Harold Cotton

Harold Cotton (1922–2006)Photograph by Harvey Wang

Harold Cotton (1922–2006)

Photograph by Harvey Wang

Harold Cotton owned and operated Bob’s Hat Shop in Greensboro, North Carolina, from 1953 to 2005. Though segregated until 1960, Cotton’s storefront offered a space where the rules of Jim Crow were partially relaxed. The profits he made provided a livelihood for his employees and sustained black institutions.

Framed diploma, 1950

Framed diploma, 1950

Many black veterans took up a trade upon their return from service after World War II. Learning how to clean and repair hats allowed Cotton to purchase Bob’s Hat Shop in 1953.

Cash register, 1953

Cash register, 1953

This well-used National Cash Register stood in Cotton’s shop and safeguarded the profits that sustained his family and community.

Metal tokens, 1950s–1990s

Metal tokens, 1950s–1990s

After finishing each shoe shine, Cotton’s employees collected a token from the cash register. The number collected in a workday determined that day’s pay.

Cotton used these tools to block hats, restoring a hat’s original shape after steam cleaning it to remove the scuffs and dirt of daily wear.

Fedora crown block

Fedora crown block

Hat crown block

Hat crown block

Hat flange

Hat flange

Flange holder

Flange holder

Hat, 1950s–1990s

Hat, 1950s–1990s

When Bob’s Hat Shop opened, hats were a staple of men’s fashion. This gave Harold Cotton a steady stream of customers. By 1961, when President John F. Kennedy went hatless during his inauguration, it signaled a shift in men’s fashion that threatened Cotton’s livelihood.

Dudley High School Diamond Jubilee program, 1988

Dudley High School Diamond Jubilee program, 1988

Founded in 1929, Dudley High School was the only black high school in Greensboro, North Carolina for decades. Underfunded within a segregated school system, the school depended on Harold Cotton and other black business leaders for financial support. While their tax dollars largely supported institutions black children could not attend, black workers and business owners donated privately from their wages to support black schools.