The routine begins every other week during the school year: Sabian Burke sits down in a barber chair. A cape with a lion’s face on it gets draped around his shoulders. White crew socks tucked neatly into clean beige Nike shoes peek out from under that cloth. He breathes. Then the cut begins.

He’s at Premier Barber Lounge in Glenville. That’s where Shanetta McNair, also known as the Lioness Barber, works her magic Tuesday through Saturday. The shop is less than a mile from Case Western Reserve University, where Burke just completed his second year. 

Looking good is important to Burke. Students who show up to class in pajamas – and they always seem to be those red-and-white plaid striped pants, he noted – puzzle him. Two years in at CWRU, and he has locked down his personal grooming team. 

His roommate does his manicures. A recent creation featured blue flames, a cross and a smiley face. Another student braids his hair. It’s dark like his eyes. On this day, it’s twisted into an intricate combination of horizontal and vertical lines. 

But that biweekly-ish cut is always done by McNair. He walks to her shop since he doesn’t have a car. They catch up, talking about subjects ranging from places to visit outside of University Circle to swapping stories about Burke’s hometown of New Orleans. 

Burke has had three barbers during his 20 years on Earth, but he said none are like McNair. The conversations at Black barber shops are sacred. The institutions historically are places where African American men can talk openly about what’s on their mind and what’s happening in their community. 

Burke said he felt awkward in his previous barber shops, where conversations centered on girls and sports. He always kind of dreaded going.  But the vibes at McNair’s shop are different. 

“I give them a lot of motherly, auntie, sister advice,” she said. 

McNair, 39, is a Black woman. CWRU is predominantly white. Really white, in fact. During his first semester in the fall of 2021, for example, Burke was one of just 281 Black/African American undergraduates enrolled at the University Circle campus. That’s about 5% of that fall’s total undergraduate student body of 5,792 students. 

That percentage hasn’t changed much over the years at Case Western Reserve. It’s a similar story elsewhere. Black Americans attend more selective academic institutions like CWRU in far lower numbers than their white peers.  

Nearly half of the city of Cleveland’s residents, though, are Black. And almost all of the people living in East Cleveland, which directly borders CWRU’s campus, are also Black.

For Burke, those demographics are a big reason why he picked Case. He earned a scholarship through the Posse Foundation, which would have let him attend places like the University of Notre Dame or Villanova University. The cities in which those institutions sit didn’t appeal to him as much as Cleveland did.  

“You can’t really find a Black barber in a predominantly white city,” he said. 

And he has found a serious one. McNair’s committed to both her craft and the persona she has created. “Lioness Barber” is even tattooed on her. One word’s in black script on her left arm. The other mirrors it down her right.   

The moniker’s stitched on a blue hat she’s wearing during a recent visit. Aside from her big smile and large, multicolored eyeglasses, your eyes go right to that name on that hat when you look at her. It’s not by accident. In a way, she feels as though she protects people, especially these students. She wears her name with pride. 

Once Black CWRU students told her about how their white roommates were treating them “as if they were their maids,” she said. It made her angry, and she encouraged them to report the issue. Another time she could tell a student arrived feeling overwhelmed and anxious.  They talked for 20 minutes before she even picked up the tools to cut their hair.  

“It’s very much a safe zone,” she said of her shop. 

McNair’s own higher education journey has included a few stops.  She spent time at a community college, a for-profit school, and a barber school. She grew up in Cleveland, but attending Case Western was never on her radar. 

“I just saw a big campus, and I saw a lot of people who didn’t look like me, so I thought ‘This must not be for me,’” she said.  

She thinks the university could be doing more to connect Black students with the neighborhoods around them. Case does offer various types of engagement opportunities, including its inaugural Black Business Expo next month. And later this fall, new first-year students of color can come to campus early for a three-day program designed to better prepare them for university life. It’s the first time CWRU is hosting this event

McNair’s thinking is on a more micro level, those day-to-day interactions that make up our lives. Maybe there could be a map, she suggested, showing where students could venture off campus to family-owned restaurants where they can get good food for cheap prices. 

Her Instagram feed – username “lioness_barber14,” of course – is lined with photos and videos of her work. The business with students like Burke has spread mainly through word of mouth over the past three years. That clientele really grew when she dropped the price for them to $25, lower than her standard starting price of $40. 

The relationships she has built make her want to expand, maybe by marketing to students from Cleveland State University and Cuyahoga Community College. She wants to make anyone and everyone comfortable in her chair. The rationale behind that, she said, is simple. 

“When you look good, you feel good, your brain is clear,” she said.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.