The Senate Sergeant-at-Arms office has agreed to look into concerns raised by a longtime Senate staffer that the Senate Hair Care Services shop located in the Russell Building is ill-equipped to serve black clients.
“When you walk in there, you wanna feel: ‘Yeah, I can get my hair cut [here],’” said Robert Foster, a black 33-year Capitol Hill veteran and professional staffer on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Instead, Foster asserted, he found prominently displayed photographs depicting hairstyles aimed at white customers, hair care products predominantly oriented for Caucasian clients and barbers who — by and large — do not know how to handle the hair care needs of black patrons.
“The world is changing, and the barber shop is going to have to change with it,” said Foster, adding that the Senate’s diverse work force necessitates that the shop provide an equal level of service for all its employees.
Foster, who no longer patronizes the shop, said he notified the Rules and Administration Committee a month ago about his concerns and was consequently contacted by a “high-ranking official” from the office of Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle. He was told that his concerns will be addressed.
But the barber shop’s management rejected suggestions that its services and products overlook black needs.
The shop’s manager, who refused to give his name, said he does not give media interviews. But he did insist that “we do have” hair care products geared toward black patrons. The Sergeant-at-Arms office identified the manager as Mario D’Angelo.
“We’ve always had them,” he later added.
But Charlie Rollins, the current Supreme Court barber, insists this isn’t so. Rollins spent a decade as a Senate barber before retiring in 2000 and heading over to the Supreme Court.
Rollins said that, during the majority of his tenure in the chamber, the shop did not offer the appropriate oils, shampoos and sprays black tresses often require — though many of his clients were black.
“The reason I didn’t say anything then was because the shop was scared to death they were going to be closed down because of the deficit,” asserted the 57-year-old Rollins.
In the late 1990s, the Senate barber shop merged with the beauty salon as part of an effort by the Rules and Administration panel to cut costs at the habitually money-losing operation.
During the reorganization, Rollins said he told the Sergeant-at-Arms that products tailored for black hair should be added to the shop in order to avoid damaging black clients’ hair.
Then-Sergeant-at-Arms Greg Casey told him, “That’s a good idea. Order what you want,” according to Rollins, who said he later received an award from the Sergeant-at-Arms office for his efforts to expand the shop’s offerings.
Rollins eventually invited a company to put on a seminar in the shop, instructing his colleagues how to perm, condition and blow-dry the hair of black customers.
“I initiated it all, and I pushed it all. I guess when I left, the initiative left too,” said Rollins.
“For African-Americans to use shampoo that a Caucasian uses, it’s like washing your car with soap powder,” he added.
Several black Senate employees last week echoed the claims of Foster and Rollins.
“To be honest with you, they just don’t know how to cut black hair,” said Shaun Gaskins, who works at the Cups & Co. coffee shop in the Russell Senate Office Building and has previously had his hair cut in the Senate barber shop.
A black Capitol Police officer said the belief that the shop, which is in the basement of the Russell Building, was mainly for whites was widely held among his black colleagues.
“They discourage us from using it. ... They have the conception that it is for Caucasians,” he said.
Still, not all black staffers said they were dissatisfied with the service they received at the cuttery.
As Cornelius Driggins, a Senate data technician, noted, “I’ve been there twice and they did a good job.”
After a discussion with the representative of the Sergeant-at-Arms office a little less than two weeks ago, Foster said all of his demands — which included adding photographs that depict hairstyles suitable for diverse ethnicities, offering more black hair care products, and ensuring that at least one barber was trained to properly cut and style black hair — were agreed to.
An official from the Sergeant-at-Arms office confirmed that an individual from the office had met with Foster and that his concerns would be examined.
Foster, the self-described “one-man rebel,” left the meeting assured that “the Sergeant-at-Arms is making every effort to take care of the problem.”
“They realize that this problem has not been corrected and now they are going to have to do something,” said Foster, though he noted that no time frame was established during the discussion.
Visitors get their first look at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which opened to the public on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The new memorial is located off Independence Ave. SW between the Rayburn House Office Building and HHS. Buy photo here.