By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
More than 40 years ago, Ashley Pritchett’s grandfather opened one of the most well-known barber businesses in the city of Birmingham—Etheridge Brothers Barber Shop. Growing up, Pritchett spent a lot of time in those shops.
“I’ve been here all my life,” she said. “Ever since I was little, I would always come down here. When I was born, [my grandfather and uncles] were over here. … Most of the businesses in the Fourth Avenue Business District have been here since I was little, so I know a lot of people around here that help each other a lot, but it has grown. … There are a lot of new businesses and a lot of people coming into the district.”
Pritchett, 35, is now co-owner of Etheridge Senior Car Wash and Detail, in downtown Birmingham’s historic Fourth Avenue Business District and Civil Rights District.
The Fourth Avenue Business District, which began to form at the turn of the 20th century, is a commercial area that stretches along 15th to 18th streets North, and from Rev. Abraham Woods Jr. Boulevard to Second Avenue North.
It was known as the center for Birmingham’s black-owned businesses, which served black customers during the city’s long period of enforced segregation. Among the older establishments are Poole Funeral Home, Nelson Brothers Café, Green Acres Café, Magic City Barber Shop, Citizen’s Trust Bank, New Breed Barber and Styles Shop, and several Etheridge family businesses.
“My granddad, [Willie Etheridge], started a whole bunch of barber and beauty salons about 40 or 50 years ago,” she said. “He started on Fifth Avenue North and then came to Third Avenue, where [the shop] stayed maybe 25 or 30 years; it just moved back down the street. A street in the Fourth Avenue Business District was dedicated to my grandfather, who has been [in the area] for like 50-plus years.”
Pritchett said her granddad opened a car wash 30 years ago, and then he fell ill.
“He had prostate cancer, and then he passed [the business] to my mom. My mom had a massive heart attack two years ago, so I quit my job and came [to the car wash] to work,” she said.
All in the Family
All the Etheridge businesses are family-owned. Pritchett, a third-generation Etheridge, co-owns the car wash, located at 1600 Third Ave. N., with her sister, April. The family also owns 11 barber and beauty salons, a nail salon, and a catering company.
“Most of my granddad’s brothers have a lot of the barber shops, and most of their kids branched out to the beauty salons, but everybody is family though,” she said. “We have to train the next generation after us because our parents trained us. Our kids don’t want to do what we’re doing, but a lot of my cousins cut hair, so they’re following in the footsteps [of their fathers].”
Pritchett said she put aside her own dreams to carry on the family business.
“I was an assistant nurse at [the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)] when [my mother] passed, but I know this was her baby, so I wanted to make sure it was running right. I quit my job and came to run it for her,” said Pritchett. “I’ve been working here all my life, … so to step in as a younger female means a lot because there are not a lot of young, black females doing what we’re doing.”
Pritchett currently has about 15 or 16 employees at one of the largest hand car washes in Birmingham, she plans to expand.
Several other longtime family establishments in the Fourth Avenue Business District are now in the hands of the younger generation.
Nelson Brothers Café
Not far from Etheridge Senior Car Wash and Detail is the Nelson Brother’s Café. Antrice Nelson, 52, is a third-generation Nelson who works in her family’s establishment at 312 17th St. N., along with her son Elan, 22.
The cafe was opened in 1943 by her grandfather, Daniel Nelson, and his brother, George; her father, Jessie, took over around 1990 or 1991.
“They were here during the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Movement,” said Antrice, who has been at the café for about three years. “It’s an honor to still be down here, to still be standing because a lot of black businesses failed. Part of what’s keeping us afloat is that we own the property.”
Nelson grew up in the café. In fact, it was her first job.
“We used to be next to the Carver Theatre—[the restaurant moved to its current location when the theater expanded in 1990]—and my first job was making pie boxes,” she said. “[Working here] gave me the opportunity to meet and greet some positive black people, [such as the dentists and doctors who had offices in the Masonic Temple across the street].”
New Breed Barber and Styles Shop
Clint Simpson Jr., 48, owner of New Breed Barber and Styles Shop, is a second-generation member of the family business, which also doubles as the Alabama College of Barber Instruction, the only minority-owned private barber college in the state. His father, Clint Simpson Sr., opened the business in 1968.
Simpson said his dad learned he could operate a barber college in addition to his shop and made it part of his business.
“[My father] passed away in 2015, and I took over,” said Simpson, who explained that barbers have an important role in the community.
“My daddy was also a minister, so [I would] see him minister to people from behind his chair; [it] was more like a pulpit,” he said. “We’re like doctors, too, because we listen to people’s problems and give advice. You know, it makes some people feel better.”