“My family was from Rembert’s Hill, close to Union Town. My grandfather farmed cotton and left us 57 acres when he died. My parents left the farm and came to Mobile to get jobs. We started in Orange Grove and moved to Trinity Gardens. We had cows, pigs and goats. They didn’t have lights out there and the streets were dirt and mud. You had to walk through that to catch the bus at Highway 45.
My dad was a construction worker and worked on both tunnels in Mobile. My mom did domestic work. They came home tired, but they had nine kids. They taught us how to cook, clean and do everything. At 17, I had three jobs and was making more money than my dad did. I gave my parents the money to help them pay the bills.
One of my jobs was delivering milk with a white guy who looked out for me. He drove the truck on his route and I walked the bottles to the doors. He bought my breakfast at the restaurant at Smith Bakery every morning. I was the only Black in there, but I was too young to realize I was integrating the place. After breakfast, he dropped me off at Blount High School. I took a shower and put on my school clothes before class. After school, I walked from Blount to Trinity Gardens. That was every bit of six or seven miles. If the train passed, I hopped on it and jumped off about for or five blocks from where I lived. It was a dangerous way to get home.
I didn’t mind working. I started cutting hair and grass when I was 15. I went with my mom to where she worked and cut their yard. Soon, I was cutting the whole street and had a lawn service. I didn’t have any tools, but I used theirs. I started cutting hair and my next oldest brother kept the lawn service going.
Mr. Isaac White opened his barber college on Davis Avenue in 1960. It was the first barber college in the state of Alabama, white or black. I was one of the first students and finished in 1961. I worked at Lafayette Barbershop. We opened Star Barbershop and later opened another barbershop where the Solid Gold club used to be. I’ve been on this Avenue since 1961. I started working here when I was 21 and now I am 80. I have my master’s license and finally got to buy the building I wanted. I am the oldest barber and the only original barber left on The Avenue. The others died.
We were proud to be working on Davis Avenue. The businesses were Black-owned and there were no vacant lots. The food was good and everything was booming. We called it ‘Little New York’ and people from all over came here. When I was at Moody’s Barbershop, it was across the street from the Le Grand motel. It was the only motel in Mobile that allowed Blacks to stay there, no matter how famous they were. I saw some of the biggest stars walking out of the motel and down The Avenue, including Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Little Willie John and Hank Ballard. I got to meet many of them in the barbershop. Some came in just to play checkers and sit around and talk. If I had any foresight, I would have taken pictures.
Babe’s hot dogs were the best hot dogs in town. You got a couple of them for five or ten cents apiece and snuck them in the Lincoln theater. There was a guy called Dead Man who walked the floor. He would yell out, ‘Who is eating those hot dogs?’ Everyone in there was eating a hot dog. It was something.
Next door to my barbershop was Vernon Crawford’s office. He was the first Black to own a law firm and he worked the civil rights cases in Mobile. Many lawyers came out of his office. I was active in the Civil Rights movement in Mobile. We had sit-ins and demonstrations. I was one of the first to integrate the Oyster House on Dauphin Street. We integrated Woolworth’s and Kress too. We tried to get 7-Eleven and the grocery stores to hire a black manager. Delchamps said they would close down before hiring a black manager. They closed down. That surprised me because they were doing a lot in Black business.
The march in Prichard was pretty scary. We were arrested and the Prichard jail cell wasn’t bigger than this barbershop. We marched on Davis Avenue. They locked up 30 to 40 of us overnight. The NAACP bailed us out. People spit on us and called us names. They shot tear gas at us in the paddy wagon. That burned. Our leaders told us not to fight back, but that took a lot of strength. I was hit once by a white policeman while I was working for the dairy. I was there too early. He called me over and slapped me and told me I wasn’t supposed to be there.
The things we went through were frightening, but we stuck our necks out and did what we needed to do. I don’t regret being a part of our everything. If they showed the footage that we had back there, you’d be surprised to see the people who took part in it. Mobile is better than a lot of cities, but you still have some hatred that is covered up. There were things we lost on Davis Avenue with integration, but it was a sacrifice. I did what I did because someone had to do it.
After integration, urban renewal denigrated everything. People started going to the malls and the businesses here went down. It was a struggle, but I always worked and have never been broke a day in my life. My wife died in 2009. We were together for 45 years. My parents taught me good values and I passed them down to my four kids. They all do good. I only have one son and he became one of the best young barbers on The Avenue. I am so proud of him and I have someone to leave this to. I tried to do the right thing, and everything worked out fine.”
This is from an interview with Mr. Robert Rembert for the story “Life on Davis Avenue” that starts running Wednesday in Lagniappe. It is the third part of the series “Buried in Oaklawn.”
There will be more stories from Davis Avenue on Our Southern Souls. Nicknamed The Avenue, it is now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in Mobile