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Las Vegas instructor ‘found the light in barbering’

Updated February 17, 2019 - 8:32 pm

Royal Byron’s hands tell a story rich with history.

At times, they’re swollen or blistering. It’s a side effect of his more than three decades of cutting hair.

But it was with those calloused hands that the 51-year-old man built a legacy for himself in the Nevada barbering industry, ultimately paving a way for aspiring barbers in Southern Nevada when he became the state’s first licensed barber instructor in 2000, and then again in August 2008, when he opened the state’s first barber school.

Today, his school, Nevada’s First Barber School, remains at its original location at 1401 N. Decatur Blvd.

“It was the first integrated opportunity for blacks, whites, Mexicans, Chinese, to be under one roof representing the profession without bias,” Byron said on a recent Friday, sitting in his yellow classroom tucked away behind the large studio of Nevada’s First Barber School, which also doubles as a barber shop. “It’s diverse now. 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.”

Those firsts, though, were years in the making.

Born and raised in Las Vegas, Byron is a product of the Historic Westside. He grew up in a modest home with his parents and younger sister near West Lake Mead Boulevard and D Street.

It was in the backyard of his family’s home 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.

But he had been attracted to the artistry of cutting hair 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 this month, the lines around his brown eyes emerging as he laughed.

Through his teenage years, Byron continued cutting hair in the backyard, or 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, he said. Byron knew that he was either headed for prison or the graveyard — a product of his environment, he said more than once during an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

He chose neither, and instead paved his own path.

“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.’”

And he didn’t.

Outside his comfort zone

But earning his barber’s license came with a cost. Las Vegas had no schools, forcing Byron to leave his family and home for Los Angeles. It is the only time in his life that he has left the valley for an extended period of time.

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

“That’s when my life began,” he said.

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

Byron offered his services at nursing homes and veterans homes around the valley. 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.

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

“Now the problem was there was no test,” he said. So the Barbers’ Health and Sanitation Board created the licensing test.

For the next five years, Byron served as a guinea pig for the board, he recalled. During that time, he took several versions of the exam.

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

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 clients, now-Congressman Steven Horsford, rallied on Byron’s behalf that he obtained a waiver from the board that allowed him to open his school without a second instructor.

Byron had been cutting Horsford’s hair for years, he said, long before he had become a politician.

Horsford was not available for an interview before the publication of this story.

Contributions to industry

Since 2008, Byron has produced at least 650 barbers, serving as a mentor and a friend to his 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,” Littles, now an instructor at Byron’s school, said this month. “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 gears into 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, he’s 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.”

And at the end of the day, that’s all Byron really wants, he said: 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.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter.

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