Barbershop launches a political life in NE GSO
The two reporters ‘— one from the black college newspaper and one from the alternative weekly ‘— paid a visit on Sept. 19 to Kut Kreations, the Phillips Avenue barbershop, to get the scoop on Lewis Byers’ run for Greensboro’s District 2 city council seat.
Byers positioned his clippers over the head of his client, a young man named Corey Whitaker, and interrogated him about his political consciousness and personal prospects as the two reporters took notes.
‘“Do you know about the NAACP?’” he asked. ‘“Do you know about other organizations? Do you know about the Elks Lodge? Do you know about your opportunities? Do they teach you about voting?’”
Whitaker scarcely nodded his head, declining to answer.
‘“Yes, I got a platform,’” Byers declared. ‘“It’s a barbershop. I catch them as they come through, one at a time.’”
The 38-year-old Byers is the youngest of a four-person pack of candidates vying for the District 2 seat that Claudette Burroughs-White is vacating. The campaign signs of two of his opponents, Goldie Wells and Ed Whitfield, dot the lawns along Phillips Avenue east of US Highway 29. Wells, a community activist with Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro who led the battle to shut down the White Street landfill, has received the endorsement of Burroughs-White. Whitfield is a veteran activist of the late civil rights period. Though less politically experienced than Wells and Whitfield, candidate Toni Graves Henderson has drawn attention for her willingness to confront drug dealers near her home on Lee Street.
‘“I’m not running against them,’” Byers said. ‘“I’m running for the position. Each one of them is a good candidate. Each one of them has something important to bring to the table.’”
If there is one theme to Byers’ candidacy, it might be that District 2, which lays roughly east of North Church Street and north of East Market Street, is neglected and undervalued by city government.
‘“I’m not a politician,’” he said. ‘“There’s a lot of information we don’t get and a lot of opportunities we don’t have. I’m down here at the bottom. Our people are living it here all the time. We got places over here that are empty. We’ve got a lot of sleeping people that need to wake up.’”
He said he thinks city council meetings are held at hours that are inconvenient for working-class residents, which means that a lot of District 2 constituents end up having decisions made for them without their informed consent.
‘“I see they already have a way to come up and talk at city council meetings,’” he said. ‘“[But] I can’t pop over there at five-thirty. We need to find a better way to get community input.’”
Unifying constituents around shared interests also figured into his barbershop stump speech.
‘“Just to get people more aware about what we need to live in this community, to work in this community, we need to link together,’” he said. ‘“I’d just like everybody to prosper together.’”
He said he feels ambivalent about the idea of investing taxpayer funds on non-essential capital projects downtown, including the International Civil Rights Museum.
‘“If we can rectify the problems then maybe we should put more money into it,’” he says. ‘“With the civil rights museum ‘— I got a limo service that I tried to start. Things just weren’t going right. I’m not putting the money into it anymore.’”
Along with public investment, Byers also called for private investment in District 2, along with the very lending institutions that disburse the capital.
‘“Why not invest in some other parts of the town?’” he asked. ‘“Why can’t we have a bank here?
‘“My platform is to build economic development here, to have more police coming over here and patrolling so they know who they’re targeting,’” he added.As an example, Byers mentioned that a shootout took place in front of a neighboring barbershop and a beauty salon next door to it closed the next day. A nearby restaurant in the area has struggled to stay open because of concerns about crime, he said.
As Byers finished up on Whitaker’s head, 24-year-old Charles Shoffner waited his turn. Shoffner, an employee of Peeler Recreation Center, said: ‘“I’m not real big on the political thing. People need more to do around here. There’s not too much kids can do.’”
In response, Byers quipped: ‘“They can go to church every day of the week for three weeks and never go to the same church twice.’”
But Shoffner’s complaint prompted Byers to suggest that the city bring computers and cameras to local community centers so young people could learn new skills. He rhetorically asked the college newspaper reporter why A&T couldn’t dispatch interns to work in community programs with young people from the neighborhood.
Byers has built up some name recognition and goodwill as the host of a summer community cookout in the neighborhood for the past seven years. In the past, political candidates have used the cookouts as a forum for their electioneering.
At least one aspiring politician, local businesswoman Fatima Hayes, has given her endorsement to Byers. Hayes lost a bid to unseat Burroughs-White in the 2001 general election by a vote of 2,861 to 429.
‘“This is a community-based man,’” said Hayes, who stopped in at Byers barbershop. ‘“I support him one hundred percent.’”
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