On Rock Hill’s South Wilson Street, there is – and always was as long as anybody can remember – at least one or two barber shops.
And for many of those decades, tucked into the middle of a building next-door to the legendary Minute Grill, was one of the places where little black boys, hand-in-hand with fathers and grandfathers, got their first haircuts.
The name of the barber, always, was Kelly.
But unlike most barbershops, at Kelly’s, the barber was a woman.
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Mrs. Kelly. Period.
Mary Kelly, possibly the first woman barber ever in Rock Hill, and certainly one of the most enduring, died Sunday after an illness. She was 74.
“She cut my hair and my father’s hair and my son’s hair,” said Manie Leroy Dye Jr., standing in front of Kelly’s Barber & Beauty Wednesday.
“She cut mine, too – when I had hair to cut,” laughed a guy named Massey.
The boys turned into men – and fathers and grandfathers – and still Kelly’s was where the hair was cut. Even after Mary Kelly remarried late in life and became Mary Gist, and her name changed legally, she was always Mrs. Kelly, barber.
“She cut my hair forever,” said Roy Barber, a grandfather many times over. “Mrs. Kelly always cut hair.
For whom? Barber was asked.
“Everybody,” he said.
One of the barbers at Jazzy Cuts in the Minute Grill building said he got his first haircut from Mrs. Kelly in the same chair he uses to cut hair now, so many decades later.
Even the preacher who will give the eulogy Saturday, the Rev. Donnie Dye, whose father, Manie Leroy Dye had his hair cut by Mrs. Kelly so many times, started getting haircuts with Mrs. Kelly.
“First time she cut my hair, first time I sat in her chair, I was 3 years old,” Donnie Dye said. “People went in there and came back for years, then decades. She touched lives and kept on touching lives as long as she cut hair and helped people who wanted to do the right thing in life.”
Back so long ago – when the old black business district on Rock Hill’s Black Street was the commercial and social center for the then-segregated city – that teenage girl with the maiden name Mary Barber started barbering.
She cut hair right down from the old Mills service station, until moving a couple of blocks south to Wilson Street. She stayed there for more than 30 years.
“I grew up in her shop,” said daughter, Deitrice McCrorey, who later became a beautician herself. Which is important, because Mary Kelly was not a beautician.
Mary Kelly, Mrs. Kelly, was a barber.
“I was in a walker, learning to walk, yes, in her barbershop,” said granddaughter Chelsea Good.
The shop was not just a place for haircuts, but a social center where problems could be solved, crises averted, joys shared. A baby was not born without Mrs. Kelly knowing. A marriage had to be noted from her barber chair as well as by any preacher and church.
At the South Wilson Street spot, Mrs. Kelly was all things to all people.
She was social worker for people in a bind, preacher to those needing spiritual guidance. She suffered no foolishness, either. When crime and drugs started to seep into the South Wilson Street neighborhood back in the 1980s, Mrs. Kelly would rush outside with her broom and shoo people away.
Mrs. Kelly would call somebody’s momma, or the law, in a minute.
There was no bad language in her shop. There was no fighting. Certainly, there was banter, talk. A good, old-fashioned argument/discussion without malice was a staple. Any news in the city had to be chewed on, rolled over, decided in that barbershop.
And through all the years, the constant was Mrs. Kelly, master barber.
“She is our pioneer,” said Karen Shabazz, who owns a barber and styling college at the corner of Black and Wilson streets to this day. “She was an inspiration to me. Mrs. Kelly always encouraged me, and others, to succeed.”
When haircuts cost a dollar, she gave a good haircut. When a haircut cost more, she gave a quality haircut.
When a barber contest was started in Rock Hill a decade ago, as part of Black History Month, one of the judges had to be, and certainly was, Mary Kelly.
Only when her health failed, family said, did Mrs. Kelly give up the scissors and clippers, about four years ago after a short stretch at a shop off Ebenezer Road.
“She said her whole life that cutting hair was her life,” daughter Deitrice McCrorey said.
But Donnie Dye, the pastor whose hair was cut by Mrs. Kelly, said her life was about more than haircuts. Mary Kelly the barber was not elected to any office. She was not rich.
“She was a legend, though,” said Donnie Dye. “She didn’t just live Rock Hill’s history. She was part of it. She made Rock Hill a better place. Mrs. Kelly helped people and loved people and cared for people.
“That is some legacy.”