A Cut Above: Near East Side Barber Combats Vaccine Hesitancy

East Side barber Al Edmondson works to increase community health.

Tom Hanks
Barbershop owner Al Edmonson helps clients connect to health resources.

The inconspicuous red-brick building at 346 N. 20th St. could pass for any other building on the Near East Side. 

What sets it apart from other places, however, is what goes on inside. In addition to the expected elements of a neighborhood barbershop—’90s R&B legend Babyface coming from the radio and Days of Our Lives playing on one of the many TVs—there’s a whiteboard hawking "FREE HEALTH SCREENINGS." On the back wall is a mural depicting important events in the historically Black neighborhood that surrounds the business, which is aptly named A Cut Above the Rest

There, owner Al Edmonson, 53, offers—along with a haircut—connection to health resources, counseling and other supports for families confronting challenges, both through his own wise advice and through a nonprofit organization he has created. 

His compassion and commitment flow from personal experience. Edmonson found his home on the East Side at the age of 10, when his mother, struggling with mental illness, split up her children, sending him to live with his father. 

After graduating from East High School, Edmonson headed to college, then the Army Reserves, then barber college. Soon after, Uncle Sam came calling and he found himself in the Persian Gulf. His unit in Iraq was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery. 

Upon his return from Iraq, Edmonson opened A Cut Above the Rest. He’s seen a lot of change in the area. “Once upon a time in the ’90s, crack cocaine flooded the neighborhood, and we’d see people and incidents in our community. … It was crazy,” he says. Edmonson’s barbershop became as much a community center as a place to get a shear. 

After hearing clients talking about various ailments from diabetes to prostate cancer, Edmonson began to host health screenings at the barbershop—first with the assistance of a Black nursing sorority, Chi Eta Phi, and then faculty from Ohio State’s College of Nursing. 

In 2010, Edmonson formed Making a Difference Inc., a nonprofit that aims to eliminate the disparities of Columbus’ urban communities by providing much-needed resources in health, youth mentoring and strengthening the family unit. 

Four years later, he was the guest of U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty at a White House ceremony where then-President Barack Obama inaugurated a program to address opportunity gaps facing boys and young men of color. He has also been honored by Mayor Andrew Ginther’s office and Columbus' CelebrateONE initiative, which combats infant mortality. “I’ve been blessed to be an anchor in our community for three decades,” Edmonson says. 

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Recently, he has unleashed the power of his barber chair on one major issue: combating hesitancy surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine—work that has become even more important as the pandemic has taken its toll in the Black community. 

“For a long time, I was hesitant to get vaccinated,” he says. “It took the death of two good friends from COVID for me to get the vaccine. Now, I try to give my customers as much information as I can.” 

“It takes a village to improve our communities,” he adds. “I could be a regular barber and not do anything—but I care so much about people.” 

This story is from the 2022 issue of Giving, a supplement of Columbus Monthly and Columbus CEO.