James G. Coleman, founder of Coleman Bros. Barbershop at 68th and Stony Island, has died at 88 years old.
Coleman, along with his younger brother Richard Coleman, opened the South Side barbershop 56 years ago.
Richard died two years ago.
“People from all walks of life have been in that barbershop,” said Wheeler Coleman, James Coleman’s son.
“Muhammad Ali, Elijah Muhammad, Minister Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, all kinds of politicians, lawyers and doctors as well as the common man,” he said.
“We believe today that it is the longest-licensed barbershop in the city of Chicago,” he said, though the claim hasn’t yet been substantiated.
Coleman was part of the Great Migration that saw an estimated 6 million African-Americans pick up and leave the South in search of better opportunities.
“My dad grew up in Elba, Alabama, a one stop sign town in a family of 8 boys and one girl. His daddy was a sharecropper and also owned a funeral home and church. My father worked in the funeral home until he migrated to Chicago to seek a better life,” Wheeler Coleman said.
His father got his barber’s license in 1952 and opened up the barbershop 10 years later with his younger brother, Richard.
“Both of them were cutting hair in the same shop together for over 50 years,” Wheeler noted.
Along the way, James Coleman and his late wife, Marie Gray, had six children: Carl Coleman, Paulette Coleman, Deborah Coleman-Givens, Barbara Coleman, Wheeler Coleman and Cynthia Mitchell.
The Coleman brothers survived the riots of the ’60s by “paying protection” money so their shop wouldn’t be burned down or broken into.
They also survived the transition of the entire neighborhood.
“I’ve been going to that barbershop for over 20 years. It is your neighborhood barbershop, nothing fancy,” said Richard Steele, retired host of “The Barbershop Show,” on Vocalo and WBEZ public radio.
Even though the conversations about sports could get heated, Coleman always insisted “respect for the ladies” in the shop and cursing wasn’t allowed, Steele said.
“People in the neighborhood looked at Mr. Coleman as the ultimate ‘father figure.’ A lot of the young men who got their first haircut from Coleman went on to become college and professional athletes,” Steele said.
During the height of the Bulls’ popularity, the Coleman Brothers Barbershop was a segment on NPR’s “This American Life,” titled “Bulls in the Barbershop.”
Coleman also joined forces with Dr. Terry Mason, chief operating officer at the Cook County Department of Public Health, on a program to encourage black men to get prostate screenings.
“In the black community, African-American men get a lot of advice from barbers. My father was more than a guy that would cut your hair every week. He was a trusted adviser,” Wheeler noted.
Despite his advanced age, James Coleman remained active until the end. He died on Thursday.
“Two days before [James] passed away, he was still cutting hair,” Steele said.
Wheeler Coleman said there’s been an outpouring of condolences.
“One of his customers came in the barbershop and said: ‘Because of your dad, I was able to clean up my life out on the streets. That is why I have a steady job,’ ” Wheeler said the customer told him.
Although James Coleman was a big football fan, his favorite thing to do was always cutting hair and interacting with people in the community, Wheeler said.
“He is what I would call a master barber. That was his life. He was still driving. Still giving a straight razor line,” he said with a chuckle. “He has been the pillar in this community. No question about that. That barbershop was his life.”
A viewing will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesday, May 9 at Leak & Sons Funeral Homes, 7838 S. Cottage Grove. On Thursday, funeral services are at Trinity United Church of Christ, 400 95th St., with a wake from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., and funeral service from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.