderson said Johnson was also the first black doctor allowed to practice medicine at Arlington Hospital.
Flyers on the windows of the barbershop serve as a reference to what’s going on in the community and Wednesday’s conversation spanned from sports to current events and ended up with a “back in the day,” reference. That portion of the conversation focused on ways of discipline ranging from a switch off the bush out front to a leather belt.
Renard Williams, who has cut hair at Smitty’s for more than 30 years, said the shop is “more like Mayberry.” When Williams first arrived at the Falls Church barbershop, he said the area was slower and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to stay. One man at the shop, he said, told him stay and stick it out.
“Everyone knew everyone,” Williams said. “There’s history here. You get to tell the younger guys what they don’t know and tell them what you do know.”
Since joining the barber lineup at the shop about 16 years ago, Eric Williams has heard all kinds of stories about how things used to be and how they are now. He has heard the stories of the different celebrities that have come through the door like Washington Redskins greats Doug Williams, Art Monk and Gary Clark. Williams said he still cuts Clark’s hair from time to time when he comes in.
“The shop serves as a pipeline to the community,” he said. “People come here and their families grow up here.”
As the years have gone by, so have some of Smith’s customers. He said he still has a few customers left and hopes to someday pass the shop onto someone younger. Smith said he hopes to be able to walk away from the barbershop in about a year.
“We had a lot of people come through that door,” Smith said. “I would like someone to continue it on.”
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