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Pioneering barber builds career, school, legacy in Las Vegas

February 22, 2019

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Royal Byron’s hands tell a story rich with Las Vegas history.

Over more than three decades of cutting hair, the 51-year-old Byron has built a legacy for himself in the Nevada barbering industry — paving a way for others as the state’s first licensed barber instructor in 2000 and opening the state’s first barber school in 2008.

“It was the first integrated opportunity for blacks, whites, Mexicans, Chinese, to be under one roof representing the profession without bias,” Byron told the Las Vegas Review-Journal , sitting in his yellow classroom tucked behind the large studio of his Nevada’s First Barber School, which also doubles as a barber shop.

“It’s diverse now,” he said. “That’s the way I planned it, and I see it, and I’m proud to know that this school really laid the foundation for integration in the barber profession.”

His firsts were years in the making.

Born and raised in Las Vegas, Byron grew up in a modest Historic Westside home with his parents and younger sister. It was in the backyard that he fell in love with barbering, often cutting hair for those in his neighborhood who couldn’t afford to go to a barber shop.

“Most of the people I was cutting was on drugs, was in the neighborhood, and needed uplifting,” he said.

Byron had been attracted to the artistry of haircutting from a young age, curiously observing every time his father would take clippers to his hair in their small bathroom.

Byron was just 7 the first time he gave a haircut. His mother, and sleeping sister, who woke up with patches of her hair missing, were less than pleased with his skills, he said.

“I didn’t imagine that would come back to haunt me, that I would find some passion in cutting hair,” he recalled as he laughed.

Through his teenage years, Byron continued cutting hair — sometimes at parks in his neighborhood. But it wasn’t until his early 20s that he began to take barbering seriously.

It was a pivotal time in his life.

“I found the light in barbering,” he said. “After fighting some legal issues, I said, ‘If I get this under my belt, I’m not looking back ever again.’”

Las Vegas had no barber schools, forcing Byron to leave his family and home for Los Angeles. It was the only time in his life that he has left the valley for an extended period of time.

He returned after graduating in 1991, with one clear goal: Open the first barber school in the valley. He was 24.

“That’s when my life began,” he said.

Byron worked for several years to build his clientele and experience. Barbering pushed him outside his comfort zone for the first time in his life, forcing him to “step outside 89106,” the Historic Westside ZIP code.

Byron offered his services at nursing homes and veterans homes. He needed to perfect cutting hair textures different than his own.

“I needed to learn. I needed to be able to touch it,” he said. “I didn’t get that experience being in my neighborhood that was dominantly African-American.”

Because of this, he said, diversity in his curriculum has always been a priority for him, ensuring that his students get the opportunity to practice on all kinds of hair textures.

In 1995, Byron was finally ready to take the test to earn his license as an instructor.

The problem was, there was no test, he said. So the Barbers’ Health and Sanitation Board created one.

For the next five years, Byron took several versions of the exam.

After nine tests, on Nov. 20, 2000, he became the first licensed barber instructor in the state.

But he was dealt another blow shortly afterward, causing his license to lay dormant for eight more years as he fought with state officials over a newly implemented requirement: Barber schools must have two licensed instructors in order to operate.

It wasn’t until one of his longtime customers, now-Congressman Steven Horsford, rallied on Byron’s behalf to obtain a waiver from the board allowing him to open his school without a second instructor.

Since 2008, Byron has produced at least 650 barbers, serving as a mentor and a friend to students.

“Some of my students that I have trained have had some run-ins with the law,” he said. “I was kind of on their level once, so I know this is a resurrection for them.”

But long before Byron had opened his school, he already was taking other local barbers under his wing, including Carl Littles.

“His contributions to the industry were long overdue,” said Littles, now an instructor at Byron’s school. “It was such a good thing that he opened up Nevada’s First Barber School for the simple fact that finding training in this industry, you really have to fund everything yourself.”

Like Byron, Littles had no other choice but to leave Las Vegas to earn his barber’s license 19 years ago in Oakland, California. The two met in 2007 while working together at a barber shop in the Historic Westside.

“He has helped me get my passion back in the classroom,” said Littles, who recently shifted to teaching. “Now I want to give back to the younger barbers in the industry and take barbers under my wing, too.”

Over the years, Byron said has been called a pioneer in the state’s barber industry.

“But I don’t really like the idea of being a pioneer,” he said. “Most of them die off. Most of them don’t leave a legacy for someone to follow.”

Byron said he really wants to pass on his barber school to someone as passionate about the art as him.

“I’m not here forever, but I’m here to share,” he said.

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Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com