By Melvin Twigg Mason
At the start of his business, Peter Harwell never imagined that he would be celebrating 47 years of barbering, especially in the same neighborhood he started in back in 1975. Nor had he planned to be a mentor and father figure to so many. Through 47 years, Harwell didn’t just cut hair: he taught boys to be men and taught men how to become entrepreneurs. As he explains, “My faith, my grace, and my love all go together to make [my relationship with the community] work for the best.” Because of this extensive and ongoing relationship, a portion of East 131st St. in Garfield Heights has now been dedicated as Pete Harwell Parkway. So far, Harwell is the first and only African-American to be honored in this way in the history of Garfield Hts.
Harwell’s Barbershop is located at 4516 E. 131st Street in a once self-contained community with its own drugstore, surplus store, car dealership, Army/Navy store, and movie theater. On July 30th of this year, Harwell and his shop were celebrated with the renaming of the section of 131st St. nearest his business.
Harwell is a respected man in his community and is said to be a man with swagger and style. Many who were interviewed said he is always dressed to the 9s, even under his barber’s smock. Terrence Montgomery, who was a regular patron in his youth, says, “Harwell cuts hair well! So well in fact that it was a common sight in his heyday to see a line of males waiting to be groomed by Pete.” You would have to get a number and wait 3-4 hours to get a haircut. “Even though he had 2-3 other barbers on-premises, guys would still rather wait in line for Pete.” Haircuts are always within your means at Harwell’s Barbershop. One resident, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1969, says “He just wants a place where the community can still come and get [an affordable] haircut.”
Another common theme is that Pete is kind, personable and a father figure in the neighborhood. He’s a man of integrity and a spiritual man, a deacon at Harvest Baptist Church for years. The resident mentioned above also told TCO, “He was a good barber and a good person. Pete was always the guy you could talk to, and he would try to give you the best direction in the world.” He didn’t have to instigate these deeper conversations, “there was just something about him that made folks (kids and adults) want to open up to him.”
Both common citizens and prominent politicians spoke highly of Harwell at the unveiling of the new street name, including the Councilwoman for Harwell’s Ward 1, Stacey Collier: “We are legacies here. We are leaders because of Pete and the businesses in the neighborhood. It was the barbershops, the beauty shops, and the churches of our community that made sure we [as a people] were okay.” Harwell’s State Representative, Shayla Davis, a surprise attendee to the unveiling, said, “Growing up here in Garfield Hts., you couldn’t have lived near 131st Street and not known Pete. And it is because of what [he’s] done that I am able to be at the statehouse representing all of us today.”
Julius Watson IV, the chief organizer of the event, spearheaded the project to honor Harwell and organized the christening celebration. He made Harwell a promise to do whatever he could to get the street renaming done, and this effort has been in the works since 2019. “My family moved here in 1972. There was a total of about 10 blocks that were predominantly made up of Black families. Mr. H. was my first barber in ‘75. Pete was like a father to all of us in the community. He taught us to stand tall, be proud of who you are. He always greeted us with a smile. He would always speak an encouraging word.” When it came to men newly released from prison, Watson says if they showed an interest in barbering, “Pete wouldn’t just teach them to be barbers, he taught them to be men, how to treat people, and how to run their own business.” When asked what’s the moral of the story from today’s celebration of this man, Watson repeated what he learned from Harwell all those years ago: “Never shortchange yourself on who you are and what you are. We as African-Americans limit ourselves because people tell us ‘You can’t!’ But we can do anything — under God.”
Matt Burke, the incumbent mayor of Garfield Heights, closed out the celebration by saying, “It’s because of [events] like this, celebrating you [Harwell] and how you’ve touched this community, that’s something that WILL bring this community together.” “This shows what this man means to all of us,” Watson concluded. His motto for Harwell continues to be “It takes a MAN…to teach a man…to be a Man. And (pointing at Harwell) that’s a man right there!”