Riley House honors pioneer family business
Special to the Outlook
The Riley House’s annual “ Applause for the Pioneers” Gala will reflect on and illuminate the history and contributions of one of Tallahassee’s pioneer families and businesses, Gilliam Brothers Friendly Barbershop. On Feb. 17 at Goodwood Museum and Gardens, the legacy of Reverend Ervin Omega Gilliam Sr., the founder of the business in 1966 (now deceased), and the enterprising spirit and dedication of his sons Rev. Ervin Omega Jr. and Melvin Lorenzo and grandson Desmond who continue ownership and operation of the business. Gilliam Brothers Barbershop is located in the Historic Frenchtown community, and is one of the few remaining of many businesses that once existed in the area. Rev. Ervin Omega Sr. brought his oldest brother, Ventice, into the business, thus the name Gilliam Brothers. The business has been of economic benefit, community pride and also a place for community engagement, information sharing and fellowship.
In an interview, the sons rattled off names of civil rights and religious leaders, and politicians among the many residents, students and friends who have made up the customer base through the years: Coach A.S. “Jake” Gaither, Coach John D. Harris; Bishop A.J. Richardson, Jr. and Rev. I.D. Hinson (both former Bethel AME Church pastors), Rev. A. L. Bennett, owner of extensive property including CASH Hall site on the corner of Woodward and Brevard Streets; Rev. King Solomon DuPont, Rev. R.C. Snellings (who was well known in A.M.E. circles for singing “Blessed Assurance”), Rev. Johnny Bruce, Rev. Harrison, Florida A&M University Coaches Hansel Tookes and Costa Kittles and FAMU President B.L. Perry, Judge Joseph Hatchett; Dr. William P. Foster, FAMU Band Director; former Mayor James Ford and current Mayor Andrew Gillum.
Rev. Gilliam received barbering training at Lincoln High School on Brevard Street in the Vocational Department under Mr. John Green. Through the years, he hired and inspired several other barbers. Among them were: Barney Lockley, Sylvester Beckwith, “Pimptown” Townsend, Edward Pye, Jack Wynn, Harold Smith, Alvin McGill, Jerry Grice, Rod Milton and others, some of whom moved from Gilliam’s and opened their own shops.
Rev. Ervin Omega Jr. proudly related, “My father and uncle always took pride in their work!!! Former students who interned here, or came to get haircuts, come back now to visit us when they are in town. Our foundation was Christianity – allowing no drinking, profanity, etc. in the shop”. Daughter Pinky shared that “barbers played a great role in the community. The shop was a gathering place where politics, sports, religion, education and various civil rights movement issues were discussed and disputed. Everything was made known in the barbershop and passed on for the good of the community.
Notices of important meetings and high profile folk coming to town were known first by those in the barbershop. The same was true for beauty shops.” Rev. Ervin Omega Jr. recalled the family sitting around in the shop discussing a theme. Pinky came up with “If your hair is not becoming to you, you should be coming to us. It is still used today. We also use “The Friendliest Shop in Town.” Melvin Lorenzo also played baseball at Florida A&M University under the leadership of Coach Costa Kittles and was recruited and signed by the Texas Rangers, and later the New York Yankees.
The Gilliams are truly a family of entrepreneurs. Rev. Gilliam’s wife, Adell established the Sawdust Supermarket in Gadsden County after retiring. Together they operated the supermarket until they both were killed on December 7, 2001 in an automobile accident.
For more information about the Gala and to be a part of this tribute, contact the Riley House Museum at (850) 681-7881 or website rileymuseum.org.