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America Speaks, and a South Carolina Barbershop Exults

Willie Pearson, owner of Pearson's Westside Barbershop in South Carolina, trims Wilbert Barton's hair. "You woke up happy today, didn't you?" Pearson asked a customer about Barack Obama's win.
Willie Pearson, owner of Pearson's Westside Barbershop in South Carolina, trims Wilbert Barton's hair. "You woke up happy today, didn't you?" Pearson asked a customer about Barack Obama's win. (By John Byrum For The Washington Post)

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By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008

SPARTANBURG, S.C. Nov. 5 -- The morning sun shone down on Willie Pearson as he unlocked the front door of Pearson's Westside Barbershop and reached for the lights. Everything was just as he left it the night before: five barber chairs, the smell of talc and liniment, and a photo of Joe Frazier hanging above the mirror.

But everything was different.

"Yes, we can," Pearson said, smiling at two of his customers waiting for him to open. "Yes, we can."

No one needed to say a word. All three men were smiling. Each had stayed up late watching TV, and then woke early to watch more TV to make sure it was still true.

"America has spoken," Pearson, 57, said on the first day of the most historic of days when Sen. Barack Obama became the country's first black president.

But South Carolina had spoken, too, a harsh reality that competed with the joy felt in this barbershop. Sen. John McCain crushed Obama 54.1 percent to 44.7 percent in this state. And here in Pearson's county, Obama was rejected by an even larger margin, winning 38.7 percent of the vote compared with McCain's 59.8 percent.

The America that filled Grant Park in Chicago and danced in the streets in Washington is not the America where Pearson lives. Spartanburg was imperceptibly quiet on the morning after Obama's victory. But inside Pearson's barbershop, customers clung to the distant America that overwhelmingly voted for Obama rather than their home town.

"You woke up happy today, didn't you?" Pearson asked a customer, whipping a cape around his neck.

The barbershop, on the edge of Spartanburg, is old school. No dice, no cussing, no skipping the line. The Ten Commandments are tacked to the wall next to a Michael Jordan poster. Men come here because Willie Pearson runs an orderly barbershop in a disorderly world: Everyone takes a number.

His customers had no illusions about where South Carolina stood before the election. The editorial boards of the state's three largest newspapers endorsed McCain. A preelection poll showed the Republican leading by 21 points. Television clips about a heated squabble between the Spartanburg County Republican chairman and the president of the local NAACP chapter over the validity of a signature on an absentee ballot aired on local news the week before the election, inflaming old divisions.

While gospel music played in Pearson's barbershop Wednesday and customers shook hands and praised McCain for being respectful in his concession speech, Rick Beltram, the county GOP chairman, was at party headquarters, saying Republicans in Spartanburg were spurred to the polls after seeing the news clips about the altercation.

"You see an angry African American on TV, and I'm articulating exactly what the laws are and how we have to do it," Beltram said. "People came out fired up."


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