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Ask any man in the military and you’ll get the same advice: If you don’t want to look like you’re fresh out of boot camp, find a good barber away from the base.
Haircuts in the military aren’t just about fashion. To promote uniformity, Army regulation 670-1 prohibits hair from touching men’s ears and the back of their collar. Soldiers are expected to maintain a professional appearance at all times. To comply with the standard, men in particular are required to get frequent haircuts, sometimes even once a week.
That can pose a problem for minority servicemembers.
Most bases have a barbershop on post to provide access to frequent and affordable haircuts. Those barbers are trained to cut all hair types, but when it comes to African-American and Latinx hair, they often aren’t that great.
“Black folks can’t get their hair cut at any old place,” says Virginia-based U.S. Army Master Sgt. Harold Summey. “I’m an older man with life experience. I don’t want to look like a new recruit.”
Though the force is more diverse than at any point in its history, the majority of active-duty service members in the military are white, according to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center. Minority servicemen are left with fewer options in the barber’s chair, and that can be a big problem when haircuts are a condition of satisfactory employment.
There are several large bases in Maryland, Virginia, and the District. Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling is located adjacent to Congress Heights, a majority black community east of the Potomac River in D.C. The massive military installation formed when a Naval support facility and an Air Force base were merged in 2010 as part of a reorganization of military facilities mandated by Congress. With over 17,000 service members and civilians working at Joint Base-Anacostia-Bolling, a lot of people need a good haircut.
Enter Mr. Ray.
Ray Kibler, known as “Mr. Ray,” has filled that void in the Congress Heights neighborhood for 26 years. As minority servicemembers in the Washington metropolitan area struggled to find barbers who fit their needs, word about the quality cuts from My 3 Sons Unisex spread quickly. Limited access to transportation before the Metro extended east of the river didn’t stop service members from hitching a ride to Congress Heights for a haircut.
“We’re serious about our fades,” Kibler says. A fade is a short men’s haircut that fades from the ears to the top of the head, so that skin shows on the sides at the top of the ears, but the hair gradually gets longer toward the top. It’s very hard to do well without making a clear line where the longer hair starts.
“Guys come in here all the time, looking for something a little more nuanced than what they can get on the base. We give them a better look,” he says.
The transient nature of life in the military means servicemembers have to start over when they move duty stations, and that includes finding a new barber. Kibler credits the internet for bringing a constant stream of customers who may otherwise not be aware of the shop. In just over a month, My 3 Sons Unisex now has more than 100 glowing reviews on Google alone.
My 3 Sons has modest beginnings. After being exposed to barbering by several family members, Kibler began charging for cuts in his mother’s basement around the corner from the shop at a young age. He learned the finer points of the trade as an apprentice with an established local barber, and went into business with one of his brothers in 1986 with a small loan from their father. All they needed was a name.
“We were on the porch one day brainstorming and my brother wanted to call it Trend Setters, but that didn’t feel personal,” he says. “Then I thought, ‘There’s three of us brothers. Why not call it My 3 Sons?’”
For Kibler, the business was a way to be part of his neighborhood. “I grew up here, and I raised my children here. That’s why my customers continue to support me,” he says. “I never turned my back on this neighborhood.” Even when the crack epidemic hit Congress Heights hard in the 1980s, Kibler maintained his belief that local barbers could be a positive force within the community.
Barbers have provided a space for black servicemen to openly discuss questions of race and inequality for over a century. Quincy T. Mills, associate professor of history at Vassar College, wrote in his book Cutting Along the Color Line that black World War II veterans played a huge role in barbershops following the war. As both barbers and customers, they needed a place to talk. Shop owners knew the importance of providing a space for black men to gather and to organize.
In the early 1990s Gary Powell served in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard,” a prestigious Army ceremonial infantry unit based just outside of D.C. With high-profile missions at The White House nearly every day, “The Old Guard” takes Army appearance standards even higher. When Powell was in the unit, soldiers were required to wear a “high and tight” haircut at all times.
Powell complied with the standard, but such a close cut irritated the skin on the back of his neck and head. The condition was painful, and required a doctor’s validation that allowed him to wear a more tapered fade. To help soldiers meet appearance standards, each company of men had a barber who provided free haircuts every week. But the nuance necessary for Powell’s sensitive skin was outside of the company barber’s expertise.
“One of my comrades told me about Mr. Ray over in Congress Heights and I checked him out,” he says. “He tapered that fade so well that I would pay $12 for a haircut every week instead of getting a free one from our barber,” says Powell. “He was that good, and $12 was a lot for a men’s haircut in 1993.”
The shop made a lasting impression on Powell. After serving 10 years on active duty with the U.S. Army, Powell left the area in 1996, but he returned a few years later and knew exactly who to call for that famous fade. Powell has visited My 3 Sons for a haircut every other week for the last 17 years.
“Why go anywhere else? I knew the quality would be there, and Ray is a stand-up citizen,” he says.
Residents of Congress Heights, black and white, have had a tense relationship with the United States military, and in some cases with each other, for the better part of a century.
In the years following World War I, the area east of the Anacostia River was a working-class white enclave, and many blue-collar Virginians commuted to work at the Naval Air Station and Bolling Field. White residents were openly hostile to their black neighbors, and restrictive covenants kept black residents from purchasing property throughout the city.
Senior Master Sgt. Jake McCray, a white senior non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force, remembers early in his career being urged by other airmen not to visit neighborhoods just outside the base. “Unfortunately, it was more or less implied not to go up the hill on Malcolm X Avenue SE because people thought there was nothing up there for us.”
Despite the community’s historical lack of relationship with the base, My 3 Sons Unisex continued to thrive by developing a dedicated customer base. Today, the sunny yellow house on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE looks inviting, with a traditional red and blue barber shop pole in the front yard. Professionally dressed barbers in collared shirts, bow ties, and aprons greet their customers.
Kibler had a vision to create a professional environment and to cultivate a sense of community in his barber shop. But growing up cutting African-American hair left a gap in Kibler’s skill set that he wanted to address.
To learn how to cut straight hair, he enrolled in classes at the National Institute of Cosmetology and became a member of the National Beauty Culturists’ League, an organization that provides professional training and raises the image of beauty and culture as an industry.
In his book, Mills writes that white barbers hid behind unfamiliar hair types as an excuse for discrimination.
“In refusing to cut African American’s hair, white barbers had the convenient excuse that they lacked the training to cut ‘kinky’ hair,” he writes. “They relied on biological racism, drawing on ways of seeing race through hair type, to turn customers away.”
Kibler didn’t want his shop to be exclusionary. “I wanted to create a business where anyone will feel welcome and cared for,” he says. “It’s been my great pleasure to serve these guys over the years.”
Mike Cemprola, an Italian-American saxophonist in the U.S. Air Force Band at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling got a bad haircut on base. It only took a few days before he looked for a barber to fix him up. “We get calls all the time from guys on the base asking if we fix haircuts,” says Ty Powell, a barber at My 3 Sons. That’s exactly what Cemprola was looking for.
“Within 15 minutes, Ty fixed all of the major mistakes and made sure to ask before fading certain parts,” he says. “The guy is a serious barber.”
Kibler is particular about his brand. “Sometimes it’s difficult to bring barbers in because of my high standards,” he says. “But the ones who do come want to be part of this environment.”
This story has been updated.