Six months after arriving from Philadelphia to serve as Concord Academy’s new head of school, Henry Fairfax had a full roster of responsibilities and goals to keep on track.
As the private boarding and day school in Concord Center celebrated its centennial year and Fairfax settled in as the school’s 11th leader since its founding in 1922, he was working with faculty, staff, trustees, and students to foster the school’s collaborative atmosphere while maintaining its top-tier academics. Always firmly in his sights, especially as the school’s first Black leader, was the institution’s stated mission to strive for equity.
With all of these duties along with 400 students to meet, it’s no wonder Fairfax hadn’t managed to fit in a haircut since he, his wife Ivy and their three young children moved to town late last summer.
So Fairfax did something no previous head of Concord Academy had done. He turned his office into a barbershop one Sunday, and invited the Philadelphia barber who has cut his hair for the past three decades to come to campus for the day.
Of course, he could have just walked two blocks into Concord Center for a quick cut. But Fairfax was envisioning something different: a venue like the barbershops of his native West Philadelphia, where boys and men, as well as others, could gather to kick back, share ideas, learn from one another, and leave a little bit better groomed than they entered.
Fairfax and his colleagues weren’t sure what the response would be, but barber Nafis Williams instinctively knew how to recreate the atmosphere of his urban Philadelphia shop. A flat-screen TV was set up to broadcast the weekend’s NBA and NFL matchups, and Fairfax programmed some favorite playlists on the sound system. He even organized a “March Madness” bracket for attendees to vote on their favorite recording artist.
By midmorning, a small group of students stood outside the door peering in. Among them was Rory Kennealy, a 17-year-old day student from Lexington.
“I thought it would be a good way to get to know the new head of school,” Kennealy said. “Also, I needed a haircut.” Soon Fairfax’s office was packed with classmates and teachers engaged in lively discussions about sports and music.
Concord Academy’s enrollment is 39 percent students of color, and 10 percent international. Grace Kalere, a junior at the school, is the son of Central African immigrants, but growing up in Cambridge gave him little exposure to the African-American barbershop culture he’d seen portrayed in movies and on TV.
“I was blown away by all the different types of people there,” Kalere recalled of that day in Fairfax’s office. “I didn’t expect it to be only Black-identifying males, but I had no idea how much beyond that it would extend. I saw other Black students but also white students, international students, the athletic trainer, some of my teachers, and children of faculty members. There was basketball and football on TV and lots of conversation. Everyone was joking, having fun, and they all felt so comfortable expressing themselves in this space.”
For Grant Hightower, Concord Academy’s dean of students and former METCO director in Reading and coordinator in Wellesley, it was a return to his own childhood. “In my formative years, the barbershop was a place where a lot of lessons were learned and there was an opportunity to talk freely,” he said. “The event on campus brought people together to meet the new head of school in a way that was comfortable for him and for others as well.”
“It was pretty spectacular to be part of a gathering that is so different from what it is like to go to the barber as a white person,” said physics and engineering teacher Brad Moriarty. “Normally when I go to the barber, everyone just sits quietly waiting their turn. Here I found everyone talking, sharing stories, engaging with one another.”
Eight hours after opening their doors and taking the first snip, Fairfax and Williams cleaned up the office together. Williams left for the airport to catch his flight back to Philly, while Fairfax headed to his on-campus residence. But within hours, female students were reaching out to him with a question: What could he offer to those who don’t frequent barbershops?
Fairfax turned to his wife for ideas, and a few weeks later, the Concord Academy campus greeted another visitor from Philadelphia: Ivy Fairfax’s longtime hair stylist, Tiffanie Demby-Rouse. Given that women’s salons typically require a lot more equipment, sinks, products, and dedicated time per customer than traditional barbershops, Demby-Rouse didn’t actually cut hair; Instead, she offered a participatory session on hair care and styling, complete with mannequins for practice. The timing coincided with Concord Academy’s first-ever Alumni of Color Weekend, so not only students and faculty but also returning alumni were invited to participate.
As for the barbershop’s March Madness bracket, lively discussion unfolded all day as visitors debated their choices of the greatest recording artist of all time. In the end, Marvin Gaye squeaked out a slim win over Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and Elton John.
And although many students and faculty were happy to show off their newly groomed locks, Fairfax wasn’t among them. Like a dinner party host who is too busy to eat, he never actually had a turn in the barber seat. So he’s bringing Williams back one Sunday later this spring, just in time to get everyone looking sharp for commencement.
“Among our goals at CA is to create safe spaces for kids and adults to discuss important matters, to get to know each other, to get to trust each other,” Fairfax said. “In my community, the barbershop has long served as a kind of sacred space where this happens. And I see this as a way to demonstrate to our students that critical conversations and courageous conversations are part of the experience in their learning journey.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at NancySWest@gmail.com.