Uncle Jed's Barbershop
By: Margaree King Mitchell
Uncle Jed's Barbershop tells the story of Sarah Jean, a young girl living in the south in the early 1900s. Sarah's favorite relative is her Uncle Jed who is the only black barber in town and dreams of opening his own barbershop one day. Sarah Jean and her uncle are very close and while her mother will not let Uncle Jed cut her hair, he still pretends to which brings Sarah joy. One day Sarah becomes very ill and the family must travel 30 miles to reach a hospital. There, Sarah must wait for all the white patients to be seen before her, and then is told that she must have a surgery that costs $300. Her family cannot afford that, but Uncle Jed steps in and pays for the surgery using his money for his barbershop. Sarah is thankful for her uncle and recognizes his selflessness. Years go on and Sarah is better; the Great Depression strikes though and Uncle Jed loses a lot of his money and must start over again. Uncle Jed helps out the community and does not charge them for his services. And finally at age 79, Uncle Jed opened his barbershop. Sarah was very happy for her uncle and her uncle was elated that he finally had his barbershop, he never wanted to stop. Unfortunately Uncle Jed died soon after opening his shop, but Sarah believed that he died happy because he achieved his dream before dying. The determination and selflessness of Uncle Jed are admirable qualities that make this book a good model for teaching students where determination and compassion for others can take you in life.
Uncle Jed's Barbershop can be used as a read aloud in grade 3-5. The reading level of this book is upper fourth grade, however the historical content and message of this story can be conveyed to students in all three of these grade levels. Uncle Jed's Barbershop can be used to teach students about the time period where segregation dominated the southern US and restricted African Americans from being able to use the same facilities as whites and being treated equally. We see this when Sarah Jean becomes ill and must wait at the hospital, 30 miles away, and is not seen by a doctor until all white people are seen first. Another and equally important lesson students can learn from this book is, determination and perseverance help you reach your dreams and goals. As seen with Uncle Jed, continuing to work for your dream is how you can succeed and reach your dream. Uncle Jed did not give up nor did he become angry or upset when things did not go his way, he simply started again and worked toward building and owning his own barbershop. So before reading this book to students the teacher can ask students to provide examples of times when it was difficult to reach a goal they set for themselves. Students can discuss why it was difficult to reach their goal and talk about how they overcame the difficulties and succeeded. The teacher can also ask students if they were ever prevented from being in a certain place because of their age, or height; using examples like on an amusement park ride and not being tall enough to ride yet would be useful. Students can talk about how they felt when they could not ride yet, and then the teacher could transition into introducing Uncle Jed's Barbershop. During the read the teacher could draw the students' attention to what is happening when the book mentions segregation. The teacher could ask the students if they know what segregation is the teacher could explain how it is different than the example from before they read the book with the amusement park. Segregation is a forced separating of people based on their skin color, and they cannot change this segregation just by getting older or taller. Students could talk about why segregation is bad and how is affects people like Sarah Jean and her family. The teacher could also bring attention to Uncle Jed's character traits; what kind of person is he? Motivated? Angry? Selfless? Frustrated? Does he let things get to him? Does he have admirable qualities? Talking about Uncle Jed's characteristics help students with character analysis and also helps them to understand the theme of the story. After the reading students can talk about how Uncle Jed's determination helped him to own his own barbershop in the end. Were his actions what helped him to get his barbershop? What would have happened if Uncle Jed were not as persistent as he had been? Students can then think back to a time when they had to overcome obstacles and difficulties to achieve a goal or want. They can then write about this experience and compare and contrast their actions and attitude with Uncle Jed's. The teacher could also ask students if Uncle Jed was someone who helped his community. Students could then write about a time when they helped out their community or write about a way in which they could help out their community. Point out to students that when one person does something kind it encourages others to do so as well so it is important to be kind to others so they can pass it along and we can all help out each other. Of course this book also has social studies connections such as with the Great Depression. Uncle Jed lost a lot of his money during the Great Depression. Students could write about what it would be like to live during the Great Depression. First talk to students about what this event was and how it impacted peoples' lives. Would it be difficult to live during the Great Depression or not? Students could write as Sarah Jean living during the Great Depression facing the adversity of segregation and economic hardships or students could write about what life would be like for families in general. Uncle Jed's Barbershop shows students instances of segregation and the effect it had on African Americans, as well as the Great Depression and how it impacted all people economically. Students also practice reading strategies and skills such as comprehension, using details and evidence from the text to support their answers, and applying past knowledge to new situations. Students gain beneficial writing practice with follow up activities and thoughtful discussion among peers and guided by the teacher. Most importantly, students learn that despite obstacles that may get in their way, with determination and perseverance they can achieve anything.