The conversation between some of Tacoma’s most well-respected black pastors and an outclassed columnist could have been about haircuts.
Instead, it centered on legacy — and the need to preserve it.
The legacy in question is the one created by Sam and Terry’s Barbershop on Hilltop. Founded in 1958 by Sam Daniels and Larry Terry, it’s the first black-owned barbershop in Tacoma.
It’s also more than that. Over the years, Sam and Terry’s grew into a trusted gathering spot for the black community and a constant amidst years of change and, at times, turmoil on Hilltop.
“So much happened at that shop,” former Tacoma Mayor Harold Moss told News Tribune columnist Larry LaRue in 2013.
That’s why when the Rev. Gregory Christopher, the newly elected president of the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance, learned that Sam and Terry’s might close for good, he felt called — to use vernacular appropriately grounded in faith — to implore the organization he now leads to step up.
Thank heavens it did.
Last week, a sale of the business was finalized, making Tacoma Ministerial Alliance Sam and Terry’s new owner. The hope is to keep the barbershop a part of Hilltop for years to come, while at the same time using profits for good.
The sale was confirmed by Christopher, also the leader of Shiloh Baptist Church on Hilltop, and Damon Daniels, who up until last week was Sam and Terry’s owner.
Damon Daniels, who’s technically the grandson of barbershop patriarch Sam Daniels (though he say she was raised by the man and views him as a father), told me that the he considers the sale a “blessing.”
Damon took over Sam and Terry’s several years ago, he says. Larry Terry passed away in 1995. Sam Daniels, meanwhile, passed away in April 2016, after giving his last haircut at the age of 91.
In recent years, despite the fact that the barbershop has been “a huge part” of his life, running the operation had become a strain, Damon Daniels said.
“I was investing a lot of my personal money into it,” he explained. “It just got to a point where I couldn’t do that anymore. I did think about closing it.”
Luckily, the Ministerial Alliance isn’t going to let that happen.
“We don’t have a whole lot of African American businesses that are still around. And for one like Sam and Terry’s, to lose that, would be like losing a piece of our soul,” said the Rev. Christopher. “And definitely the Hilltop community would have lost a piece of its soul.”
According to Christopher, the driving factor in the Ministerial Alliance’s decision to purchase the business was always the desire to keep it open and “maintain the legacy.” But the opportunity also presents other “benefits,” he says.
For starters, the Ministerial Alliance’s scholarship fund, which awards $500 college scholarships annually to area youth, has struggled over the years, especially after taking financial hits during the Great Recession. Today, anywhere from five to 10 kids receive one annually, Christopher said. If all goes as planned, the profits from Sam and Terry’s will hopefully see that number get back to 20 a year.
Sitting around a table in Christopher’s office at Shiloh Baptist Church this week, other prominent black pastors and members of the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance agreed on the importance of keeping Sam and Terry’s open. Many look back fondly on years of getting haircuts at the barbershop or just stopping in to sit for a while and hear the stories that flowed from the chair and those wielding the clippers.
The Rev. Prentis Johnson of Greater Christ Temple Church recalled a welcoming atmosphere that was ingrained in Tacoma’s black community.
“I grew up in Tacoma, in the Hilltop area. So Sam and Terry’s, when I first came, that’s where I got my first haircut,” Johnson said. “The good thing about it was it was actually African American owned — it was us.”
“I’d go there even when I didn’t get a haircut, just to be in the environment, and know what’s going on.”
The Rev. Arthur Banks of Eastside Baptist Church, meanwhile, noted the business’ perseverance and the message it sent to Tacoma’s black community — especially during a time when black-owned and operated businesses were few and far between.
“I think Sam and Terry’s is one of the only, if not the only, business that has really withstood the storm. When there was gang issues, really bad, Sam and Terry’s was open. When they had the riots up here, Sam and Terry’s was established, and they withstood,” Banks said.
“I think that says to the community that if you keep at it, you can make it.”
For 60 years now, Sam and Terry’s Barbershop has done just that. But the barbershop hasn’t just made it, it’s become an institution. Losing it or seeing the name fade away after all these years would have been a shame, not to mention a disrespect to the original business owners whose names it bears.
So, with news of inevitable change all around us, here’s a nod to the things that were — and the importance of hanging on to the ones that truly matter
Long live Sam and Terry’s.