- Associated Press - Sunday, July 20, 2014

WILSON, N.C. (AP) - The arthritis in his knee slows Curtis Phillips down a bit. At 80 years old, he’s traded in his dress shoes for sneakers. But Phillips can still pop a shoe shine rag. There’s a natural rhythm to it all - the taut rag sliding across the shoe, the pop, the snap - and when Phillips was a much younger man, tap-dance moves and vertical leaps in the air that entertained not only his customers but crowds.

At age 18, Phillips got word a shoe shining competition was coming to Wilson’s Reid Street community center. He was shining shoes downtown at the barbershop at the Cherry Hotel at the time. Phillips walked over to the center, signed up and for three consecutive years won first place in the professional category.

There was no real money involved. He wishes there had been.

Photographs of Phillips and the competitions held here in Wilson are currently on display in the lobby of the Wilson County Public Library in downtown Wilson. The photographs are a combination of images captured by local photographer Guy Cox and the late John G. Zimmerman, a nationally recognized magazine photographer from California.

The photographs, taken early in Zimmerman’s career, which spanned from 1950 to 1990, were never published by Life magazine even though Zimmerman and writer, Bill Brinkley, were sent to Wilson to cover the contest organized by the city of Wilson’s Parks and Recreation Department in February 1952. Pattie Ruffin, supervisor of special activities for the Recreation Department handled the details.

Zimmerman spent a good deal of time in his early career taking photographs for publications like Life and Ebony depicting the lives of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.

Even though the story was not published in the magazine, Life held on to the photographs until 2007 when they were returned to her father’s archives, explained Linda Zimmerman, Zimmerman’s daughter. Zimmerman died in 2002.

The photographs covered many years and assignments. When Linda Zimmerman came across the shoe shine photos, they were marked “North Carolina shoe shine competition.” She had no idea where the competition was nor the identities of the people in the photographs. Contestants had numbers on their back.

Linda Zimmerman said she tried to do some research on the Internet but didn’t get anywhere. She picked out her favorite of the photographs and kept it out as a reminder. Off and on she’d do more Internet research.

Six years later, Will Robinson, local history and genealogy librarian at the Wilson County Public Library, wrote a blog post about a photograph by Cox in the library’s collection from the 1950 contest.

Linda Zimmerman saw Robinson’s blog. She recognized some of the same contestants based on the photographs her father had taken. She got in touch with Robinson.

“Her father had done a photo shoot a few years later,” Robinson said. “She’s really trying to promote her father’s collection. She’s trying to get in touch with people who were in the pictures.”

One of the photographs Zimmerman took was over the shoulder of the emcee from the contest. The man was holding the program and Linda Zimmerman said you can clearly see the date and names of some of the people. Robinson used that information to track down a story written about the February 1952 contest in The Wilson Times’ archives.

Finding the Times’ article filled in gaps about the winners and other details. The article led Linda Zimmerman to Phillips.

“I cold-called him,” she said.

She asked Phillips if he was the Curtis Phillips who won the contest in 1952. Linda Zimmerman was a little concerned. She was asking this man whom she did not know about an event that happened more than 60 years ago.

“It was a wonderful moment. He said, ‘I won it three times in a row.’”

Robinson and Linda Zimmerman contacted the crew with the television show, “North Carolina Now,” with UNC Public Television. They all visited Phillips this spring. Even though he’d just been released from the hospital, they got Phillips on video popping the rag.

Looking at her father’s photographs, Linda Zimmerman said it’s clear Life intended to publish them because someone had gone through and notched the sides of each frame being considered for publication. And while she’s disappointed Life never published the photographs, she loves the idea that 62 years later people are seeing the photographs. She believes the years have given the photographs more dimension, more meaning.

“Life has changed so much,” she said. “It’s a real Wilson story.”

Circulation desk workers are telling Robinson the display is one of the most popular the library has ever had. “I think it might have been one of the few African-American displays we’ve ever had,” Robinson adds.

The irony isn’t lost on him. Robinson notes that more than 50 percent of the library’s patrons are African-American. He’s also been talking with patrons while they look at the photographs.

“I was with a lady in her 80s pointing out pictures of her aunt in the photographs,” he said.

Shining shoes was Phillips’ primary means of making money from the time he was a child. He started working the streets of downtown Wilson at age 12. He shined shoes of customers on Nash Street and of farmers and tobacco company executives outside tobacco warehouses. Each shine put a nickle, a little spending money, in Phillips’ pocket.

He watched others shining shoes, picking up techniques. He kept working on popping the rag. Phillips taught himself to tap dance. Esquire polish was his shoe polish of choice.

By the time Phillips entered that first contest, he’d already quit Darden High School and was shining shoes full-time because his parents needed money. He was bringing in 35 cents per customer plus tips.

Phillips would wind up spending 35 years of his life shining shoes.

The last shoe shine stand he had made sat on the porch of his Church Street house up until two years ago when Lee Bynum asked Phillips to let him put the stand in his shoe shine parlor on Nash Street.

The wooden stand is one Phillips used for about 17 years. Phillips said Bynum tried to convince him to shine shoes again. But Phillips said there’s no money in it today.

Phillips spends much of his time around home these days. Sometimes he gets out and rides the city bus around or he walks over to the health clinic on Green Street. Phillips shines his own shoes whenever he has to wear something other than sneakers.

Michael Bey, who goes by “Mr. Magic,” has been shining his own shoes a good 40 years. But shining shoes is a skill he’s used to make money for about the last year. Bey shines shoes in Bynum’s parlor. Customers climb up on Phillips’ stand and sit in a metal chair. Two foot rests have been added to the stand.

Bey considers Phillips an inspiration. He sees shining shoes as a trade, a means people can use to bring back self-employment and self-esteem.

“Wilson is going through a big change now and seems to me the economy is messed up and business is kind of slow,” Bey said. “I just think it’s a very good opportunity for someone.”

But Bey understands people don’t dress like they used to years ago when men wore suits and dress shoes daily. He also understands shoes today are made out of cheaper, man-made materials.

“Back in the day, all they made was leather,” Bey said. “Now people have choices.”

Phillips has taught Bey a few tricks of the trade, given him pointers on simple stuff.

“He’s filled me in on how to make that rag pop,” Bey said.

Bynum was maybe 15 or 16 years old when he attended the shoe shining competitions. He went because his friends were competing. Bynum said he would pitch in and help out sometimes when things got busy at the Cherry Hotel.

“He (Phillips) was great at it,” Bynum said. “He was a showman.”

Bynum had seen some photographs from the competitions but he was excited to see the Zimmerman photographs.

“It gave me a lot of good memories,” he said.

Bynum said people raised families and sent children off to college shining shoes.

“At that time, it was about a decent living,” he said.

Bynum, who is 71 years old now and splits his time between Wilson and New York, remembers the train stopping downtown two times per day and people, particularly soldiers, getting their shoes shined while they lingered downtown. Shine boxes were set up around the train station.

William Bulluck can still rattle off the names of barbershops and hotels in downtown Wilson that had shoe shine stands. Bulluck also remembers blacks couldn’t go into shoe shine parlors across the railroad tracks. They had their own separate parlors and barbershops.

Like Bynum, Bulluck knows Phillips and remembers attending the contests.

Bulluck said he was perhaps 14 or 15 years old and living a couple of blocks from the community center. Bulluck said the contests were always held during the day and the contests were held for four or five years. There would be music and maybe a cup of punch.

In 1952, the contest drew more than 1,200 people, according to The Times article. The article also indicates recreation directors from other towns came to the contest in Wilson that year. And Bo McCann, the original Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy from Chattanooga, Tennessee and pianist, Earl Davis, performed for the crowd in 1952.

“Lots of people attended it,” Bulluck said. “They looked forward to it. Then it went dead.”

Bulluck has copies of three or four photographs taken during the contests. He got copies of the photographs from Phillips.

“He was an excellent shoe shiner and put on a show,” Bulluck said. “He knew how to pop the rag and dance around. He did it all his life.”

Bulluck sits down with his magnifying glass and goes over the photographs trying to spot people he knows. Bulluck said he gave a set of the prints to Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch. Bulluck said Fitch’s mother and brother are in the photographs.

“It takes time for it to come back to you,” Bulluck said of faces. “I remembered his mother and then he said ‘that’s my brother.’”

Bulluck also recognized Ernest Sherrod in the photographs. Ernest won third place in the amateur category during the contest in 1952, according to The Times article. Sherrod’s younger brother, Otis, recognized his brother by his hair, face and eyes when he saw the photographs.

“Dad had unique eyes,” Otis Sherrod said.

Otis Sherrod was surprised though to learn his brother, who went on to become a professor of electrical engineering at North Carolina A&T; University in Greensboro, shined shoes.

“Dad ran a neighborhood grocery store,” Otis Sherrod said. “I didn’t know he did anything other than work in my Pop’s store. By the time I got up some size, he was off in college.”

Bulluck, 74, explained the competitions to Otis Sherrod when the two were talking about the photographs.

“It’s interesting to me to relate back to it,” Bulluck said. “I’ll keep the pictures forever. Perhaps when I die they’ll go in the garbage can.”

For now, other than the website focused on John G. Zimmerman’s work, Wilson is the only place the photographs have been displayed.

“North Carolina is the perfect first place,” Linda Zimmerman said. “I’m pleased everybody in the community can have access to them.”

___

Information from: The Wilson Daily Times, https://www.wilsondaily.com

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