A crowd gathered Dec. 16 in the parking lot of the Sunoco Station at 1248 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. It is a busy gas station lot, but on that day it was being christened as one of the District’s newest – and more powerful – art galleries.
Along the exterior walls of buildings to the west and north of the station loom dramatic portraits of civil rights leader and former Congressman John Lewis.
On the north wall, a portrait of Lewis’s face is rendered 40-feet high in stark black and white, above his statement “Getting in trouble, Good trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.” Along the west wall of H.I.S. Grooming, images from Lewis’s life fill the skies. Lewis is shown in a barber chair, in conversation with his younger self.
The barber chair was a place where the civil rights legend was able to relax, tell stories and give advice. The works of art on the exterior of the shop depict both the life of an incredible man but also underline his connection to the culture —and the neighborhood.
H.I.S. Grooming owner Jared Scott remembers an early morning in 2018 as he stood waiting at his shop window, watching as a shiny black car pulled up outside. Scott had reluctantly agreed to give a customer’s ‘boss’ a haircut before opening hours. The door opened and out walked Congressman John Lewis.
“And I just trembled,” Scott remembered. “My hands shaking, [I was] crying—I’m supposed to shave this man’s head!”
“And he just walks up and says,’ Hi, I’m John. I have an appointment’,” Scott said. “And I was just like, we know who you are.”
Most people know of John Lewis. An American Congressman who served Georgia’s 5th congressional district for more than 30 years until his death in 2020, he was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966 and one of the “Big Six” leaders of groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington and led the first of three Selma to Montgomery marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.
Now the legend was in Scott’s shop. But he didn’t act like a legend. “John always paid,” Scott said, “and not only paid, he tipped.” He declined the many offers from other customers to cover his bill. Always humble, Lewis never believed he deserved special treatment. “Once, he even waited,” Scott said, still amazed.
Michael Collins, Lewis’s former Chief of Staff, explained how that first early morning appointment came about, and how it became one of the famed civil rights leader’s routines. “What happened in the last years of the Congressman’s life, is that he became very particular about his hair. He would start talking about [how] he needed a haircut every week,” Collins said.
Collins scrambled to find the perfect place—somewhere comfortable for the congressman but also convenient for his busy schedule. Scott’s shop was perfect: a true barber shop, just a short ride down Pennsylvania Avenue from Lewis’s home and the Capitol building.
A Relaxing Place
Barber shops have long been a part of American Black culture. Scott moved from Norristown, PA to Capitol Hill ten years ago with a passionate dream and a vision for what the barbershop stands for in the community. He loves cutting hair, he said, but that’s not why he was drawn to the business.
“Truly my passion is the barbershop and the community aspect that it brings. I grew up in a barbershop,” he said.
Collins said that Lewis loved the attention he received from Scott. It became one of the most relaxing times the Chief of Staff could arrange for the Congressman; besides airplanes, Collins said, Scott’s chair was the only place Lewis could fall asleep.
As Scott cut his hair, Lewis told the barber and his staff about the freedom rides and his civil rights work, about fire hoses and dog attacks. Scott recalls Lewis telling him about March 7, 1965, as he prepared to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL. Lewis was beaten bloody. Images from the march prompted public support for the marchers and their voting rights campaign. Lewis told Scott that as he prepared to cross he did not know if he was still going to be alive the following day.
“That was a moment that really just stood out to me,” Scott said. “How do you keep going in full capacity when you know that this may be your last moment? And that’s because John just had something more to him.”
Scott described how Lewis became a mentor and a friend, someone from whom he sought advice on his personal troubles. He said that Lewis charged him with keeping ‘it’ going.
“I’ll spend the rest of my life finding out what ‘it’ is,” Scott said.
Black History in Perspective
Scott knew who Lewis was when he walked in the door of his shop —but Mark Garrett didn’t. When he first met John Lewis, more than a decade ago, the muralist was working as a modeler in a trophy shop, an artist just trying to make a living in his field. The congressman came in to pick up work ordered by his office.
“I had no idea who he was at the time, I’m ashamed to say,” the artist said at the dedication of the mural he co-created in Lewis’s memory. “I was probably like 25 years old; I should have known who John Lewis was.”
His boss sat him down and gave him an education, Garrett said. “He showed me clips of [Lewis] marching and protesting in the past.” From then on, he prioritized the work he did for the living legend.
But this latest work for Lewis came with fear, too, Garrett said. The work of the civil rights icon was met with violence in the 1960s, and Garrett was aware there were many who would have a similar reaction today.
He did much of his work at night, harnessed to a hydraulic crane. “Some nights I was wondering whether or not somebody who didn’t feel so happy about me doing work on John Lewis might do something.”
Garrett’s fellow creative Dietrich Williams was also processing feelings. Williams grew up on 15th Street in the 1980s and 90s, and has watched the area go through a significant transition.
When he was a kid, Williams said, people didn’t want to come east of Third Street, where Lewis lived. He said the quotations from Martin Luther King, Jr. that can be seen in Hill yards are signs of change.
In the course of creating the mural, Williams said, he really felt that change weigh on him. “I realized that a lot of the fabric of what I knew is gone,” he said at the dedication.
“And me being here doing this is a representation of everything…and the heaviness of it,” said Williams. “Because everybody doesn’t recognize what these things mean, how big a deal it is. When we create things like this in spaces like this, it does mean a lot.”
Now Williams runs a company, Diamond, creating public art, with plans for works in Wards 7 and 8. Positive representation of Black lives is critical, Williams said, at the dedication of the mural.
“We don’t need to wait until a person has put in 70 years of work to see a reflection of ourselves and what we can do,” Williams said. “This is all I plan to do for the rest of my life.”
Residents of Capitol Hill will feel the impact of the work he and Garrett put together for years to come, the size of artwork dwarfed only by Lewis’s impact in life.