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With barber's death comes passing of era

Since 1955, Joe Yates has operated his barber shop on 22nd Street S.

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 28, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- Early this week, the sign in Joe Yates' barber shop window read "Closed," and a basket of flowers stood outside the door. They marked the passing of a 22nd Street S pioneer.

Mr. Yates, part of a post-World War II boom on what was the African-American community's most popular thoroughfare, opened his shop in 1955 and kept it at 1239 22nd St. S until a few months ago when he fell ill.

He died on Nov. 16 at age 76 after a long bout with pneumonia; his funeral was Saturday at Bethel Community Baptist Church. The Rev. Don Gaskin of the New Philadelphia Community Church delivered the eulogy.

"He used to cut my hair when I was a little boy," said Frank Peterman, a former City Council member and now a state legislator. "That was one of the first barber shops I ever went to."

Harold Davis, another 22nd Street barber from two generations past, died earlier this year. Buddy West is virtually the last tonsorial artist remaining from that era on 22nd. He still operates his shop in the 900 block.

Mr. Yates remained a 22nd Street booster and was particularly enthusiastic about ongoing efforts to revive the old business district.

"I'm looking forward to it," he said in an interview in March. "We're hopeful of seeing some things come back, maybe not (completely) come back, but have some new things made available."

Said Peterman: "He remained on that corner, which says a lot in itself. He thought it was going to be reborn. He's really like an institution, an entrepreneur as well as a community leader."

Reporters often sought out Mr. Yates for his 22nd Street perspective. He lived in an apartment on top of the shop and was a familiar figure around the neighborhood.

The flowers in front of Mr. Yates's shop came from the senior citizens group that eats its weekday noon meal at McCall's Family Restaurant, three blocks north on 22nd. Mr. Yates often ate with the group, said Patricia Lewis, who helps her son Grady McCall manage the restaurant.

Originally from Cairo, Ga., Mr. Yates graduated from barber school in 1947, said Euolia Fegans, his former wife.

"He gave me my first haircut," Mrs. Fegans said.

Though hairstyles changed through the years, Mr. Yates stayed current. "He was still cutting," she said. The business had been a one-man shop for the past 10 or 12 years, she said.

The couple were co-owners and operators of the Jordan Park nursery and kindergarten from 1961 until 1976, she said.

Mrs. Fegans said her second husband died a few years ago and that she and Mr. Yates remained friends. "When he got sick, I just stepped in and did what I had to do," she said.

She said she was with her former husband when he died in St. Anthony's Hospital.

"It was so beautiful about his illness. He just hung in there and trusted God," Mrs. Fegans said. "I told him that's all you got to do, is tell the Lord all about it. Whether he's going to heal your body or take you home, just trust God."

She said business will continue in the shop.

Mr. Yates' daughter, Euolia La'lessia Yates Hopkins, wants to start a barber supply business in the building and a few people have expressed interest in renting space to continue cutting hair, Mrs. Fegans said.

"We want to keep the dream alive," she said.

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