John Battle, veteran Sandtown-Winchester barber and minister, dies

John Battle, a longtime North Mount Street barber and ordained minister who was active in several churches, died in his sleep May 27 at his Sandtown-Winchester home. He was 75.

One of seven children, he was born in Blakely, Ga., the son of Johney B. Battle, a laborer, and Jimmie Lee Collins Battle, a homemaker.

After graduating in 1958 from Washington High School in Blakely at age 16, he moved to Baltimore and entered Apex Beauty School, where he studied barbering.

Mr. Battle began his 60-year barbering career with the Rev. William Rivers, pastor of New Bethlehem Baptist Church, who also maintained Rivers Barber Shop on Riggs Avenue.

In 1969, Mr. Battle went out on his own, establishing Battle’s Barber Shop in the 1000 block of N. Mount St. in Sandtown-Winchester.

“Battle’s Barber Shop would become one of the city’s most successful, well-known, black-owned businesses. It was also one of the city’s most entertaining,” wrote daughter Ursula V. Battle in a biographical profile of her father.

“Anyone who had a haircut and a shave there knew an enjoyable time always awaited at Battle’s Barber Shop. The trash-talking among barber and customers and the photo collage of family and friends that hung on the wall are fond memories that will never be forgotten,” wrote Ms. Battle, a Randallstown resident who is a reporter for the Baltimore Times and a playwright.

James G. Clowney, a former city police officer who later worked for the Mass Transit Administration as a dispatcher, was a longtime customer and a friend who knew Mr. Battle “at least 45 years.”

“We were neighbors in Sandtown-Winchester,” said Mr. Clowney, who now lives in Pasadena. “John was the only one I’d let cut my hair or give me a shave, and when he retired, I missed him very much. He was an all-around person with a nice personality. If you needed something, he’d do it for you.”

Mr. Clowney had Mr. Battle cut his hair in a style known as the “fade.”

“That means it’s cut close around the bottom and medium at the top, and he did it beautifully,” he said. “I’ve not had a fade since he stopped working.”

Mr. Clowney also enjoyed the shop’s atmosphere.

“He always held interesting conversations and they were all about politics, sports or whatever interested him. He was a very intelligent man and his conversations were not something you just threw out of a window,” he said. “John made you think about things, and you thought about them for a long time afterward.”

Mr. Clowney said his friend was dutiful in opening his shop, no matter what.

“Back during one of the big snowstorms of 1982 or 1983, I had to be at work at 7 a.m. and I offered to drive John to work. There must have been 5 or 6 inches of snow on Liberty Road — which we came down sideways,” he said with a laugh. “John always said it was better getting snowed in at a job where you get paid, than being home, where you won’t.”

After losing his barber shop to a fire during the 1990s, Mr. Battle worked at L&B Unisex on North Bentalou Street, Metro Esquire at Mondawmin Mall and most recently at Mark’s Barber Shop on Edmondson Avenue.

He retired two years ago following eye surgery.

“He cut several generations of hair and was known all over Baltimore,” his daughter wrote. “Everywhere he went someone would say, ‘Hey, Mr. John, you remember me? You used to cut my hair.’ ”

“While he loved cutting hair, his greatest love was his personal relationship with God,” Ms. Battle said. “In between giving haircuts he’d read his Bible.”

In 1980, he preached his trial sermon — “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand” — at New Hope Baptist Church, and in 1999 received his certificate of ordination from Pilgrim Christian Baptist Church.

“He never used the word ‘reverend’ to describe himself, because he said the Bible said we reverenced God, and not man,” Ms. Battle said. “He wouldn’t call himself reverend or anybody else. He was a stickler about that.”

Mr. Battle had been assistant pastor at Christ Temple Church. His other church associations included New Bethlehem, First Mount Calvary and Grace Memorial Baptist churches. He was also a member of New Life Fellowship Worship Center in Pikesville.

“John loved the Lord and was very faithful,” said the Rev. Edward L. Ferguson, pastor of New Life Fellowship. “We loved him and he loved the church. He was the kind of man you wanted to be around because he smiled all the time.”

Rev. Ferguson fondly recalled a sermon Mr. Battle gave at New Life. “He spoke God’s words and he liked to teach God’s words,” he said.

Dena Ward-Wane, editor and director of special projects for the Baltimore Times, is an old family friend.

“Mr. John was easy to listen to and he could quote scripture unprovoked that was always timely and something that encouraged my day,’ said Ms. Ward-Wane, a Northwest Baltimore resident. “It was a pleasure knowing him and being a part of his family.

“He was always saying, ‘Dena, you’ve got to love the Lord.’ I will miss his gentle spirit and encouragement. He was hopeful and prayerful and his death was a real shock. There is a void there,” she said.

Entrepreneurial by nature, Mr. Battle owned a carryout, a snowball stand and several houses in addition to his barber shop.

“However, he did not keep his prosperity to himself. He shared it with others,” his daughter wrote. “The people he helped financially — with shelter and other means — would be too numerous to count. He also mentored several other barbers and helped everyone.”

Ms. Battle said “back in the day” her father liked buying new Cadillacs with whitewall tires, “which he always kept pristine.” She described him as a ‘handsome man and a dapper dresser,” who “stayed as sharp as his razor with his suits, shoes, hats and manicured nails.”

She also said he supported her work as a playwright and never missed a performance of her plays.

“I’d look out and see my father in the audience. He was proud of me and my work, and I was proud of what he had accomplished in his life,” she said.

Mr. Battle enjoyed attending family cookouts and other gatherings.

A celebration of life service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at New Rehoboth Baptist Church, 6318 Windsor Mill Road, Gwynn Oak.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Battle is survived by a son, John “Lil’ John” Battle Jr. of Sandtown-Winchester; four other daughters, LaTonya M. Battle-White of Randallstown, Jonita G. Battle of Belair-Edison, Tyiese M. Battle of Owings Mills and Shantel Washington of Northwood; 14 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. An earlier marriage to the former Vashtied M. Stokes ended in divorce.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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