Willie Graham Sr. may have passed away, but the legacy of his life and barbershop at 486 Avenue C are now immortalized in Bayonne. The city has renamed West 21st Street between Broadway and Avenue C after Graham, with a street sign at the corner nearest his barbershop now bearing his name.
Officials joined hundreds of members of the public for the ceremony on April 29, a year after Graham passed away on April 2, 2021. Avenue C between 21st and 22nd Streets was blocked off to allow for the gathering. The Bayonne City Council passed a resolution authorizing the street sign renaming earlier in April.
Former Board of Education Trustee and legendary musician David “Doc” Watson helped put together and hosted the event and, and played some tunes on the saxophone at the start. Then, those who knew Graham came to a podium set up in front of his former shop and one by one they told their stories about Graham and shared memories of him. Many referred to Graham affectionately as “Willie,” with many noting he became “Brother Willie” after converting to Islam.
It was a full circle moment. Willie’s Barbershop and by extension Graham himself, was known as a place to hear the latest stories and ongoings about everything and anything in the community. Thus, it was fitting to have those who knew him gather to tell stories about him and his shop that many may not have knew.
“When you go in Willie’s shop, your hair gets less but your mind gets more,” Jihad Khalid said, describing Graham as an excellent friend, father, and mentor. “Willie was a master of the art of conversation… When you went to Willie’s shop you didn’t just get a cut, you got an experience.”
Graham did not start as barber interestingly enough, owning and operating several prior businesses, including everything from a fish market to a produce store. But he became most known for his barbershop, which moved many times over the years, from 19th Street, to 20th Street, and to 21st Street, before finally moving and remaining in its final location on Avenue C.
Graham also served the Jersey City community too, Khalid said, and that they were also proud of the street being renamed for him. He praised Watson for putting this together for Graham and for his music, joking that Watson deserved a street renaming next.
Cutting-edge entertainment, haircuts, products, and generosity
The shop was not only known for its interesting stories and good haircuts, it was also a place to listen to the 24/7 array of new music and videos the Graham had got his hands on.
“Willie’s the man. He introduced us to a lot of things that we didn’t have,” said Christopher Flip Taylor, also acknowledging the various streets in the area that were home to Willie’s clients. He said that Graham introduced many to good movies, magazines and other forms of entertainment that weren’t normally available to the community at the time, as well as new hair care products ahead of the main stream.
Graham was widely known for his generosity, often giving people haircuts and letting them pay later, sometimes not even at all. He also gave free haircuts to seniors at home, Watson said. Graham was a mentor to many, with so many considering him a father figure in the community. He was remembered for the fishing trips he was so eager to take people on.
Graham also celebrated his clients, often putting pictures of them after their haircuts on the wall and in calendars he would distribute, according to friend Barry Jones. Jones explained that Graham put him not only on his bulletin board of client pictures post-haircut, but also in a calendar he put together and released. They also used to ride in the Five Boro Bike Tour in New York City, Graham having been an avid cyclist.
“I’m sure if you bring anyone up here, everybody has memories of Willie,” Jones said.
An interesting life worthy of the man
One interesting fact someone shared about Graham was that he was part of the Soul Town Band, which later went on to become the famous group Kool and the Gang from Jersey City. Graham was a singer in gospel quartets in the southern U.S. as well as in Jersey City long before he was cutting hair, further testament to his impact on not only Bayonne but the surrounding area.
His family, including his daughters Felicia and Al, also spoke prior to the reveal of the street sign.
“This is so beautiful,” Felicia said. “It’s just been so emotional for me. Our dad was the best. He was like a dad to many people here.”
She added she remembers him telling stories in the barbershop all the time: “Every time he told a story it was like new. It was like the first time.”
Graham was very family oriented, and loved family reunions, Felicia recalled. He loved his family as much as he loved his barbershop and his clients.
“So many people have reached out about my father,” Felicia said. “He just touched so many lives.”
Officials honored to honor Graham
Prior the unveiling Mayor James Davis and City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski both said a few words about Graham. Davis said that while he didn’t know Willie personally, but he was an important part of many peoples’ lives.
“Everyone who grew up in Bayonne knew of a Willie,” Davis said. “Every community had that one place that was the center of the universe. That was Willie. Willie’s was the center of the universe of your community. It’s where everything happened, where everybody went.”
Davis thanked the family for sharing Graham with the city.
“We can never forget who we are, where we came from, and what it means to be a neighborhood in a community,” Davis said. “That’s what this is all about today. That we don’t forget our past and remind our young what it’s like to be a community.”
Ashe-Nadrowski said: “I also didn’t know Willie personally, but I’ve heard so many stories. And I heard what he meant to so many here today. He was like a second father, someone they can always turn to, a mentor. That’s an aspiration that we should strive for, to have people saying that about us. We’re honored to honor him.”
Closing on a prayer
Following that, the street sign was unveiled by Felicia, with some help from Davis. Each daughter got their own sign to take home with them too. After some pictures, a few more people came to the podium to share stories of Graham.
Former Bayonne High School football head coach Dwayne Williams said that Graham was a blessing in so many peoples’ lives. He said that the wide array of various people who came to the ceremony was evident of that.
“Brother Willie was like my second father, like many people out here,” Williams said. When he played basketball for BHS back in high school, Williams said he would come to Willie’s Barbershop all the time.
“He’s part of everybody out here and we miss him and love him dearly,” Williams said.
Rev. Dorothy Patterson of Wallace Temple AME Zion Church closed out the ceremony on a prayer. She noted Graham was one of the first people she met after arriving in Bayonne, and he often gave her shape-ups. Wallace said that the city honored him in first Black History Month celebrations and highlighted how well they could communicate despite their different faiths.
“We would talk about anything,” Patterson said in closing. “It was just refreshing to know that he was open and that we could come together on that accord.”
Graham is gone but obviously will not be forgotten. And now that street becomes him.
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at email@example.com.