Paul White was one of the last participants engaged in black life in an area that was once entirely black on the East Side of San Antonio. Paul White was a barber who saw the destruction and the end of black businesses on E. Commerce Street. E. Commerce Street once had a strong history of black life and culture that once dominated the area, and stretched all the way from the San Antonio River to the east. Most of it is now gone as the result of a racist move to eliminate black businesses by making the street one way.
Areas that have large minority populations are eventually sold to land grabbers that remove the housing stock or remodel the area, often without legal permits. Most of the original owners have died and no longer have any stake in the area. Those that manage to stay and rebuild are fortunate and have the blessings of many in the community that have seen areas destroyed and spaces made available for an apartheid approach to progress. Before all of this destruction, this was the world of black barber Paul White.
Paul White was a black barber and a fixture on the cities near East Side. He mentored and hired such famous local barbers as Charles Williams. Paul lived at a time when black businesses existed up and down East Commerce Street. He cut hair at a time on Commerce Street when there was a black Cameo theater at 1123 E. Commerce, a black owned De Luxe Hotel at the corner of E. Commerce and Sycamore Street, the Lifesaver’s Bar and Grill, Bette’s Eat Shop in the 1400 Block of E. Commerce, Bellinger’s Taxi Cab Company, Red Top Cab and Fishers Café located on the northern side of the 1400 block of E. Commerce, Cunningham’s Pharmacy and Soda Shop at 1414 E. Commerce, the Avalon Grill and the Foggy (or Froggy) Bottom Club at 1131 E. Commerce, and Dr. Madison Preacher’s Office, one of the few black physicians in San Antonio for many years. At 1412 East Commerce, next door to the Cunningham Pharmacy, in the same building, was Taylor’s Barber Shop. Taylor’s Barber Shop is where famed barber Paul White worked and gave Charles Williams his first job.
When Paul White died he was 86 years old and would have many memories of the black side of town. He would have cut black soldiers hair from Fort Sam Houston and patrons from many of the black businesses and neighborhoods north and south of E. Commerce Street. Only John Inman, a black barber a few blocks away on South Hackberry Street was older than Paul White. For 64 years, Paul White cut hair and demanded that his barbers be polite in a very professional manner while working at his business. He loved to listen to others while focused on the service he provided to his customers.
Many African Americans visited his barber shop and discussed the politics of that day while getting their haircut. This was not unusual then or now, as on any Saturday visit to either a black beauty salon or a black barber shop will often yield intense discussions about politics, rumors (some real and some not), deaths and funerals in the community, and various other social issues. Sometimes, news about lost relatives and friends can be uncovered. It was no different in Paul White’s shop. Even when barbers tried to put a lid on political shop talk it always found a way to erupt. Paul White was known to help those who could not afford a haircut and often did so for church members and strangers.