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Whitlow’s Barber Lounge in Detroit: A cultural masterpiece and legendary landmark

Whitlow, a 50-year entrepreneur and owner of Whitlow’s Barber Lounge, cuts the hair of Andre Johnson, the president of the Detroit Recovery Project.


Vonzie Whitlow has barber’s clippers and the Civil Rights Movement in his DNA. And he combines his love of sculpting hair with his passion for social and cultural improvement, and that’s why the Whitlow’s Barber Lounge has become a community institution and historic landmark in the city of Detroit.

For the past half-century, Whitlow’s Barber Lounge is the place where hair and minds get shaped positively — at the same time. Whitlow began cutting hair in his hometown of Lafayette, Ala., at the age of 14, not far from where a young preacher and a seamstress (Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks) would change the country forever in nearby Montgomery. And, in fact, Whitlow got his barber apprenticeship completed under the tutelage of Rosa Parks’ husband at Maxwell Air Force Base, himself a barber for over 40 years. Activism has been in his blood ever since.

“Why did I start cutting hair? Because God gave me the vision to cut hair. I love it. I’d rather cut hair than eat,” he says only half-jokingly.

Much like Rosa Parks, Whitlow moved up to the city of Detroit and opened his shop on March 23, 1963 – just before the “March on Washington,” before President Kennedy was killed, and right when the country was being swept up in the powerful currents of a nonviolent revolution. Whitlow has been an activist ever since.

He lives and works these words as a soundtrack to his life:

“Martin Luther King Jr. once said ‘the good stay where the bad are at. And that’s why I stayed here, to bring some good out of where the bad is at. So that’s why I never moved.’”

The Detroit neighborhood where he first set up shop had deteriorated badly, but not Whitlow’s desire to serve and to give back, which is why many people believe that his shop is under divine protection.

First, “We went to the Million Man March in Oct. 1995. And when we came back we said “well, what are we going to do?” So we started something called “Fun Day.” it’s held on July 16. And we give away bikes. The first year, we gave away 15 bikes. The second year we gave away 25 bikes.

Also, on every Oct. 16, Whitlow also gives away food for the homeless on the anniversary of the Million Man March.

Pieces of advice:

  1. “The world is looking for someone who can do something, not someone who explains why they didn’t do it.”

  2. “From the time the sun rises to the sun sets, don’t waste that time. Make it count. A lot of people say they’re going to make up for yesterday. But you can’t make up time.”

    Whitlow’s Barber Lounge is located at 8034 Wildemere St., Detroit, Michigan 48206

    He can be reached at (313) 894-8858