Brigitte Giles sits in her barber chair, in front of a wall she’s decorated with photos and other memorabilia from past clients. Credit: Debbie-Marie Brown

Ebony Barbershop, smack dab at the corner of Dodge Avenue and Church Street, is both the oldest and youngest Black-owned barbershop in Evanston.

It’s currently run by the well-known community powerhouse Brigitte Giles, who is 62 years old, goes by “Gigi,” and grew up in the Fifth Ward – in this barbershop, to be exact – when her father, Marshall Giles, ran the business. Ebony is one of two hair spots in Evanston that bears his legacy, the other being iKandi Hair Salon, owned by his granddaughter Kandi Corbins.

Kandi and Gigi are two pillars of brick-and-mortar Black-owned Evanston, and they’ll each tell you that Marshall got them started.

“He opened a shop in 1962. He started out with a one-chair shop,” said Gigi, Ebony’s oldest barber. The four other barbers who work there are men in their mid-30s and most started visiting Ebony Barbershop as children. By the turn of the century, her dad had extended the back of the building and the location boasted five chairs.

Gigi had moved out of the state for 10 years, but returned, easing her way into the business after Marshall’s health started failing in 2009. She was always a barber – and always on the lookout for her own shop – but worked at several other jobs while she was away, including as a casino security guard, a postal worker and retail worker at Best Buy. None of those jobs compare with her work now, she said. “This one here is in my blood. This is what I love. This was meant for me.” She had taken over Ebony Barbershop by the time of her father’s death in 2013.

It’s not just any barbershop, though. It’s also a community center, and you can tell that the moment you step inside and are greeted by walls covered with photos and newspaper clippings of people like Miles Davis, Roberta Flack, Sammy Davis Jr. and Harold Washington.

Marshall Giles, as shop owner, used to offer Ebony as a meeting place for the Black Panthers, and Ebony was also a polling place that was a major contributor of Fifth Ward votes in the 1979 election of Carol Moseley Braun to the Illinois House of Representatives.

“Now, if I want to know something about Evanston, especially about people … who have passed, I’m going to find it out in that barbershop,” said Denise Martin, 73, who has been getting her hair cut at the shop every six weeks for the past 50 years. “So it’s also been a place of Evanston history.” Martin grew up in Evanston and had a 33-year-long career at Evanston Township High School, progressing from a history teacher at the age of 21 to Assistant Superintendent and Principal by 2006.

Martin received her first haircut from Ebony Barbershop in 1969 – an Angela Davis afro. She said Marshall was always a mentor to her and the other youth in the community, especially by providing opportunities for people in the neighborhood. He would give kids as young as 8 errands to run to make some cash. “[He’d say,] ‘Go down to the corner store. Get me a Pepsi.’ And then they would, and he’d give them money.” He did the same thing for other adults in the community who didn’t have 9-to-5 jobs. “He gave them little jobs, sweep up the hair, run errands, take the clippers down to the Shaver Shop,” and in exchange, he’d give them cash. 

Not much changed when Gigi took over. She says what makes the shop special are all the little things people remember about Ebony. For example, kids get a certificate when they receive their first haircut. Or high school kids might come by for a few dollars when they don’t have lunch money.

“Homeless come here. We feed the homeless,” Gigi said. She said she might loan money out to people generally, and thinks they won’t pay her back, but they always do. The matriarch stands behind her barber chair and points to a $5 bill framed next to the mirror her clients stare into.

She reaches up with her pointer finger and taps a few times on the glass while looking at me, intently, “Like this $5 here. Nancy gave me that. I knew Nancy wasn’t gon’ pay me back. So I framed it. Nancy was somebody we took care of but now she’s in a nursing home. She was kind of homeless.” The wall also includes photographs that clients bring in for her to hang, but you only see what’s been hung up – Gigi has a trunk full of pictures at home. “If I put ‘em all up they would cover up the shop.”

The shop also has a tradition of distributing free winter coats for Christmas. The team partners with the Southern Evanston Parents Association for the annual tradition, where a Christmas tree decorated with tags that list the age of local kids along with sizes is placed in the front window of Ebony. Customers or community members will choose a kid to sponsor, and they return with a coat “wrapped up real nice,” Gigi said.

Ebony barber James Collins, 36, says that over 200 clients come through each week, most of them local youth.  “We the youngest barbershop in Evanston. So people tend to trend to the younger as opposed to the older barbers…everybody’s like looking at us with different styles we have, we like the new age hybrid barbershop.” He said that watching the kids at high school grow up and come through the shop is one of the driving factors that make cutting hair his favorite job. “I set my own hours pretty much. I save a whole bunch of time by being my own boss here,” Collins added.

He started working at the shop 10 years ago when Marshall Giles saw the 24-year-old Collins on the street and told him, “You better than what you doing. You can make a way for yourself and you can make a way for your family.” Collins has been cutting hair at the shop ever since.

“Find your local barbershop”

Kandi Corbins of iKandi Hair Studio poses in her shop at 1705 Central Street. Credit: Debbie-Marie Brown

The legacy of Marshall Giles doesn’t begin and end with Ebony Barbershop. His granddaughter, Kandi Corbins, has her own business, iKandi Hair Studio, at 1705 Central Street – one of the only Black-owned businesses on the street – and she says she inherited business savvy and community-first demeanor from her grandfather. Instead of clippers, her joy was braiding. “I just didn’t have the imagination to sit and make a world with dolls. However, I could service the dolls. I could do their hair. When I was 12, I did my first set of braids for money. I spent about eight hours on the style and she paid me $25. And I was so excited.”

Kandi says her grandfather taught her how to talk to her clients, how to be nice to them, how to be on time, as well as the importance of her word. She thinks of barbershops and beauty salons as centerpieces and resources of the community. “He told me if you’re ever lost, no matter where you are, like, if you move to a new city, and you know you need to find something out, find your local barber or beauty shop, whether you need a doctor, whether you need a place to eat, whether you need an attorney … whatever you need, you can go to your local barber or beauty shop because everybody comes in there.”

Kandi has two other stylists besides herself. Kandi said she works between 40 and 60 hours a week, though, doing styles that range from natural hair, braided, colored hair or relaxed hair. “There’s not many things you can walk in here and ask for that we can’t or won’t do,” she said. She has clients from all over, but mostly from the North Shore, and most of her clients are repeat. And she’s popular, considering her appointments are booked through for the next month.

Kandi’s prowess as a teacher shines, especially in the events that iKandi Hair Salon and Ebony Barbershop do together every year. Both shops hold an annual back-to-school class for people unable to do their children’s hair, who want to learn new things. They have free classes both in-person or online. In the fall of 2020, Kandi threw a big event where junior high students could come grab a free bag of products, dozens of which she had lined up outside the shop, and go home and follow along with hair tutorials online.

She has ambitions to open a salon school in Evanston. “One of the reasons why I would love to have a school is because this is a career option for kids who may not go to college. … There are some kids who may not want to go to college who can make something of themselves, own a business, start a school, be a fashion designer, be a product manager, be a product influencer, but there’s so many things that you could do … in this field.”

If you walk into Kandi’s hair salon, you easily sense that it’s family oriented and a welcoming place, according to Dornette Ashley, a longtime client. “I often joke that I am an assignment partner because my kids went there so often and myself … or I’ll joke and say, ‘Why isn’t my name on the moniker?’” 

According to Gigi, the best part of working at Ebony Barbershop is people coming back and seeing that not much has changed over the years.

One of the staples that people ask about is “the board,” a thick piece of plywood that the barber would situate on top of the chair, creating a makeshift booster seat for smaller kids. “I say, ‘Yeah, we still got the board. ‘Oh, I remember sitting on that.’ And now they put their kids on it.”

Gigi points to a statue in the front, which depicts one of the first freed slaves from the Haitian revolution. Marshall Giles had it shipped here in the ’60s. “Keep that statue. When that statue gone, we gone.”

For Kandi, her favorite thing about working in Evanston is the community aspect, particularly the Black community. “Being from a family who came to Evanston for better opportunities from the South, it feels good to know that my grandparents have laid roots here, and I’d like to continue to do the same thing for my kids.”

Debbie-Marie Brown

Debbie-Marie Brown is a reporter and Racial Justice Fellow at the Evanston RoundTable. They cover the local reparations initiative, Black life in Evanston, and the 5th ward. Contact Debbie-Marie at

5 replies on “The legacy of Marshall Giles: Ebony Barbershop and iKandi Hair Studio”

  1. I have been getting my haircut at Ebony Barber Shop for over 40 years. Marshall was my barber at first and when Gigi joined him I went with her and she has been my barber ever since. Barbershops in the black community are like social centers. You can find out anything you want to know about the city just by asking your barber. And, you can get one of the best haircuts and you can find.

  2. This is an amazing piece about Gigi. She is an amazing person and the barbershop is a reflection of the heart she puts into every single person that comes through her doors.
    The shop has such a retro feel to it and it feels like you are around family.

  3. Wonderful story about an inspiring nexis of community life. I might have skimmed, as I often do most media content, but I enjoyed actually reading this. I read on in hopes of a clue that the extended Evanston Giles family included my 1970-71 mentee and friend, Francis X (Frank) Giles. We met at the Northwestern student anti-war demonstrations after the Kent State shootings. He became the first known Black newsroom employee of the Evanston Review, as a skilled photographer and promising cub reporter. Soon hired away by larger media that were desperate to diversify, he later endured the human meat-grinder of the 1970’s Washington Post newsroom. A more recent friend who survived those tumult-filled years remembers him. Frank and I lost touch some time after meeting in DC for lunch in 1977.

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