Larry Thomas has never cut black hair. Not the hair color, the race.
The white Rock Hill barber has cut hair since 1964 – the year segregation was declared illegal, but was still going strong. He has never cut a black man’s hair and he never will, Thomas says, because he doesn’t have the skill to cut that type of hair.
That’s the only reason, her says.
“I am not a racist,” Thomas said Tuesday, after receiving three months’ worth of hate mail, phone messages and threats that claimed otherwise.
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Thomas is no longer an accused gun criminal, either, after prosecutors dismissed a felony gun charge against him in connection to a May 10 incident during which he told a black man who walked into his Celanese Road shop that he did not cut black hair.
Thomas had faced up to five years in prison if convicted of pointing and presenting a gun.
Now the case is gone, but the controversy is not.
Because some people saw what Thomas did as racist. He says the whole thing was a misunderstanding rooted in the fact that he simply does not have the skills to properly cut black people’s hair and admitted as much.
Thomas’s refusal to serve a black man who asked for a shave and a haircut was at the root of the incident, reported first in The Herald May 11, that made news as far away as England.
He was arrested after Arthur Hill – a 37-year-old black man from Fort Mill who had recently moved to York County from New York – told York County sheriff’s deputies that Thomas pulled a gun on him.
Thomas said Tuesday he was surprised that prosecutors decided to drop the charge against him, but he is happy to have the incident behind him.
Grabbing the gun from a shelf in the back room of his shop was self-defense, Thomas said, after Hill got “up in my face” after he said he would not cut his hair.
Thomas admitted to deputies in May that he had the gun in his hand, but he denied pointing it at Hill.
The customer, Thomas said, could have “stayed by the door instead of coming all the way across the floor and backing me into the kitchen. I would have told him where to get a haircut.
“The only time I turn down customers is if it is hair I can’t do.”
Hill apparently took his saying he didn’t cut black hair to mean that he refused to serve black customers, Thomas said.
“I explained I didn’t cut black hair, because I don’t know how to cut black hair,” Thomas said Tuesday. “It’s a cultural thing.”
Thomas’ girlfriend, Jasmine Patterson, said Tuesday she is of mixed black and white heritage. She said what Thomas did in May was self-defense, not racism.
“He is by no means racist,” said Patterson, who witnessed the May incident and backed up Thomas’ account on Tuesday.
The felony charge against Thomas was dismissed Tuesday because there was no evidence that Thomas pointed the gun at Hill, said Jennifer Colton, the 16th Circuit assistant solicitor handling the case.
“It failed to meet the elements of the crime,” Colton said, adding that a business owner, like a homeowner, has the right to have a gun for protection.
Colton said she does not discount Hill’s assertions that he felt scared and threatened. Hill did not do anything wrong, she said, and was not looking to blow up the incident in the media.
The way Thomas handled the situation could be perceived as racially insensitive, Colton said, calling his grabbing the gun a “horrible decision.”
The incident could have been avoided if Thomas had better communicated his thoughts initially, Colton said, and it was made potentially dangerous with the presence of the gun.
Hill declined to comment Tuesday.
Racism allegations, lost business
Thomas said the whole issue was turned into a racial incident when there was no racial intent.
“It wasn’t my intention to create racial animosity,” Thomas said. “It wasn’t about race at all.”
Television news coverage painted him to be a racist, Thomas said, he lost 40 percent of his business, and “I got plenty of hate mail.”
One letter Patterson showed to The Herald suggested that the writer hoped Thomas would be raped in prison. Patterson said racial tension in the country may have contributed to the onslaught targeted at Thomas.
Thomas said that he has often cut the hair of “people of color,” and he has customers who are of Indian, Pakistani, Mexican, Afghani and other descent.
And now he doesn’t tell any black person who come into his shop that he does not cut black hair:
“I say I can’t cut black hair, rather than I don’t cut black hair.”