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Robert Gaston


Robert Gaston grew up in Clinton, Illinois and lived most of his life in Bloomington. He worked in factories as they began to offer employment opportunities to African-Americans. Dissatisfied with the pace of things, Mr. Gaston took the opportunity to establish his own barbershop, called the Upper Cut. For many years he was an observer and a participant in the economic activities of downtown Bloomington.

Tape 1

Date: February 28, 1986

Side A
RGYou might verify it by going up to the county courthouse and checking out that name. He was a property owner there at one time. Now how much property he owned out there, I really don't know.
MPMike Huggins?
?Today is February 28, 1986, and we are interviewing Mr. Robert Gaston.
RGNow you want to know about Ike Huggins again.
MPIke Huggins. You started telling me about him.
RGMr. Ike Huggins was an old-timer. He rode around in a horse and wagon. When I first remember him as a child, he used to ride a horse and wagon, and everybody in town knew him, Black and white, and he would come out every evening in his wagon. And he would come downtown and go behind all of the stores and collect their garbage, I guess, or whatever he wanted to out of the garbage can. After then he would head back home. Sometimes he would be so drunk, he wouldn't know how to get there, but his horse knew how to get there. His horse would take him home. He was one of the jolliest, pleasantest people that I have ever knew in my life. Everybody just loved the man. He was just a real nice man. He owned a lot of property out there out around Miller Park, overlooking the lake out there. Now, how much of that property he owned and where it went to after he died nobody knows because I don't think he had any relatives around here. The same thing with to his sister down in Clinton. When she died, we knew where her property went. Her lawyer got it all. That was some prime property right there on the square in Clinton, Illinois. The highest stuff in town. That's all I can tell you about him.
MPI guess we could check the records and find out what happened to the property, right?
RGI'm sure you can.
MPYou don't know how they happened to come to this area?
RGWell, I heard the story that-you know they were light-skinned people. I heard that they came here with a bunch of Gypsies. They were with a Gypsy band, and they just stayed here. They had plenty of money when they came, and they bought a lot of stuff.
MPWere they categorized as Gypsies, also?
RGThey were Black people. (voice is lowered) If they were with this band of "Gypsies," I guess they escaped the pressures of being Black. They would call themselves Gypsies. That's the whole thing. That's what it is all about, I'm sure, in those days. As far as me and this business here of being a barber-you say you wanted to hear that story?
MPYes. (hum of electric clippings in background)
RGIt's just a simple story. I had seven boys, and I couldn't afford to send them all to the barbershop so I became a barber just by cutting their hair. I got so good at it, in fact, a lot of people came to my home for haircuts. I was working-I finally got a job with General Electric, and I worked there for eight or ten years.
MPWhat were you doing there, Mr. Gaston?
RGI was-well, I had several jobs there. I started out as an order clerk in purchasing. I advanced from that to a production specialist. Then supervisor of lines, work lines. I finally quit because I was supposed to get a promotion, and I didn't get it so I just quit the job and decided I'd become a barber. I got tired of fighting the white man and his prejudiced ways. So I said I'm going to find something I can do for myself so I won't even have to come in contact with him. I was doing so well as a barber that when I got off work at GE in the evening, I would have people waiting for me in my house-lined up. Kids and grown folks waiting for a haircut. So it got so I was making as much money at home working as I was working for GE. So I just decided that I would legitimize myself. I would go to school. So that's what I did. I quit GE, and I went to barber college.
MPWas that here in Bloomington?
RGNo, in Peoria. I had fought the system for so long. I had lost so many jobs because of racial prejudice, and I had been fighting racial prejudice for years, and all these factories-Eureka Williams and General Electric and everybody else in town. And I did it alone. That's the way I always ended up alone because everybody that was with me when the fight was going on, when it was time for the showdown, the confrontation with the white folks, I was always there by myself. I was always the one that ended up either being offered something to be quiet or quitting the job. That's the way it was. That's what happened at Eureka Williams. I was offered jobs to keep my mouth shut, and I wouldn't take them unless they took all of us along. Finally, actually I am the cause of Black people being there right today and doing the jobs they are doing out there. I can verify that with any older person that ever worked there that I sacrificed myself for all of them, you know, years ago. Some of them retired from there as machinists and supervisors and other people because Bob Gaston fought for 'em. That's right.
MPSome people have spoken about how Black people were eventually able to get jobs there. I was wondering how it happened because is just doesn't happen.
RGWell, what happened is during the war this was like any other city. They had to hire Black people into those factories. And when they first hired them in there, they hired them in as sweepers.
MPYou said they had to. What do you mean by that?
RGWell, there was an executive order issued that they hire some Black people. So they did. (door closes) I was one of the people that was hired out there. They hired thirty-five or forty Blacks in Eureka Williams that I knew of, and all of them was sweeping the floors. They was running into each other, bumping into each other sweeping floors and cleaning toilets. There wasn't that much sweeping in the world. The floor was so clean out there it looked like a cafeteria instead of a machine shop where you make parts. That's right. So, I was constantly on those people out there about better jobs for Black people. I stayed on top of them all of the time. I threatened them, and I did everything and finally they eventually did put some on there, but I had to leave there. I left there, and I don't know what I did after that. Oh, I went to work for a place uptown, a bookstore, until GE came to this town, I guess, after I went to the service. I mean, I don't know what to talk about. You guys...
MPWell, how did you-you got started in barbering in your own home, right? And then when did you buy a shop?
RGWhen I came out of barber college, I went to California, I think, for about-I decided I was going to move and leave this town. I was going to go to California because maybe there'd be a better life there for me. So I put my house up for sale-the one that I owned at the time, and I went west. I got out there, and I ran into such a turmoil out there because it was the time that the Black Panthers and everybody was on the rise out in Oakland.
MPSo this was in the sixties?
RGYes, it was back in the sixties. I looked around and saw how terrible things were out there, and I didn't want to take my family out there. So I decided against it. I stayed out three months, and I came back home. That's when I decided I'd open me up a barbershop here, which I did. I went out and got me an old building, fixed it up, and put a barbershop in there. That was back in 1961.
MPWhere was you first shop?
RGMy first shop was at 300 South Center Street, on the corner of Center and Grove.
MPDid you have any difficulty purchasing the property there or renting?
RGI didn't. No, I didn't have any problem there. Finally urban renewal came down and tore that building down, and I moved uptown on the square, right next to Osco. I was in there for, oh, four or five years until they tore the building down and put a new building there. So then I moved to Normal. I had a couple of different locations in Normal, and now I am back here in Bloomington again. And that's a span of twenty some years.
?We haven't heard much about your early childhood years and your parents. Were they originally people of Bloomington?
RGNo, we came here from Clinton, Illinois. That's how I happen to know...
MPYou and your parents?
RGYes, we came from Clinton here. My parents wasn't original Illinois people. They were from down south. From Mississippi. They all came from Mississippi, but I was raised and born here.
MPDo you know why they came to Clinton?
RGYes. The reason my parents came to Clinton was because that's where my two aunts live. I had two aunts, and one had married a man that worked on the railroad. He worked on the section. You know how men used to go around back in those days? Maybe you don't know. And they would put in rails, the new rails. They built railroad lines, and they traveled on the railroad all of the time, and there was a big train. So he was part of this gang and so was my aunt. My aunt was a cook, and he was a supervisor of labor out there or something. You know, a supervisor for the railway. And they both worked for the railroad. And they ended up in Clinton because they built a great big center there, a rail center in Clinton, Illinois. The IC. [Illinois Central Railroad]
MPWhat year was that?
RGWell, that was back in the thirties. Back in 1931, [19]32, something like that, but I had been there before, see. I had lived there, and we would go back and forth down south and come back and go back and forth until finally they convinced us that we should leave the South and come up here with my mother's two sisters. My uncles had all moved up here by that time and so had my grandfather- my grandmother, I never did know her. She passed on before I knew her, but my grandfather I knew him. And my whole family moved up here so finally we left the South and came up here. My family did. That was back in the thirties.
MPAnd you were a young boy then I suppose, right?
MPAnd then I assume that you went to school in Clinton. You started school in Clinton?
MPNow, were the schools integrated in Clinton then?
RGThey always have been integrated as long as I can remember.
MPAnd what about in Bloomington? Do you know the situation?
RGSame here. They always been integrated.
MPDo you remember anything that your parents or grandparents told you anything about their experiences? It would have been your grandparents probably.
RGYou mean my grandfather?
MPYes, about their experiences after slavery or their parents after slavery? Or did they remember anything like that?
RGFrankly speaking-I hate to say this but my grandfather had no problems with the white race because he was white. My grandfather was a white man, and he lived with us.
MPIn Mississippi?
RGIn Mississippi and in Illinois, too. And we didn't have any problems in Mississippi or Illinois because he was a buffer between us and them.
MPAnd what was his life like then for you family in Mississippi? Was your family pretty much accepted in this integrated way?
RGWell, we didn't (unclear) because we lived in the big city. We lived in Jackson so we didn't have to come in contact with any white people at all.
MPSo, where you lived it was pretty much Black people there?
RGRight. Black businesses. Black everything. We didn't come in contact with any white people down south because we were living in the city.
MPWhat about when you came to Bloomington? Where did your family find housing?
RGWell, I had aunts living here. (laughter) That's what happens. They moved here and Clinton. One of the ones that had lived in Clinton moved here so we had family in both places. So it wasn't no problem. Back in those days they all got them big houses with fifteen or twenty rooms, you know. They had big houses then. No small houses. All the family lived together, everybody. I can remember my grandfather-that's why I said about the Black family, now it's deteriorating because my grandfather, my great aunts, my uncles, all my aunts all lived in the same house. The whole family lived there. I can remember these things.
MPNow, what side of Bloomington did you live on?
RGThe southeast side. (unclear-background noise)
MPDo you have any knowledge of the extent to which Black people may have had difficulty purchasing properties where they wanted to purchase them?
RGNo. At that time everybody that I knew in Bloomington owned their own home-Black. At that time pretty near all the people either was buying or owned their own home. Urban renewal cleaned all the Black people out of their property here in this town because there was people here that owned a lot of property right downtown, good property that I know of. Urban renewal was (unclear).
MPDo you know anything about a community center that was run by Blacks in downtown Bloomington.
?It was across the street from your house, wasn't it?
MPCould you tell me what you remember about that?
MPHow did the center come about?
RGThrough the efforts of a man by the name of Mr.Tripp, Willie Tripp.
?And we don't have him down for an interview.
RGI think you should go by and see his son. His son could probably bring you up on a lot of Black history.
?Which son?
RGThe one that lives on Oakland Ave.
?You're talking about Willie Tripp, Jr.
RGYes, Willie Tripp, Jr. Go by and see him because Willie Tripp's father was brought here by white folks, and they lived up there in that building on Grove Street for years-next to Beck's Funeral Home, that apartment building. They lived there for years. I remember them as kids.
MPThe Tripp family?
RGYes. they lived there for years. Mr. Tripp was a very good man. You know he was a good man. He could get most anything he wanted. The white people just loved him because he was a kind of Black man that white folks love. You understand what I mean?
[text omitted]
MPYou said the white people went down and brought this-they came up with a white family? The Tripp family came up with whites?
?That was real common back then for them to go south and bring back Black people because Adlai Stevenson, from what I hear, they brought people back from North Carolina that were their servants. They brought them back. That was a real common thing for whites to come south and then bring them back. And I'm trying to remember-they died the (unclear) that worked for the Stevensons.
MPWho did? The Tripp family?
?No. It's another family I'm thinking of.
RGThere was a whole lot of people bought here from the South by white folks.
MPSo the white people went down south to get people to come back and work for them.
RGThere was a whole lot of people that was brought here from the South by white folks.
MPSo the white people went down south to get Black people to come back and work for them?
RGYes, and then, too, a lot of people that live here in this town owned plantations in the south. Like Mrs. Ives, Adlai Stevenson's sister,-they got a big plantation down there now, and everybody that worked for her come off her plantation.
?And that's Stevenson's sister-because I worked for them, and they had people down from North Carolina. They had a chauffeur and a maid and a cook.
RGAll the people that ever worked for them come from down there. Even now. There was a guy in my shop last year from down North Carolina that was driving for Mrs. Ives.
MPSo when they bought them up then, did they live with this white family?
RGYes, of course. They were in the house with them or in the garage in back of the house.
?Usually in the garage or in back of the house is where they had their quarters.
MPTell me, there's a building by this McBarnes building. There's a big structure there, a big building, and then there is a kind of house in the back. Is that the house they lived in-the Tripp family?
RGNo, no. That's where the chamber of commerce is housed and that used to be the legion building there. The building that I am talking about is east of Beck's Funeral Home. There's an apartment complex.
?There are still a few structures around town that have that kind of setup. You can see it when you go by there where you can tell that there were kind of separate quarters from the rest of the main house.
MPThat's what I was interested in. We started by-you were telling us about this center. You said that Mr. Tripp started it.
RGMr. Tripp and a club called the Regular Fellows which I happened to be a member of at that time. They got this center together with some white folks downtown. They just-you know, white folks being real nice to them. They wanted a place where all of the little Black children could go. They did not want to be bothered with them downtown. So naturally they contributed funds so that we could have a place down there. I think we were also in the United Fund chest-the Community Chest. They drew funds out of there to finance that community center.
MPWhat was the name of it?
RGTwin City Community Center.
?Would you imagine that Mr. Tripp would have pictures? Because I haven't seen any pictures of that.
RGNow he might have pictures of that center. Willie Tripp might have-either he or his sister.
MPNow, how long did that center operate? Do you remember from what time to what time?
RGWell, I would say-my kids grew up over there, practically, let's see-so I would say it was there for ten or fifteen years, at least. And even before it was there it was somewhere else. I mean it was downtown at one time, and they tore the building down. So they moved it to this big house, a great big old mansion. That's what they did. They converted this big old house into the community center for the Blacks. And I tell you who owned that house. Have you heard of this Scott fund that they have here? He is the guy that owned that big house.
MPSomebody mentioned that there was some building, a mansion-like structure, that was a community center for Blacks.
RGHe owned that house at one time, and I think it was contributed out of his holdings for us. He left it there for some purpose so they just gave it to us as a community center at that time.
MPWhere was this located?
RGRight where the city hall is in Bloomington.
?I am sure City Hall would probably have some pictures of that place before they tore that down to put the current city hall there.
RGI'm sure they have. Either they have or the Pantagraph.
?Jewel told me-she had said something about her experiences with the Pantagraph. She asked them if they have anything on Black history, and their reply was not very good. She got very angry because she figured that they did. They must have had a lot, you know, being a paper. They probably had stuff that you wouldn't think of. It was news. It would be newsworthy, and even if they didn't want to put it out on the front page, they probably put it back. They said that they didn't have anything.
RGThey know everything that has ever happened in this town that was Black. They know, for instance, that there was a Black man at one time-he was real goosey. Do you know what you mean by goosey? You know people would stick that thing up like that.
MPOh, to tickle.
RGYes. There was a man who used to work at City Hall-I mean down at the county jail at the courthouse, a Black man. And he was goosey, and a lot of white kids knew it. They would go by there and "goose" him, you know. So one day, a bunch of kids went by there and was playing with this Black man, and they got to goosing him, and he ran out of the courthouse, and they were right behind him chasing him. The white people wondered why they was chasing him, and nobody told them, so they all started chasing him. So pretty soon he was running down Center Street from the courthouse and somebody said, "Stop him!" Somebody said, "Stop that '[n-----]' down there!" And they kept on, and when they got down on this corner down here, they hung him. They hung him right down there on the corner, and nobody knew why they hung him until it was all over, and somebody wanted to know what he did. Nobody had ever told them that he hadn't done anything.
?Do you know his name?
RGI don't remember his name. All I did was I heard this story from the old people.
MPDo you know of any more instances in which Black people were hanged in this area?
RGNo. I didn't even know about that until somebody told me. They told me about that. They said that the man hadn't done anything. He just happened to be running, and you know white people got to chasing him, and they saw some other white people chasing him...
?He worked at the courthouse, you say?
RGYes, he shined shoes in there. They got to chasing him and by the time they ended up down there, they had hung him down on the corner before anybody asked why were you chasing the guy. They just knew that he had did something to the white folks. I guess, just assumed it. This is a very racist town now. These people will do it to you real quick. I know they have did it to me a lot of times. But then, too, I found out that it's also a good town. If you just mind you own business and roll with the punches, you can get by in this town, too, you know.
MPYou talked about your experiences at the various factories trying to get better opportunities for Black people. What about other kinds of situations for Blacks-like restaurants, businesses, and housing? Could you speak about that?
RGThey was segregated up to just a few years ago. I can tell you that back in the fifties and sixties out there where you are working now you couldn't eat in a restaurant out there anywhere. You could get a sack and get a sandwich in a sack and walk down the street with it. But you couldn't eat out there anywhere. You know I had my shop right out there back of the-you know where it was.
MPNCHS [Normal Community High School], yes.
RGAnd I used to drive through there, and I would see kids out there eating-Black kids and white kids. I used to tell them when they came over to my shop that they take a lot of things for granted now. Kids don't really realize that a lot of Black people had to fight and some of them had to die so you could be out there doing this. And I said that you kids don't even realize it, and that's the honest to God truth.
MPWhat about Black businesses? Was it difficult for Blacks to build up business in this area, say in the forties and fifties? Did they have difficulty buying property and establishing businesses?
RGI don't think so. Back in the forties and fifties Blacks owned a lot of property in this town, and they had businesses here. In fact, I can tell you...
MPCould you speak about some of the businesses?
RGBack when I was a young fellow, when I wanted to go out on Friday and Saturday night, I had my choice of three or four Black places downtown I could go to. That was downtown. Now, they won't let you open up anything downtown. They are worse now than they were then. Right around the corner where this Italian restaurant is on the corner here-what's the name of it?
RGWhat's the name of that Italian restaurant right around the corner?
RGLucca's Grill. That used to be a Black place. Yeah, when I was a young man, it was Black around there.
MPDo you know what the name of the person who owned it?
RGYes, Bill Tinsley. Bill Tinsley had a nightclub over it, and right around the corner here was a Black restaurant-a lady by the name of Mrs. Lillie Bacon. There was a big Black restaurant right around the corner directly where I'm standing on the next street over.
?That's Bate's mother, right?
RGNo, it wasn't. That was Bate's aunt.
?Bate's aunt.
RGA lady by the name of Mrs. Nathan, who was Eloise's mother. You know Eloise? She had a nigh club called the Blue Moon right over there on Center Street. And then she had a teenage place for kids, also. On the West Side there was another place out there, and the Third Ward [Club] had always been there, of course. But you had a choice of where you wanted to go that night. Now, you don't miss anything in town because you only have one place to go if you ever don't want to hang around white folks. (laughter)
MPWhat about any carpenters?
RGCarpenters? (pause and no audible answer)
MPStores that Black people may have owned?
RGStores? I can't think of any stores, only that little bitty operation that Reverend Jones had. Do you remember Reverend Jones, Deacon Jones? Something like that. My son was a plumber here, and they put an ad in the paper for a plumber out at ISU. He was also a member of the plumbers' union, and the plumbers' union sent him out to ISU for a job. And they wouldn't even give him the application and that was just here four years ago. Even though the union sent him out there, they wouldn't give him an application. So I got on my horn, and I called [name omitted] over there.
End Side A
Side B
RGWho's the other guy out there? The head guy over there.
RGWine, yes. He got on those two people, and they hand delivered the application over there to our home in the evening. They stuck it in my mailbox, I guess, after he talked to them. Or either he might have brought it himself. Maybe (unclear) had him bring it because I believe (unclear) was [name omitted]'s boss. Anyway, my son passed the civil service examination. He made a ninety-six or seven-something like that. There was three men, and he was one of the three, and they chose a white man that lived out of town. Lived in some other county. They gave him the job. So we went around and around on that. I went over there, and I had it out with (unclear) and [name omitted] and all of them. And you know I asked them, "Why in all these years-let's see, you have been sending me letters for twenty years and asking me to find people for you to employ." And I said, "At last I found you one person that was a professional or a skilled person." And I said, " You turn him down." I said, "You have been telling me all this time that you are an equal opportunity employer, yet you turn my son down, which really teed me off." I said, "I have five sons in service of the country, and I myself was a soldier." I said, "I don't know what Black people have to do to get into the mainstream out here. This institution has been here for 125 years, and to my knowledge you have never had an electrician, carpenter, plumber or any skilled person out here. Only one that I can recall"-which they only had one, and that was Art Garrison, a friend of mine. "And he only worked here because of an emergency that you had out here. You had an emergency thing going on out here, and you needed all the help you could get. So he happened to be a plumber so you gave him a job, but he didn't stay here very long." Which now Art is the head plumbing inspector in Detroit, the city of Detroit. So anyway, he gave me all kinds of reasons why he didn't hire my son. So finally we waited around for a couple of more years and a plumber died out there. So my son talked to him again about it, and he hired somebody else.
MPIs that right?
RGISU-that's who I am talking about. I think, [name omitted] he could have put in a word, and I think he could have gotten my son out there.
RGAll he probably had to say was, "Hey, look, give the guy a chance."
MPMm-huh. Mm-huh.
RGYou know. He's supposed to be [job title omitted], and you know that. I'm sure that's all he had to say, but he didn't do that.
MPMm-huh. I understand. I have heard many people say that there was a time when Black people were not permitted to live in the dormitories.
RGNo, they didn't.
MPThat they had to find housing in different places. Would you speak about that? I understand there was a special house.
?The Bright House. Jewel said to ask about the Bright House.
RGThey had four houses out there and they were all Black. They had one for males and three or four for females. They could not live on campus. They could not go to the prom. They had a special prom for Blacks. Everything was separate on campus. That's a fact of life. Everything. They're still as racist now as they ever was. Don't you ever think that they changed. They haven't.
MPI am going to ask you something. I think you hear a great deal about Black barbers in Bloomington-Normal, and I had the impression that there were quite a few Black barbers in earlier years in Bloomington-Normal, and some of them worked as personal barbers for important people. Could you speak about that?
RGWell, yes. The one barber that I know of that I got my license from-that sponsored me. You know you had to have a sponsor at one time. He was a barber that lived in Normal. His name was Calimese. And he had his barbershop in Normal, and he could only cut white people's hair. He didn't allow Blacks in there. In fact, they told him he could open up a shop out there, but he could not cut any Black folks' hair. Strictly cut white folks hair.
?Where was this shop at?
RGWhere Will's Barber Shop is right now. On the corner of-you know where? Let me see. Let me tell you. You know where the railroad track is? You know as you go across the railroad track going east-you know there's a barbershop right to your left. Do you recall?
MPIs it by the service station there?
RGNo, no, no.
?Across from Watterson Towers?
RGNo. When you are leaving from downtown Normal on-what's that, North Street?
?It's next to the place that's for sale now.
RGRight. It's right across the street from-what's the name of that place?
RGRocky's. Right. There's a barbershop. Now this is where this Black man's barbershop was for years.
MPWhat was it called?
RGCalimese. His name was-that's the owner's name, Calimese. I don't know what the name of the barbershop was. But anyway, he had a barbershop there, and he couldn't even cut his own brother's hair. He couldn't cut nobody's hair in there.
MPThey wouldn't permit any Black in there?
RGNo, he couldn't cut Black hair. If he wanted to stay in Normal, he could not cut Black folks' hair. And he stayed there for years, and he didn't cut any Black folks' hair either.
MPHe was the one who signed for you to become a barber?
RGYes, I was an apprentice under him. You had to have an apprenticeship. You had to have someone to sponsor you before you get your license. He was retired at the time, but what he did is he hung his license in my shop, and I could work under his license. And he said that he worked there part-time, which he didn't. He was retired.
MPHe was the one who signed for you to become a barber? Were there other barbers around, Black barbers?
RGYes, there were barbers uptown. There was two barbershops in Bloomington at that time. But right now, unfortunately, we are the only Black barbershop in town. In Bloomington or Normal. But I am sure there will be some more come. The town will be growing like mad in the next four or five years.
MPOh, you think so?
RGI am sure it will be. That car plant is coming here, and that's going to mean a lot of people moving to the community.
MPWere there any other things that we left out?
?Did you ask him about community involvement?
MPThat's right. Mr. Gaston, are you involved in a lot of community activities? Or politics?
RGNot any more.
MPWould you talk about your past involvement?
RGI used to be involved in a lot of politics. In fact, one time I was-the highest rank that I have ever held in a political organization was vice president of the McLean County Black Democrats.
MPWhen was this?
RGThat was back in the forties.
?You guys had to brave in an all-Republican community.
RGWell, I mean that's what I say-the biggest mistake that I ever made in my life was not being a Republican. Living in this community I could have been rich if I had been. But I always bucked the system somehow or another. I was just plain dumb.
MPWere you always a Democrat?
RGAll my life.
RGMy family was Democrat. I tell you, the first time I ever voted I voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And he was the most liberal man that we'd ever had at that time that I have ever knew of a white man, I thought. So everybody voted for Roosevelt, and I started out voting for Roosevelt. And I never changed my politics in all of those years. That's what it was.
MPDid you help form this Black Democratic [organization] ?
RGYes, me and along with Lawrence Irvin. You know Lawrence Irvin. And a man by the name of Jim (unclear) James (unclear). They were all white, of course. We were working for Adlai Stevenson at that time, and he became governor of the state. And we were all supposed to get jobs down in Springfield because we were hard workers, and we never got anything. Once he got in that was the end of it.
MPHow long did this group function?
RGWe functioned for I would say for-they functioned for ten or twelve years, but I was only in it until I didn't get a job. I quit. I told them to go "jam it." They didn't give me a job. I told them to jam it. I said, "Hey, you guys didn't take care of me, the heck with it." I have always remained a Democrat, but I never fooled around with any political organization after that-after they let me down. And then when they did offer jobs to anyone around in this community, they were only janitor jobs down in the capitol building or something like that. But we had a lot of people with educations around here, and they were people with Masters degrees and Bachelors and so forth. I had a friend of mine. He is probably the state's attorney in East St. Louis right now-I mean in St. Louis. And he was a shoe shine boy at the "Y," and he had a Masters degree. I had a couple of other boys that was working with me out at the Bloomington Country Club. I was bartender out there, and they was waiters and most of them had gone to college out here, and that was the best job you could get at that time. We had a lot of degree people that was shoveling coal, unloading coal out of these cars around here. It was tough in those days, and that hasn't been too long ago 'cause you can look at me and see that I not that old. (laughter)
MPAny civic organization you were involved in?
RGYes. I was in my shop one day and Craig Hart-he is the president of Champion Federal-he come over to my shop, arrogantly got up on my shoeshine stand and threw his shoes up and wanted a shoe shine. I happened to be the only one here so I shined his shoes. He never came in for a hair cut, but he thought he was doing me a favor by coming to get his shoes shined which was all right with me because that meant I made another dollar that day. So I shined his shoes. And in the meantime, we got to talking, and he was sitting there telling me how liberal he was and what a nice guy he was and all that, and how he had helped a lot of Black people. I said, "Oh yeah." He said, "Well, we've never turned a Black person down for a loan at Champion Federal." I said, "Is that right?" I said, "Well, I will tell you what." I says, "Two years ago"-you know when I lived at William Drive in Normal? "Two years ago," I says, "Urban renewal bought some property that I had over in Bloomington, and I said I am moving to Normal. And I came to your place to get my house financed in Normal. And I had $20,000 in cash to pay down on the house, and they turned me down." He argued with me for two hours that I was wrong. He say, "You didn't come there." So I told him that I did. So he finally got up out of the chair and went back to his place of business, and he didn't never come back to my place again for a long time. Well, he never did come in there again. One day, I was sitting in the barbershop and the phone rang. I am getting back to-you said civic organizations that I had belong to-the phone rang and I picked up the phone and said, "Hello." "Is this Gaston's barbershop?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Could I speak to Mr. Gaston, Bob Gaston?" I said, "This is he speaking." So he said, "Bob, this is Craig Hart down at Bloomington Federal." I said, "Yes, what can I do for you?" He said, "Well, I will tell you what. I just submitted your name to the chamber of commerce on the board of directors. We want you on the board of directors down there." And you know what that was, don't you? That was an admission that he was wrong, but he never did tell me that he was wrong. He never did tell me. He never did acknowledge that fact that he was wrong about what he had said. But I knew that's what that was. That was my pay off. He said, "Would you be interested?" I said, "Yes." So that was one of the organizations that I belonged to for about four years.
MPIs that right? Now that was quite unusual, wasn't it?
RGYes, it was for me because I never know any other Black person to be on the chamber of commerce in Bloomington. I know I learned a lot by going.
MPWhat year was that now?
RGThat was-what years was that?
?That would have been back in the seventies. About [19]75, [19]76..
RGYes. I was on that for four years, and I used to get to go the country club where I formerly worked, and no Black man had ever sat in there and ate dinner. I used to go out there once a year every year. The chamber of commerce had a dinner out there, and they couldn't turn me down because I was a member. And I would be there every year, believe me. I'd be there every year. And I would take Jewel with me. I guess she told you, didn't she?
RGAnd there was something else I wanted to tell you about.
?While you are thinking about that I want to be sure that we include the Pantagraph article which was probably back in the sixties about you and all of your sons belonging to the Army. There's a tradition of serving in the armed forces. What is it-seven of you?
RGNo. It was my five sons and myself, six. I've been pounding that into their heads for years. I say, "Hey, what does a Black person have to do to get a job in this town." I say, "I've had twelve children, and five or six of them have degrees from some college. Some of them have been in service. Some of them are skilled people, and this and that and the other. They got professions. And yet," I say, " all of them had to leave Bloomington to get a job." Can you imagine that? Out of all of those children that I have that not one is working in this town. They all had to leave here and go somewhere else to get a job. And I have some of them that can do just about anything. I guess it goes back to what the Bible says nobody likes you in your hometown. Nobody thought Jesus could build a house in the town he came from, right?
?That's kind of unusual since he was a carpenter? (laughs) When did you get married?
RG1940. In Bloomington.
?Was she from Bloomington too?
RGYes, born and raised in Bloomington.
?Does she have any relatives here now?
RGNo, they're all dead.
MPWe still want to talk about any civic organizations you belonged to? I wanted to ask you about an organization that I've heard a little about, and that is a chauffeurs' club? Do you know anything about that?
RGThey probably had one here at one time. I am sure they did because they used to have a lot of Black chauffeurs here. Pretty near anybody on the East Side that was anybody had a Black chauffeur-at one time, sure. If you didn't have a Black chauffeur and a houseman, you wasn't nobody on the East Side. So, I guess, they all had one at one time.
?Can you remember any names of the men that were chauffeurs that would have belonged to this chauffeurs' club? Is there anybody around now?
RGYes. Let's see. What's her name- Kathryn Dean was married to a guy by the name of Virgil Dean that was a chauffeur for years and years and years for white folks. That's all he ever did, in fact.
?Did you interview her?
MPYes I did. But I don't think I remembered to ask her about this.
RGYes, she was married to a guy. That's all he ever did was be a chauffeur for rich white folks.
MPAnything else?
?Is there anybody that you know of that can tell us about the old red-light district? I am sure there was someone that lived up in there.
RGPretty near every Black person in town lived near the red-light district. That's where they have them at, you know. They don't have none in the white community.
?I am talking about someone that was closer to the operation.
RGI was close to it. I used to live right next door to a sporting house. In fact, at one time MacArthur Street east of Main Street-they had two blocks of houses that housed white prostitutes.
MPWere they separate? Were there houses of prostitution for Blacks and whites separated or...?
RGYes. They didn't have any Black women or men in the white houses. But on the next street over Elm Street was where the Black houses were.
MPDo you know any of the prominent operators? Any of the madams?
RGI knew one. She was the greatest of all. Her name was Della Burns. She was a beautiful white woman. She was a madam.
MPWhen did that whole red-light district go out of business?
RGI would say around...
RGSomewhere in the sixties. Wait a minute.
?It was there when I came in [19]62.
RGSo okay, so there. I was going to say the fifties, but maybe you're right.
MPNow I want to ask you can you give me the names of Black people in Bloomington who you considered to be very prominent Black people? Of course, Mr. Gaston. Any others, and I am thinking of the thirties, forties, and fifties. Black people-professionals, entertainers, or.
RGThe thirties, forties, fifties-prominent people? Well, professional people-we used to have a doctor. We had three doctors here at one time. We had a dentist and two medical doctors staying right here. I can't-for the life of me I can't.
?I heard about Doc Covington.
RGCovington and Doctor-there was another doctor. He was here during the days of the Depression. He was a welfare doctor. I can't think of his name right now.
MPWhat do you mean by welfare doctor?
RGHe took care of people on welfare.
MPAnd the county paid him to do that?
?Which reminds me-did we also have women who worked on the WPA and got houses here? I am thinking of one now that's on the corner of Mills Street. Do you know of anybody that would have worked on the WPA project? Mama White.
RGHer husband worked on the WPA for years. He was a supervisor out there for years and years and years. He worked for it. He worked for WPA. He was one of the big shots.
MPWhat was his name now?
RGA Black man-his name was White. And we used to have a Black man here that dug the hole for State Farm up here for the foundation. His name was Contractor Brown.
MPSo he was a contractor?
RGYes, he was a Black man. He dug the hole that they put State Farm in uptown. Men with picks and shovels. That was the days before they had all of the good equipment that they have now. Just get a bunch of men and give them a bunch of shovels and picks and tell them to go out and dig a hole. They dug a hole for that place up there.
MPThere is a person, I understand, who developed something called Oil of Gladness. Would you know something about that person?
RGOil of Gladness. No, I don't know anything about that. Back in those days everybody survived playing policy, playing the numbers.
MPOh, is that right? During the Depression?
RGNumbers and prostitution. That was it, I guess. All those big shots that you see in Bloomington now, old-timers in the churches and all-they all used to be in those houses. (laughter)
MPA booming business, right?
RGThere weren't nothing else to do. Right. I know them all. They don't want to see me coming. Of course, I would never embarrass them. The only thing is that they know that I know.
MPWho operated the numbers business?
RGA guy by the name of Claude Hursey. He's still living. He's a Black man. He runs the Third Ward Club.
MPNow the Third Ward Club-is that frequented by Blacks primarily or any whites...?
RGBlacks. It's a Black club-a political club. It is a Republican political organization. That's why it has been able to survive for so long because they are Republican. This is a Republican town, and the guy that owns it is rich. He's a millionaire.
MPIs that right?
RGA Black guy. That's why I said if I had been smart enough when I was young I would have said that I was Republican, and I would have been rich. But no, I was one of those hardheaded, agitating, activist '[n-----]s" out here in the street woofin' about "the white folks ain't this and that." And I could have been "Tomming" and dancing like all of the rest of them. I wouldn't have to be standing here cutting hair today.
MPWell, you've done well for yourself. You are the only Black barber around for a while now.
RGWell, I'm out of business now. I'm just here because my son wanted to be here. So...
MPWell, I think that's about it. It would be nice if we could have a copy of your-do you have a certificate or some kind of membership card for the chamber of commerce?
RGNo, I don't know. It's probably packed in a box some place. When we moved, we packed a lot of stuff up, and I've never even looked at a lot of it.
MPThat would be nice to have.
RGI used to have it hanging on the wall, but now I don't know what happened to it. It is probably around here somewhere in boxes or something.
MPWell, thank you very much. If there are any other names now? He gave us quite a few names.
?Yes, he gave us quite a few names.
RGDon't forget to go by and talk with [Willie] Tripp. He can probably put you hip to a lot of stuff. He might even have pictures.
MPAll right, great.
?And he gave us the name of the man that he thinks owned the land for the park.
RGIke Huggins. There used to be a man here by the name of Rebel [Revelation] Rhoades. He was one of the most famous Black men that ever grew up around this town. You probably heard of Rebel Rhoades.
MPNo, no one has mentioned him. Would you tell us about him?
RGIt is a famous name. It was a Black man that used to be in the Senate from Mississippi called Rebel Rhoades, and this guy was named after him. He was one of the most famous people in this town. He was an artist. He was a dancer. He was an entertainer, comedian.
?Did he ever perform at the house, the place where Bloomington Federal is now? Wasn't there a-what was the name of it? I can't think of it.
?Majestic Theater.
RGYes, he performed there. He performed all over the country in fact.
MPDoes he have any relatives here? Do you know?
RGNo. They are all dead and gone. All them people was old men when I was a kid. They're gone now.
MPSo he was a dancer and a...
RGentertainer, artist. There was a white man in here the other day with some of his drawings.
MPIs that right?
RGThat's right. He brought them down to show them to me, and what he did at that time he put all the signs on all these buildings around here. He was a great artist. He was a little Black man. I remember him.
MPWell, who is this man who has his paintings?
RGSome white guy that just stops in to talk to me every once in a while. He brought them in one day to show them to me. He wanted me to know that he knew a Black man. (laughter) You know how white folks are.
MPYou know, Mr. Gaston, it would be really nice if you could get the man's name because one of the things that we are doing...
RGYou mean the guy that's got the pictures.
?The guy who's got the pictures, right.
RGWell, all I know is that they call him Red. I can find out who he is. He is an old guy, a real old guy. He must be about eighty years old. He stops in to see me every once in a while. He wanted me to know since I was Black and I was down here on Main Street.
?Let's see if we can make an appeal to his humanitarian-to make this a humanitarian gesture to donate to our cause.
RG He just wanted us Black folks to know that he knew a Black man. He come by here and told me this was one of his best friends. He wanted me to know that. (loud laughter) He looked in here and saw me cutting hair in here one day, and he looked and stood out there for five minutes and he looked. Then he come to the door and he looked in, and he finally come in, and he said, "We sure are getting a lot of you Colored people downtown." I wondered where everybody else was. Where are they? Is anybody else down here? (laughter)
End of side B
Tape 2

Date: September 30, 2018

MPToday is June 21, 1988, and I am talking with Mr. Gaston about his business. (bell rings as door is opened) Mr. Gaston, would you tell us the name of your establishment? What was the name when you started it?
RGGaston's Barber Shop. Today it's called The Upper Cut.
MPWhen did you change the name?
RGWe changed the name in 1973 when we moved to Normal.
MPDo you remember why you changed the name and how you?
RGWell, we just wanted a new name. We were just sitting around one night, and we said Gaston's Barber Shop is fine, but let's try and put a little something.
MPa little pizzazz in it.
RGYeah, let's put a little pizzazz in it because we have other names like Shears and The Clippers. So we said Upper Cut, and we put a fist up there for an emblem. But, we pointed it at the head.
MPYes, so that fist was symbolic of the Black Movement, right?
RGYes, that also.
MPNow, when you got started- what year did your business start? It started in Bloomington, right?
RGYes, in 1960.
MPAnd where was it located?
RGLocated at Center and Grove Street in Bloomington, Illinois.
MPTell me how did you get started? I mean where did you get the money for the building to set the business up?
MPAnd he got the job that you wanted?
MPWhat was the job?
RGWell, it was a job that's a production specialist. I always had done production work and ordering. Well, I was a leader of the team for a long time, and I was supposed to get the job of production specialist. I'd been told through several sources that I would no doubt get the job. Somehow I didn't, and I was told later through a source, a white source, that the reason I wasn't hired was because I was Black and at that time they just wasn't putting Blacks in that position. So I got a bit bitter about the whole thing, and I'd put a little money into the savings program and other-I had money saved in the credit union. And I just went home one day, and I was really disgusted because I was having all kinds of problems with white folks at that time at the plant because they wanted me to sit there and teach someone else the job that I was supposed to get. And I didn't like it. So I just quit, and I took my resources and went to barber college. I was cutting hair in the first place at home because with seven sons that's what I had. I had to learn to cut hair because it was too expensive to take them the barbershop.
MPAnd you learned the basic skills yourself?
MPBack then you were about the only barber at the time, Black barber, cutting hair?
RGNo, there was another shop at that time. And, I decided-the man was getting old at that time. You know, way up there in age. So I decided I would go to the barber college, and when I came back to town I tried to go into business with him, and he wouldn't accept me. He said he didn't want anybody. You know how some people are narrow-minded. He was thinking I was going to take business away from him. He didn't realize I would be an asset to him. He was getting old and if I was cutting hair, he was going to get money from every head I cut. He didn't realize that. But anyway.
MPWhere did you do to barber college?
RGPeoria Barber College. After he didn't let me in, I decided to open up a shop of my own. So that I did down on South Center Street.
MPHow did you get the building?
RGWell, there was an old building at that time-the urban renewal hadn't gotten around to all the buildings, tearing them down at that time, and rent was reasonable. There was a fellow I had bowled for that that owned the building, a fellow by the name of Stamms [114 North Center]. He had a men's clothing store downtown, and I went down and talked to him, and he just told me to move in.
MPThis was a white gentleman?
RGA Jewish fellow, yeah. He said, "Just move right in and go ahead and fix the place up. You don't have to pay no rent for six months." You know, something like that. "Fix it up any way you want. I'm not going to spend any money on the old building, but if you want to go in and do this, okay." So it was probably going to be going down anyway. I was sure they had it in urban renewal plan, but it was maybe off four or five years. So I figured, you know, I could get started, which I did. I went in there and I got started. It worked out pretty well for me. And they finally moved me out-urban renewal did, and I moved to up on the square, Bloomington square, right next to Osco's up on Center Street. And I stayed there about.
MPYou rented that building?
RGYeah, well, I rented the one I was in previously too, but you know, they just gave me a lot of time.
MPYou didn't have to pay much rent then?
RGRight, and I moved down on Center and Washington, and they eventually moved me out of there. They tore the building down and put a new building in there. Snyder did, the developer around here. They put that new building down there so I had to move, and that's when I moved to Normal. My first stop in Normal was right across the creek from Steak 'N Shake on Main Street in that old building there. And I stayed there about three years, and some one bought that building so I had to move again. So, at that time I moved down on Kingsley there and stayed in that building for about five or six years, and then the cleaners bought all that back in there, and they moved me out of there. So I'm here at this place, and that's been since 1960. That's been twenty-eight years ago.
MPYes, so you rent this facility?
MPAny members of your family involved in the business in any way at all?
RGYeah, my son, Gary runs the whole thing now.
MPWhen did he begin to get involved?
RGLet's see now, he and Frank Suggs's son when they were going to high school, they worked in the business. They shined shoes down on Center Street. After he got out of school, he went to college for a year and a half, I suppose. And then he decided he wanted to be a barber. He got out of college and went to barber college instead and became a barber instead. He's been in the business now for over ten years. And my daughter is also a barber. She worked with me for a short time-one of my girls. But she lives in Texas, now. She's an industrial engineer down in Texas.
MPSo then, who helped with you books? Did any of your family members help you with your books?
RGI keep my books myself.
MPAll right. I know why you started the business. Now, did any other members of your family have businesses? You know, you said you decided to go into business for yourself. You'd kind of started out cutting hair because of your sons, but were there any-was like your father or any uncles involved in business or any of your other relatives in business?
RGWay back?
RGWell, according to all reports that I have one of my-according to my family report A.G. Gaston is supposed to be an uncle of mine.
MPNow who's he?
RGA millionaire, A.G. Gaston is supposed to be an uncle of mine.
MPNow who's he?
RGA millionaire, A.G. Gaston in Birmingham.
MPIs he the one who has the insurance?
MPOh is that right?
RGThat's what I hear, but I've been to his place, in fact, with old relatives of mine. I never knew the man, you know. I guess back in those days down in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia families got split up and separated and all that. I didn't even know him. I was thirty-seven years old when I went to Birmingham for the first time. I drove one of my uncles down there, and I saw the man, but I didn't know him. And he said he was related to me.
MPOh, he said he was related?
MPDid he say how?
RGWell, he was supposed to be my father's uncle. That's the way I got it, I don't know.
MPWell, he would probably know.
RGAccording to the uncle that took me down there who's deceased at this time from Chicago-he was a retired man out of Chicago at the postal service. I drove him down to New Orleans, and we went down through Birmingham, and he told me, "I'm going to take you by one of your great uncle's places. He's a big business man down here." Which I didn't even know a thing about the man. So we went by and stayed at his motel.
MPSo he owns the insurance company business, and he also owns a motel and real estate?
RGI guess he owns everything down there.
MPIn Birmingham?
RGYeah, I guess so. He's supposed to be related to me according to what I know. I heard but I don't know anything about it. My mother never said anything to me about it, but my uncle out of Chicago told me all of this, you see. Whether it's true or not I don't know. We have the same name.
MPUsually they know. These older people, they know how the relationships go.
MPWell I think, I want to go back to kind of see if there are some other things that motivated you to kind of go out on your own.
RGThe thing that motivated me is the fact that I got tired of being pushed around, and it's just a matter of race with me. In fact, I sit here in my barbershop, and I preach to these kids every day that they should try to do something for themselves. I keep telling them, "You can open any kind of business you want to. If you don't have the expertise, there's always people available that you can get. You surround yourself with people that have the expertise to do certain things." I say, "I can take you to a city right now that I know of where you can go down there and you can find shoe cobblers, cleaning and pressing people-anybody that can run you any kind of service, and they're walking around without a job. You can hire those people and bring them and put them in here. And you can learn and watch and learn from them. But, you can also own the business without doing any of the work. Have people here to do it for you."
MPThat's right.
RGI keep preaching that to people, and I think I made a couple of people have been successful so far because I've had some of them come back and tell me that they were listening to me, and they took heed to what I was saying.
MPAnd they went ahead and did that.
RGThey went ahead and did it. In fact, there's one boy right here in town now who's got a pretty nice business here, lucrative business in the nutrition field-Larry Strong. I don't know, you probably know Larry.
MPI don't think I know Larry Strong.
RGHe went to ISU. I thought you might have ran into him. He was thinking about leaving here at on time, and he kept listening to me preach around here about if you know how to do something go ahead and try to do it. You are young, and you have plenty of time. If you fail, you can try somewhere else or whatever.
MPThat's right.
RGTry something else if you can't win at one thing. So he went into this nutrition thing, and he's doing wonderful.
MPIs that right?
RGHe's doing fine. His picture is in there on the wall.
MPI did not know about that. That relates to one of the questions I have. And that is since you've been in business,, do you know of any organized way in which Blacks try to help each other in business? Now you're doing it as an individual. You're trying to motivate young Blacks, but do you know of any kind of organization?
RGNo, not off hand. Only thing that I know is that the cities have been receiving monies to promote-you know, to help Black people.
MPBloomington and Normal?
RGWhy sure. They get money but somehow or another, I don't know what's going on. I think this fellow across the street running Robinson's got money off the city a couple of times.
MPThat's federal. That's the federal minority business, I guess.
RGYes, the money is for that purpose, and a lot of these Black people don't take advantage of that.
MPOr they don't know about it.
RGOr they don't know. I don't know what it is. I guess they don't explore all these things. You try to tell them, and they are backwards. You know how some of these people are.
MPYeah, I understand. I understand what you are saying.
RGAnd I'll tell you another thing. They get discouraged when they go in these places and try to find-get information, the people in there discourage them themselves.
MPThey could definitely withhold information from them. That's right. You're right. Absolutely. Now, you have-the only employees you've had in your business are family members, is that right? Pretty much?
RGWell, yeah. I've had a couple of people that wasn't family at one time, but they were here only a short time. I had one girl, in fact Gloria worked for me-Hursey. She worked for me for quite a while until she got married. In fact, that's the way she came here. She came here to work for me.
MPWould you tell me how your business developed and grew? For example, first you had people coming to your home, you said. Did you ever feel that you had to market your business, or everybody knew this was the place they could come to get their hair cut?
RGWell, you know, at one time Bloomington was so small that everybody knew everybody else Black. All the Black people knew each other. So advertising wasn't really necessary.
MPAnd you really had no real competition did you?
RGNo, I didn't have any competition. In fact, there's only one Black legitimate barbershop in town at this time, and that's this one.
MPThat's what I thought.
RGSo, it wasn't really necessary for me to do all these things. Of course, I have bought ads and advertised, and every time someone comes down with a book or organization or something that's doing something, I always buy an ad.
MPBut you don't really have to do it.
RGI don't have to do it because the business is already established, and everybody knows where I'm at and that I'm here. Word of mouth has gotten around over the years, and it's no problem.
MPDo you have any white's who come here?
MPWhen did you begin getting white's, Mr. Gaston?
RGWell, I've been getting whites ever since I opened. In fact, I have a white schoolteacher that teaches in Heyworth that's been coming to me ever since I opened for twenty-eight years. Mr. Irvin is his name.
MPOh, is that Francis Irvin?
RGFrancis. Francis has been coming to me for twenty some years, and I have a couple of white ministers and, in fact, we just got done cutting a young white kid's hair. We have all kinds of people coming. I don't know, but these white people-I don't know where you're going to use this thing at. Do you want me to be as frank as possible?
MPI want you to be frank, Mr. Gaston.
RGWell, since we're a Black barbershop, Kaleidoscope and these retarded or mentally handicapped people-I guess the white barbers don't care to be bothered with them-so they bring them all here.
MPThe white and the Black?
RG Whites and the Blacks. Yeah, they bring them all here. In fact, we just had one go out of here, and they're going to bring another one down pretty soon. And they are mentally and physically handicapped.
RGYeah, because we're Black, I guess, they figure we're hungry, we'll do anything. I mean they're not that bad. Some of them are kind of destructive maybe while you're cutting hair, but you can usually calm them.
MPThere's no major problem.
RGThere's no problem. And they're people, too. That's the way I feel. Somebody's got to do the job. You understand what I mean. I care as much about them as I do about anybody else.
MPYes, they're human beings. Now, did you have to learn any special technique to cut white people's hair?
RGYeah, you have to learn in barber college.
MPSo you learned that in barber college?
RGYeah, right. But, actually it's much simpler to cut their hair than it is Black hair.
MPIs that right? That's interesting.
RGBecause it just hangs, and Blacks are curly and tangled.
MPYes. Let's see. You don't have to tell me anything about your profits unless you want to, but maybe we could do it comparatively. Could you compare your barbering business with any other barbershops? And do you think you do well in comparison.
RGI'll just answer that "yes."
MPAll right, that's good enough. What problems have you had in operating a business, Mr. Gaston? I mean for example, have you ever had-well, just let me leave it at that. What problems have you had?
RGActually, I haven't had any problems that I can think of. I mean I would like to know exactly what you mean when you say problems.
MPLet's say, have you ever needed to get a loan for your business for any purpose.
RGWell, the first time I moved, I didn't need any money because urban renewal moved me. So they paid the bill. They gave me enough money to move and rehabilitate and everything else. But, the second time I moved I. (tape is turned off)
MPSo we were talking about any problems you had with you business, and you were telling me a little bit about the money situation.
RGI really never had any financial problems because when I opened the first time, I had saved money. I hadn't saved it for that purpose, but I had the money saved.
MPBut you had-a part of your value was to save.
MPThat's what we're interested in, too.
MPAnd, also, you couldn't move. You were at a level you couldn't go up further.
RGThey boxed me in. I guess they thought I'd be happy just working in an office with white folks. But, that wasn't the point. If I could do something else. I was glad that happened because that gave me an opportunity to branch out on my own, and I've been the happiest person in the world since then. I've met a lot of my friends who've retired since then, and they come around boasting about their retirement, and they look ten times older than me.
MPYou've always been independent, right?
RGHey. And they look ten times older than me because, you know, when you work in a big corporation like that, if you do 100they want 110[]. If you do 110[], they want 120[].
MPThe pressure is there.
RGI know because I worked there. And there was always pressure. In fact, a lot of nights I went home, and I would lay awake at night wondering if I forgot to do something that I should have done. And it would worry me until the next morning. Sometimes I couldn't even sleep.
MPA lot of stress.
RGMost of the people that I knew who worked there had ulcers.
MPSo you had no problem with money, but you were saying that one of the banks offered you. That's interesting.
RGWell, when I got ready to move, they gave me ten grand. They said, "You need any money?" And I said, "Yeah, I could use some money.' I said, "I'm going to move my place." "How much do you want? Well, about ten or fifteen [thousand]?" You know they started it off for me.
MPSo you just moved it on.
RGWell, you know, the guy told me I could have anything I wanted. That was very unusual for a white organization.
MPWhy do you think they did that then?
RGWell, because they owned the building that I rented uptown. When I moved uptown, well several of my boys had went on little ventures this and that and the other, and they needed money. So when they got ready for their money, the bank wouldn't let them have it unless I co-signed. Well, I did co-sign for two or three of my kids to do different things. And some of them failed, and when they failed, I paid it off. And they knew that I would do these things. And they told me, "Well, you know, you take care of all your business, that's one thing we say about you, Mr. Gaston. You don't owe us a dime, and none of your kids because you paid all of their bills. So you can have anything you want here." Which they did. They gave me ten thousand dollars. And I moved out in Normal, and my business got so bad that I got to a place where I couldn't make my payments. Now that's a fact.
MPTell me, why do you think, what happened there? There were all the college students there. Was it the place, the location?
RGI think it was the location because the people from Bloomington wouldn't come to Normal. Several of them got arrested and this, that, and the other. And they didn't want to drive in Normal, and I lost all of the Bloomington business, and there was very few people that came out there to get a haircut from Bloomington. And the Normal kids, well, there wasn't too many of them at the time.
MPThat's true, there weren't many.
RGAnd the whites, there wasn't too many of them.
MPAnd the majority of the Blacks lived in Bloomington.
RGSo, frankly, I had to sign bankruptcy which I did. I filed bankruptcy. But, the bank didn't know that. I filed it one day, and the next day they sent three people out to my shop. I was about three months behind in my payments, and they wanted to know what was going on. They come out and they looked my shop over, and they looked at me and they says, "Now, you know we're awfully sorry." See I lived in that building. I had a business in that building. And they said they were sorry they put me out of business. That's why they let me have the money because Snyder who was one of the principals over there in the bank wanted that space to put that new building on the corner there. So they moved me out. And the guy said to me, "Well, you've always paid your bills. You always seemed to make a lot of money and this and that and the other, and it's probably our fault that all this happened, and I'll tell you what we're going to do. The ten thousand dollars that we loaned you, we're going to wipe off the books. You don't owe us a dime." People's Bank did that for me. Now, that's the honest to God truth. You know what I told them. I said, "You know, I'm so glad you did this because I filed bankruptcy this morning." They said, "You didn't have to do it just because of us. We're just going to wipe it off the books." They actually did that.
MPThat's amazing. I think that should be known.
RGYes, I think so. Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money. Of course, it probably doesn't mean anything to them, but for me it was a lot of money, and at the time I wasn't making any money so they just wrote it right off the books. The vice-president of the bank came to my shop, and he told me. "Well, Mr. Gaston, you've always been a good man, and you've always paid your bills and paid all your kids' bills. We knew something was happening to you here. We didn't know what it was." And when they came in back in that little place down there, I didn't have any business all the while they was there. I just had nobody come in. And they was around there for three or four hours, and they just saw me and my son sitting there. And they said, "We're really sorry about this and that ten thousand dollars, you'll never hear from us again because we're going back and wipe it off the books.
MPWhy did you move to Normal? Was that about the only building that was available?
RGThat was the only building. (customer comes in and tape is stopped)
MPCould you tell me why you think business kind of dropped off when you went to Normal? I don't know if we got that on tape.
RGI think we did.
MPWould you say that was about the major problem you had with the business?
RGThat was the biggest problem.
MPNo problems with license?
MPDid you have any relationships with other Black or white businesses?
RGDo I have?
MPHave you had since you have been in operation?
RGWell, frankly there haven't been any Black businesses, only the man across the street-maybe my son around the corner. Then, I have another son that's opening a place right down the street here.
MPOh, what is that?
RGHe's opening up a computer store. He and his wife. They have one in Peoria, and they're opening one up here.
MPOh, that's great. Were you ever a member of the chamber of commerce?
MPAre you still a member?
RGNo, I was on the board of director of the chamber of commerce.
MPWould you begin by telling me when you first joined the chamber of commerce, the conditions under which you did?
RG Oh, at that time we had a young man by the name of Nate-I can't think of his last name. He worked for the city chamber of commerce. At the time, he was also going to ISU, and I can't think of his last name.
MPAnd this was a Black?
RGA young Black man.
MPHe was on the chamber of commerce. He worked for the chamber of commerce you say?
RGAnd at that time, they didn't have too many members, and they were trying to recruit as many people as they possibly could. So they hired him and he got all the Black businesses at that time or people that were anticipating going into business. He got Garrison's Plumbers, and he got me in. He got Richard Bell. I mean everybody that was in business, and maybe the two taverns. They had two bars at that time, and he got them. And they were all probably in the chamber of commerce, and they put me on the board of the chamber of commerce, but I can tell you a story that will blow your mind of how I got on the board of directors of the chamber of commerce. And that was when urban renewal bought my home down on East Street where the library is located at this time in Bloomington, me and my wife bought a home in Normal on William Drive. I tried to get it financed through Bloomington Federal, and they turned me down. For what reason, I don't know. So I went to Lincoln Savings and Loan, and they immediately just took it, and they bought the house for me.
MPYou went down to Lincoln?
RGNo, there was a branch office here at that time. But, what happened is, three years after I bought my home, I was living in Normal. The president of Champion Federal came into my shop one day and got a shoeshine, and he got up on the stand, which I knew him personally because I've worked at a country club as a bartender, and I knew most of them guys at that, you know. And he came into the shop, and he got a shoeshine. I think my son was shining his shoes, and he and I was having a conversation. He was telling me that if I needed anything, why come down there and they was an equal opportunity loaner and all this stuff. So I told him, "That's strange. I was down there three years ago, and I couldn't get a loan." He said, "Well what do you mean?" And I said, "Well, I was in there"-my son is a witness to this of he was shining his shoes. I said, "I was in your place, and I had four thousand dollars and urban renewal had fifteen thousand they were going to pay on the house for me, and you people refused to finance it." And he said, "You must be wrong." He almost called me a liar to my face, but he didn't. He didn't go that far.And I said, "I'm telling you, and that's a fact of life." And I said, "If you don't believe it,"-I even told him the person that interviewed me and the one that I filled out an application for, and they were the ones who turned me down. I guess he went back down there and found out that I told him the truth because I never heard anymore from him for six months.
MPThat's very interesting.
RGSix months later, he called me up on the phone one day. He said, "Bob Gaston?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "This is Craig [Hart] over at Champion Federal-Bloomington Federal at that time." I said, "Yeah, what can I do for you." He said, "I just submitted your name-I seen you're a member of chamber of commerce-I just submitted your name to the board of directors. If we could get you on there, would you accept the position?" I said, "Yeah, I'll take it." That's the last I heard of him. I knew what that was about. I knew that was because he had told me that I didn't apply at his place, and he was trying to.
MPAnd he felt guilty about it.
RGYeah, he felt guilty and-why me of all people?
MPThat's right. That is very interesting. And so you decided to accept.
RGYeah, and through that acceptance I went to Bloomington Country Club two or three times to dinner. You know they have the annual dinner there. I was probably the only Black that ever set down and ate because I used to work there, and a Black couldn't go out there and do anything. And while I was there, Bob-he used to be a lawyer for ISU-Bob [Lenz], I knew Bob. And Bob was at the dinner that night when I went out there-he and another guy that run Bloomington Physicians by the name of Stevenson. And they knew me, and they came over, and they started chatting with me and talking to me. And these old rich white folks was there, and they kept looking at me. That wanted to know what I was doing there. I wasn't supposed to be there unless I was working. Me and my daughter, Jewel, went. My wife was sick so I took Jewel with me. They kept insisting that I had to be Charles Morris. I told them twenty times that I wasn't Charles. Simply because they saw me and Bob Lenz together talking and Bob Lenz and Charles was in business together at that time so that kept insisting that-they'd say, "You're Charles Morris."
MPThat's the only Black person around who could be there, right?
RGThat might be there maybe through Bob Lenz. I doubt whether he'd ever been there. Maybe, I don't know. But they knew that Bob Lenz and Charles Morris were good friends, and I guess Bob was in the country club place all the time but in the.
RGNo, I don't know whether he was in the chamber of commerce or not, but what I'm trying to say is that he was not a member of the Bloomington Country Club. He used to go out there to Bob's home all the time. They were frequently together because I'd seen them at several different functions at that time. You know they owned some houses out there-co-ed houses, and they called them slum landlords. They both got rid of that stuff right away. You was probably there at the time. But, that was how I got to go to the country club, and I got to rub shoulders with this Craig Hart, that's his name, over at Bloomington Federal. And, he never did come out and apologize to me, but I could also tell that he had it on his mind. But he never said anything about it. You know some men never apologize for anything.
MPSo as to help him get off his guilt.
RGThat helped him cool his mind, I suppose.
MPI wanted you to tell me something about any kind of interesting experiences that you remember since you've been in business. You were saying some important personalities?
RGOh, I just happened to mention-that this kid asked me about that ball player in there and I told him.
MPOh, Brock.
RGHe parked right in front of my place because they were having him up here at this baseball clinic all day, and he just parked in front of the shop here. I got to talking and I chatted with him for awhile. He went up there and signed autographs all day. But, there's been so many things happened to me here in this barbershop. I've had all kinds of white people come in here, "rednecks" and everything else. You don't want any of that there, do you?
MPI think it would be interesting. You mean they would come to your barbershop to ask you cut their hair?
RGWell, yeah, when I first opened a barbershop on Center Street, that had always been a white folks' street, and I moved in over there in their territory. And I had the barbershop open and I was taking care of business cutting people's hair, you know- Black people-and this white man came in. He just looked like a typical bum or redneck or farmer or whatever you want to call him. He came in, and he had a sack in his hand, a brown paper sack. And he walked in, and he looked at me and he sat in a chair, and I didn't say anything to him. I just kept on working because I thought maybe he wanted a haircut. And he opened up his sack, and he took out a big bottle of wine and started drinking wine and sitting there and took his coat off and took one of his shoes off and crossed his legs and sat back in chair. So I said to him, I said, "Hey, I don't mind you being in here. If you want any kind of service, I'll render that too, but you can't drink in here." And he looked at me and said, "What do you mean, Boy, I can't drink in here?" I said, "Just what I said." He said, "You don't tell me what to do. This is my street. This is Center Street. I do what I want in here." I said, "If you don't put that bottle back in that sack, and sit up like a man and act right, I'm going to throw you out there in the middle of the street." And he said, "Boy, you don't know who you fooling with Boy, do you?" There was a guy in then by the name of Roosevelt [Rozell] Samuels. He lives on Willow Street in Normal. I was cutting his hair, and he had to take me off of that man.
MPThat did it.
RGYeah, he told me, "You're going to kill this man." I threw him out in the street. So about two days later there was a guy standing out there. They was supposed to be bad white folks, right next door to the union hall where all these white laborers and all these rednecks and everything hung out. And there was a tavern right there. A guy got killed there a few days earlier. Some guy shot him out there in front of the place. It was all whites you know. I was right on the corner, and they were right next door to me. So they saw me throw this white guy out of there. So this one guy, I guess he says, "I'm going to find out if he'll throw me out of there." About three days later, he come in there drunk with his bottle, and he sat down. Well, his brother was badder that he was, and he run the union hall. He was an organizer over there. So, he come in and pulled the same thing on me just about. So I grabbed him. First of all I knocked him down, and I picked him up by the seat of his pants and threw him out into the street. Then a car almost hit him, and I had to drag him back to keep the car from hitting him. Somebody ran in and told his brother-supposed to be the baddest (unintelligible) in town-and he ran out there. Somebody said, "'Nigger' done throw'd your brother out in the street there." He ran out there, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and he said, "Oh, my brother must have been drunk." He said, "He must have bothered Mr. Gaston because Mr. Gaston don't bother anybody." And he went back on in.
MPThat's interesting.
RGHe didn't know who had throw'd him out. The man said, "'Nigger' done throw'd your brother out of the barbershop." He looked and saw it was me, and he said, "Well, I don't think Mr. Gaston don't bother nobody. My brother drinks all the time so he must have done something to him." He didn't say nothing to me, and I didn't say nothing to him. I just went back into the shop.
MPBecause he didn't want to get thrown out. (laughs)
RGWell, I don't know. I don't know whether I could have thrown him out or not, but he didn't try it. But, I would have tried him if necessary. Another thing that happened-there was a lawyer, one of the crack lawyers of Bloomington at that time. His name was-Thomas. His name was-he used to be a high schoolteacher, and he became a lawyer. Thomas-I can't think of his name, but he lived in Normal. He owned everything out there on Main Street.
MPI know the one you're referring to.
RGHe died recently.
RGHe and I was pretty good friends. He always talked to me, and I always talked to him. I think he did two or three things for me in my lifetime maybe. Made some things a little bit easier for me. Worked out some red tape, you know. Where somebody was probably trying to give me a bad time, he'd take care of it. I could call Thompson and say so and so and that would be the end of it. I'd never hear about it again. So, he came down the street one day, he and this Black boy that worked for him. They were walking down the street. I guess he had the-he parked his car right down the street because he owned property down there. He parked his car on that lot because he had an office on the corner of Front and Center, and there was a lot he owned on Center right past Center and Grove, right past my shop past the union hall and the tavern. And there was a parking lot, and he owned that lot so that's where his employees parked and also himself. So he had a case over in court for one of the baddest men in town. Something about a divorce, him and his wife, and this guy frequented this tavern next to me, you know. They were all laborers and all, rough and tough people. So when he walked down to his car he brought this Black boy with him for protection because he knew this guy had made some threats on his life or something. Threatened to beat him up or something. So Thompson comes down through there with this Black boy.
MPChester Thomson.
RGChester. That's right. I don't know why I couldn't think of it. Chester comes down through there with this boy, and they was walking along the street and somebody hollered in the tavern and said, "Here comes Chester with a 'nigger'." So this bad dude ran out there and grabbed Chester. When he grabbed Chester, the [young man] run across the street and grabbed two bricks, and he ran back across the street. And the man had his back to him, and he had Chester up in the air like this up against the wall of my barbershop. The [young man] ran back across the street with these bricks, and somebody said, "Look out, I think he's got a brick. He's getting ready to hit you." So he turned Chester loose and turned around and looked at the [young man], and he let Chester go all the way down. And he turned and the [young man] stood there.
MPWith those bricks. (laughing)
RGYou know, and backing up the whole time with two bricks. And this guy was so drunk he was trying to walk to him and staggering up to him and he backed him clear across the street. He almost got hit by a car, and the he threw the bricks down and ran and left Chester there by himself. And the guy come back over there and started manhandling Chester. Well, we was sitting in the shop, me and I don't remember who else was there.
End Side A.