Homer Wilson sits in a barber seat at Wilson’s His and Hers Styling Shop, a barber shop his father M.C. Wilson owned until his death in 2008. According to Wilson, his father was a people-person and enjoyed connecting with the community. “A lot of people I met through my dad,” Wilson said. “My dad, he knew everybody. He could get along with anybody. He had a personality you don’t just find anywhere.” Photo by Zoe Peterson.
Over the past 65 years it’s been open, Wilson’s His and Hers Styling Shop has witnessed drastic changes that impacting Hot Corner and the rest of Athens.
1950s and 1960s America presented a changing landscape in race relations with the advent of the Civil Rights Movement. While tales of Montgomery and Selma are more widely known, the movement affected Athens, as well.
Wilson’s His and Hers Styling Shop, located in area known as the Hot Corner Business District, a historically African-American area for black businesses in Downtown Athens provided a hub for locals involved in the movement.
“During the days of (the Civil Rights Movement), people were marching. This shop would feed them and give them something to drink when they’d take their breaks,” shop operator Homer Wilson said. “So, this shop has always been a shop for the community.”
Wilson and his father, M.C. Wilson, aided the marchers and remembers the experience fondly.
“My daddy had me in here preparing food and preparing lemonade for (the marchers) to drink,” Wilson said. “It was a good experience because we had the chance to meet a lot of people from different areas that came to town.”
In addition to helping protesters, Wilson’s His and Hers Styling Shop, located on 343 N. Hull Street, has been serving customers — with haircuts and hairstyles — for 65 years. Community member Lucy Blair has lived in Athens all of her 81 years and remembers getting her hair cut at the shop as a young girl.
“Wilson’s Barber Shop has been there for a long, long time. Homer’s daddy used to cut my hair,” Blair said. “He was a real nice man. People just loved him and his family. The whole family is wonderful people. I really care a lot for them.”
Wilson’s father died in 2008, but Wilson has tried to continue the spirit that has father instilled. Wilson believes barber shops are often characterized by their communal nature, and his business is no exception.
“The barber shop has always been the place where you learn about community, about what’s going on,” Wilson said. “One thing about the barber shop is you’re gonna get the truth. We know everybody’s business.”
But, things have changed in Downtown Athens since Wilson’s His and Styling Shop opened. Once, 67 Black-owned businesses occupied Hot Corner. Now, only Wilson’s and Brown’s Barber Shop and remain.
“A lot of people left and some stayed and we happened to be the ones that stayed,” Wilson said. “I love Downtown. I got one brother that still works with me Downtown, but the rest of them, they like being out in shopping centers. I think it’s what you really like but, I’m a townie. I like Downtown.”
With the loss of Black-owned businesses comes the loss of history. Blair remembers what Hot Corner was like in the past.
“Hot Corner was Hot Corner. That’s why they call it Hot Corner, because it was hot,” Blair said. “That’s where all the Black people, that’s where they would go and have a good time.”
In an effort to remember the history behind Hot Corner, Wilson founded the annual Hot Corner Festival, which takes place on July 9-10 on the corner of Hull and Washington Street. Wilson thought of the idea in 1998 and put it into action in 2000. Athens Technical College professor Dr. Tawana Mattox is the coordinator for the festival and helps Wilson organize it.
“We want to promote diversity downtown because it’s all of our Downtown and we want all people to feel welcome,” Mattox said. “A lot of the time African Americans might not come Downtown other times of the year, but they come down the time of the festival.”
Wilson feels that the Hot Corner Festival is able to combine entertainment with the awareness of the importance of minority businesses.
“This is Hot Corner. If you move it somewhere, else it won’t be Hot Corner, so the festival brings people in for the whole weekend: a lot of music, a lot of fun,” Wilson said. “A lot of goodness, a lot of food. People come in and talk about old businesses. It’s very important that there’s a minority event once a year downtown.”
Mayor Nancy Denson has been involved with the festival since 2000.
“The Hot Corner Festival is something I’ve been participating in, I guess, since the very beginning,” Denson said. “I think that it’s just a wonderful cultural thing that brings the whole community together.”
According to Mattox, Wilson feels the continuation of the festival is important.
“(Wilson) and his father are like the legends for this festival,” Mattox said. “They felt a need for this history to be preserved, as well as to encourage business ownership. It’s important that everybody, especially the next generation, understand the full history of Athens and this is a huge part of Athens history.”
Wilson encourages Black community members to own a business and add to present-day Hot Corner business district.
“There were once a lot of history of Black businesses in Downtown Athens and we want people to know that we’ve been here and still exist,” Wilson said. “If you forget where you come from, you’re bound to repeat history again. We’re not letting them repeat history again. We’re trying to keep some minority businesses Downtown.”