A Steadfast Dream: A Review of ‘Uncle Jed’s Barbershop’

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  Dr.  Martin Luther King

Reading Level:

Grade 2-3 [level according to common core list]

Grade 4.5 [level according to Scholastic which reflects the grade level at which a student reading on grade could read the book independently]

Interest Level:

Grades 3-5

Review and Comments:

The story of Jedediah Johnson is told through the eyes of Sarah Jean, his great-niece.  Jedediah, her granddaddy’s brother and favorite uncle, is a very significant person in her life who teaches her important lessons.

Uncle Jed’s paramount dream is to own his own barbershop. Everything he works for is to attain this goal.  He begins humbly as a traveling barber, the only black barber in the county.  He journeys to his costumers and works very hard.  Sarah’s house is part of his Wednesday route. He cuts daddy’s and grand daddy’s hair and gives them a shave, and he even pretends to cut Sarah’s hair.  It is during those visits that Sarah listens to Uncle Jed describe his future shop exactly the way he wants it to look. He explains that he has been saving his money for years. There are some people however who do not believe he will ever accomplish his dream.

When Sarah is five she gets very sick. Her parents take her to the hospital twenty miles away. They have to wait in the colored waiting room while the doctors take care of all the white patients first.  The doctor tells her parents she needs an operation that will cost three hundred dollars, and the doctor will not perform the operation until her parents can pay the fee.   Her dad, a sharecropper, does not have that kind of money.  He finds Uncle Jed and tells him about Sarah’s operation and the cost. Uncle Jed uses his savings to pay for her surgery without a second thought.

[Segregation is introduced here by giving examples:  separate waiting rooms, public rest rooms, water fountains, and schools.  The visit to the hospital gives an authentic look at the life of African Americans at the time.]

Uncle Jed begins to save his money again.  He saves for another few years and his dream seems within reach. Then one unforgettable day a friend delivers the news that the bank where they both keep their money failed.  The Great Depression has begun.  Uncle Jed simply states that he will start saving all over again. He continues to cut people’s hair even though people do not have money to pay for his services.

[The Great Depression is introduced with the news of the bank closing and people having little money.]

The barbershop finally opens on Uncle Jed’s seventy-ninth birthday.  It is exactly what he hoped and worked for. Sarah Jean is there for Uncle Jed just as he had always been there for her.

Uncle Jed dies soon after the opening. “He made his dream come true even when nobody believed in him.”  His lessons are now held in Sarah Jean’s heart.

While the story of Uncle Jed introduces young children to segregation and the Great Depression, its central theme is Jedediah’s fortitude in the face of great difficulties. Each example of Uncle Jed’s actions clearly illustrates his righteous character as a positive role model for children.  His courage and determination make this a beautiful story that lifts the spirit and allows the reader to see that one can persevere in the face of many difficult obstacles.

There seems to be a wide range for suggested reading levels.  Subject matter and interest does affect this scope of levels.

Possible Issues:

There are no issues with this story.

Further Discussion:

  • One story in the American Girl series is about a girl named Addy. Her story can be used to reinforce the lessons from Uncle Jed’s Barbershop.   Meet Addy, the first in the series, “tells the story of slavery through the eyes of a young girl.” Meet Addy can be a read aloud book for younger children or read by proficient readers (reading level 5.1). Parents should determine the appropriateness of the subject matter depending on a child’s maturity level.
  1.  This site has excellent chapter by chapter lessons for Meet Addy. As always it is best to preview the material to determine the suitability for your child. [Homeschoolshare}
  1. This is one lesson on historical fiction using Meet Addy .
  1. Books that are included in the American Girl Addy series are: Meet Addy, Addy Learns a Lesson, Addy’s Surprise, Happy Birthday, Addy! Addy Saves the Day, Changes for Addy

Catholic Resources:

  • Martin de Porres is the patron saint of barbers, African-Americans, race relations, and social justice. “He deserved to be called by the name the people gave him:  ‘Martin of Charity.’” St. John XXIII.  His feast day is November 3.  [americancatholic.org]

CCC 1837 Fortitude ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.

Fortitude is ranked as the fourth gift of the Holy Spirit because it gives us the strength to follow through on the actions suggested by the gift of counsel.  Fortitude is the virtue that allows us to overcome fear and to remain steady in our will in the face of obstacles, sometimes called courage. Prudence and justice are the virtues through which we decide what needs to be done; fortitude gives us the strength to do it.

  • “The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being.” John Paul II
  • CCC 1930 Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy. If it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects. It is the Church’s role to remind men of good will of these rights and to distinguish them from unwarranted or false claims.
  • CCC 1931 Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.” No legislation could by itself do away with the fears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness which obstruct the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such behavior will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a “neighbor,” a brother.

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