“Ben Parks was one of our most successful black entrepreneurs in Madison history. Period,” says Kaleem Caire, CEO and founder of One City Early Learning Centers and longtime Madison southsider. “He stayed in business for such a long time and cared about his community and took care of his family. His business created opportunities for other people and some retirement for he and his wife and it allowed him to do things that he wanted to do.”
For over a quarter century, Ben’s Barber Shop on Madison’s south side was much more than just a place to get a shave and a haircut. It was an important community resource center and a place where African Americans could freely socialize and discuss contemporary issues.
“It was typical of what you’d sometimes see on television where black men in the barbershop are just talking politics and going off,” Caire tells Madison365. “They’d have us dying from laughter. I would love to go there … just for the comedy of it. They’d have you on the floor whether it was about sports, politics, entertainment, music, God.”
It was such a fun and interesting place that Caire says he used to pop in even when he didn’t need a haircut. But it was also a place that could be much more serious and introspective. It was a place where African-American men became entrepreneurs, made career decisions, and forged lifelong friendships.
“A man could go there to consult or to debate or deepen his relations with others. It was a place where loyalties formed,” says Glenn Parks, Ben Parks’ son, who spent plenty of time in Ben’s Barber Shop. “For my dad, that was something that resonated deeply with him. He was an engaging person. He loved the social aspect of it and the chance to build friendships in the community, but also the chance to debate ideas and thoughts. It could be a pretty charged atmosphere in there sometimes.”
For many black men, getting a haircut is more than a commodity — it’s an experience that builds community and camraderie and shapes political action. It’s where one discusses life’s most important decisions.
“I can recall many discussions at The Shop where there were serious conversations about whether someone should pursue a certain vocational path or people talking about their personal goals in life,” Glenn Parks says. “It was a place where consulting was done and resources were shared … where people found ways to support one another and helped each other facilitate a better life.
“There were times I remembered people talking about tangible ways to combine their resources to assist one another,” he adds. “There was a general understanding that we were operating as a collective and that each of their personal ambitions and goals were sort of interlinked and that they had an interconnectedness in their dreams and desires.
Ben Parks came to Madison from Georgia in 1953 in search of a better life.
“When I came to Madison, they were sayin’ it was about 300 black people. You could walk around the Capitol Square pretty much for three or four hours and never meet a black person,” Ben Parks recounted in David Giffey’s “The People’s Stories of South Madison (2001)”
“Everybody seemed to be happy back during the Greenbush days. It was better than where I came from, that’s for sure. But it was prejudiced here, just like it is now, back then,” Ben Parks continued. “You couldn’t find a place to live. That was my main concern. A white person had a house, had an apartment for rent … and they wouldn’t rent it to us. You’d call ’em, and when you go to ’em, they see black, and that’s when most of the time you’d have a problem.”
In the early 1960’s, Parks worked for Rev. James Wright, who would go on to become the first executive director for the Equal Opportunities Commission for the City of Madison. Wright and his wife Jacqueline had founded and constructed Jackie and Jimmy’s Beauty. Parks would go on to buy the barbershop from Rev. Wright and he ran in until the late ’90s when he retired and Ben’s Barber Shop transitioned into Style and Grace on 1610 Gilson St. not far from South Park Street.
It was a struggle being a black-owned business in Madison back in those days. Racism was alive and well.
“He had people like Rev. Wright who were really in his corner and served as a mentor in a professional and personal sense. That was important,” Glenn Parks remembers. “But there was also a reality that existed in trying to operate a business [as a black man in ‘60s and ’70s Madison].
“I recall there were times, especially in the early years, him trying to get financing for the business … and even if he met the criteria, it was a struggle to get support from the institutions in the area,” he adds. “There were things that were beyond his control, but he still fought through it and made sacrifices. There were some tough times.”
“He really watched over that business. He was right on those receipts,” Caire adds. “Every night he would always make sure his receipts and deposits were together. He watched those books. And he didn’t have to do any publicity – you might see a little ad here or there – because he was that popular.”
If you rolled into “The Shop” back in the day, you were just as likely to see Parks’ good friend Taylor “Smitty” Smith, a barber since coming to Madison from Greenville, Miss., in the ‘50s.
“It was always him and Smitty,” Caire says. “Once in awhile one or two young people were in that he would apprentice. It was the place to hang out. It was the only black place that we were aware of so everybody went to Mr. Parks place to get their hair cut. He was popular. You’d have to book your haircut 3 or 4 weeks in advance.
“Ben always wanted to keep things in the black community. He was big on that. He stayed in the black neighborhood,” Caire adds. “He didn’t move out to the west side or other places – and he could have afforded to. They stayed right there. They raised their children well and they did well.”
Parks’ daughter, Andrea, graduated from Madison West and is retired from the military after 21 years in the U.S. Army. She now lives in Killeen, Texas. His son, Glenn Parks, graduated from Madison Memorial and is a behavioral and mental health counselor living in Georgia. Daughter Glenna also graduated from Memorial and is a nurse who lives in Milwaukee.
Ben Parks’ influence went far beyond his barbershop. He was a leader in the neighborhood and the community, a father figure, a mentor, and a role model.
“Their yard was always immaculate. His wife [Margaret Parks] had a nice little garden back there. I got to see them as a husband-and-wife team. It’s something that I didn’t get to see otherwise … and that was huge for me and others,” Caire remembers. “To see them work together, plan together, and love each other … that was important to me. They lived that traditional middle-class black life.”
Growing up, Caire says he was at Mr. Parks’ house just as much as I was at his own house. If not more. “He had some strict rules for the kids; but they weren’t too strict,” Caire says. “They had to finish those chores. We’d have to scatter every day at 4 or 4:30 so they could get those chores done! That was serious stuff.”
Caire specifically remembers Mr. Parks as a kind man and a man who really loved golf.
“He’d go out to golf every Monday; the barbershop would be closed every Monday,” Caire says. “Occasionally, he’d go on a weekend, but he was always in that barbershop – Tuesday through Saturday.
“Mr. Parks loved to go fishing, too. He was the only black man I knew with a boat!” adds Caire, with a laugh. “He’d park his boat right in his driveway – that first house on the left on Taft St. by the Boys and Girls Club. There weren’t too many brothers with boats on the water!”
Ben Parks was 84 when he passed away in December of 2013. It was a giant loss for not just the Madison south side community, but for the Madison community as a whole.
“Great father, great family man, great community steward, great man of the village,” Caire says. “I love that man. I miss him. He was like a father figure for me.”
“He was proud to be an entrepreneur and to provide employment opportunities,” adds Glenn Parks. “That was something that was very substantial for him … to be able to have an impact economically speaking on his own community. Especially, back in that time in the ’60s and ’70s for people in that area who were struggling. He loved that he could create some opportunities that would increase the quality of life for people in Madison.”