WASHINGTON, D.C.—Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley in February submitted the following statement to the Congressional Record to honor the immeasurable contributions made by the Knauls family and by their renowned business, Geneva’s Shear Perfection Barber & Beauty Salon, to the Northeast Portland community:
“This month our country is joining together in celebration of Black History Month. It’s a month for all of us to recognize the indescribable impact that Black Americans have left made on our nation; to recommit ourselves to the struggle to achieve and ensure racial justice throughout our land; and, of course, to celebrate Black culture and all of its contributions to America past, present, and future. And few institutions are more connected or have been more central to Black culture, than the barbershop and beauty salon. As described by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, for generations, men and women have been going to these businesses not just for hair care, but for the sense of community and security they provide. Black Americans go to spend time among peers, playing cards or chess, sharing the latest local news and engaging in passionate debates about politics. Men and women go in to these businesses for friendship and mentorship and to be engaged in the affairs of their neighbors and their community.
“For 30 years, this was particularly true of Geneva’s Shear Perfection Barber & Beauty Salon in Northeast Portland. Since opening its doors in 1991, Geneva’s has been a hub for Portland’s African American community, welcoming over 1,000 people through its doors every month. Folks from Michael Jordan and Muhammed Ali, to members of the Portland Trailblazers, have sat in its chairs. But more importantly, it stood as the heart for three generations of Black Portlanders who first walked through Geneva’s doors as children with their parents and then went on to bring their own sons and daughters for their first haircuts, even as the area around this local institution underwent the kind of gentrification that pushed Black families further and further away.
“But it wasn’t only the barbershop itself that is considered an institution of the Portland community. So is the Knauls family who owned and operated it for three decades. Geneva Knauls, who passed away in 2014, was our state’s first Black female barber. Throughout her years as a businesswoman, Geneva supported all different kinds of local grassroots projects and organizations, and become one of the most beloved people in the Northeast Portland community. Her status is only equaled by her husband’s, Mr. Paul Knauls, Sr., who is affectionately known around town as the ‘Mayor of Northeast Portland.’
“From 1963 to 1970, Mr. Knauls owned and ran the Cotton Club, which was the place for jazz and soul music, welcoming such big names as Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, and Sammy Davis, Jr. to its stage to serenade music-loving Portlanders. He sold the Cotton Club in 1970, and went on to open a series of others throughout town before finally opening Geneva’s. All the while, throughout all of his business adventures, Paul has been active in other ways throughout the community. He worked with the Junior Achievement Program at both Humboldt and Jefferson schools; tutored in the HOSTS (Help One Student to Succeed) program at King School; and served for six years on the board of the Urban League.
“Last year, Mr. Knauls and his son, Paul Jr., decided it was finally time to take a break and close the doors of Geneva’s. It was also a decision made out of a recognition of the difficult new realities of trying to operate a personal care business in the midst of an unprecedented national and global pandemic. Sadly, the Knauls and Geneva’s are not alone. Many businesses, have been forced to confront life amid the COVID pandemic and BIPOC-owned businesses and communities have been disproportionately impacted. Last year’s announcement of the closure of Geneva’s Shear Perfection Barber & Beauty Salon was, understandably, met with an emotional outpouring from local Portlanders. Men and women who had been going to the shop their entire lives took to the shop’s Facebook page to thank the Knauls family for their contributions to the community and to share some fond memories. Statements came from local leaders and celebrities touting Geneva’s legacy, as one person put it, as ‘one of the most important examples of a black business that represented more to the community than just a place to get a haircut.’
“And a year after its closing, that legacy continues to endure. Geneva’s Facebook page is brimming with pictures of young men in graduation robes in front of the salon; of a turkey giveaway in its parking lot that took place this past Thanksgiving to help provide for families in need; and announcements from other local Black business owners who are moving into the space to continue the Knauls family’s entrepreneurial spirit. And the legacy of ‘The Mayor,’ and his iconic standing in the community remains as strong today as it ever has; even after celebrating Mr. Knaul’s 90th birthday age and the pandemic have not stopped Paul Knauls, Sr. from putting on two masks to go out for daily walks in his neighborhood and around the Lloyd Center. For his 90th birthday last month, the nonprofit World Arts Foundation streamed a live storytelling event, featuring decades of friends, employees and admirers to help him celebrate.
“I know that Portlanders everywhere will join me in expressing the immense gratitude to Geneva’s Shear Perfection Barber & Beauty Salon, and to the Knauls family, for all that they have done for the community. Northeast Portland certainly won’t be the same without Geneva’s. But everyone who walked through those doors over the last thirty years has had their lives touched and impacted by it in ways both big and small. And it’s reassuring to know that through each of them, Geneva’s legacy, the legacy of the Black barbershop and salon, the legacy of community and friendship and looking out for one another, will continue to endure.”
Merkley sent a framed copy of the congressional record statement to the Knauls family. “A very special thanks to Senator Jeff Merkley, and the people of the State of Oregon and City of Portland, who have allowed a measure of success for Geneva’s Shear Perfection Barber & Beauty Salon,” said Paul Knauls, Sr. “On behalf of my entire family, we would like to thank Senator Merkley for capturing the legacy of my wife Geneva and I, and our community. We love the State of Oregon, the City of Portland, and especially Albina and Northeast Portland.”
Merkley’s statement is also available here.