Arts & Culture
8:54 am
Fri April 4, 2014

VIDEO: Discovered LIFE Magazine Photos Reveal Curious NC Tradition

A yearly shoeshine competition in the 1950's in Wilson, NC drew more than 1,000 spectators and the attention of LIFE Magazine. The images, though, were never published. They were not seen publicly for more than 60 years. Until now.

It all started with a song. In 1950, Red Foley's Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy topped the charts. Someone had the idea to bring the inspiration for the song to Wilson in order to have a performance. Soon the idea became bigger. Why not invite community members to compete, to shine shoes on stage? A local black radio DJ promoted the event heavily.

The star of the show for three years was a young professional, Curtis Phillips. Phillips had dropped out of school to make money for his family in the 1940's. Each day, he lugged a handmade shoeshine box to a street corner in Wilson, NC. Soon he was employed at the local Cherry Hotel. When businessmen came in, Phillips quietly gave their shoes a terrific gleam.

The night of the competition, Curtis Phillips not only made shoes sparkle, but he did it with style. He jumped and spun, he tap danced on the stage. He did everything he could to be entertaining, and still turn out a scuff-free loafer.

Curtis Phillips tries to wow the judges, Shoeshine Competition, 1952
Credit John G. Zimmerman / John G. Zimmerman Archive
1,200 people watched the competition at the Reid Community Center in Wilson
Credit John G. Zimmerman / John G. Zimmerman Archive

The local newspaper reports that the professional category was "tightly contested." Curtis Phillips won three years straight. He beat others from his barbershop, even his own boss.

Credit John G. Zimmerman / John G. Zimmerman Archive

Curtis Phillips took home six dollars in prize money on this night in 1952.

Curtis Phillips wins first prize at the Wilson Shoeshine Contest, Wilson North Carolina, 1952.
Credit John G. Zimmerman / John G. Zimmerman Archive

And now, 60 years later...

John G. Zimmerman
Credit John G. Zimmerman / John G. Zimmerman Archive

Curtis Phillips' story would likely never be known, except for a man named John G. Zimmerman. Zimmerman traveled the Jim Crow south for both LIFE and EBONY magazines in the 1950's. He was one of a handful of white photographers who did so at that time, and he came to Wilson to cover the competition in 1952.

He took the images back to New York, to LIFE Magazine. They were never published.

The pictures went into LIFE's archive and were not seen again for more then 50 years.

After Zimmerman died, his daughter Linda began collecting and archiving her father's photographs. She found the images from Wilson and she was captivated.

“As soon as I saw the photos, I knew there had to be a remarkable backstory,” said Linda Zimmerman. “The contestants shined shoes like performance artists. And the auditorium was packed, like it was a rock concert.”

But because the images had not been published in LIFE Magazine, there was no documentation to them.

So recently, Linda has been trying to find out more. Why there was a shoeshine competition? Who were the competitors? Are any still alive? In recent weeks she has found out a lot. Several Darden High alums helped identify people in the photos, including the star, Curtis Phillips.

"Breathtaking. Just takes the breath." That's how Curtis Phillips' childhood friend General Lee Bynum described the images of his friend. Like others in town, he had never seen the photos until Linda Zimmerman tracked him down.

Curtis Phillips is now 80 years old. His memory is not what it used to be. He doesn't recall much about the competition itself, but the secret to his success is simple. "Shine 'em right. Make sure you shine 'em good. Appreciate the customer," he says. If you appreciate the customer, everything will be all right.

Curtis Phillips shined shoes for thirty years at the Cherry Hotel. He raised six children on that income.

Curtis Phillips, 2014
Credit Carol Jackson

A lost art, revived

Michael Moor, shines shoes today at Mr. Magic's Shoe Shine Parlor, Wilson, NC
Credit Carol Jackson

Curtis Phillips retired and the Cherry Hotel closed. But someone had the foresight to remove Phillips' shoeshine chair from the barbershop. It's now featured prominently in the window of Mr. Magic's Shoe Shine Parlor at 501 East Nash Street in Wilson, right around the corner from Curtis Phillips' home.

"Mr Magic" is Michael Moor. Moor grew up in New York. "I remember as a child watching men shine shoes and I decided that if it's something I can do, I might as well do it and keep the legacy alive."

Then he moved to North Carolina. "I met Mr. Curt and I said 'Man, you remind me of the cats in New York!'"

Moor decided that there just might be enough men and women in town to support a new shoe shine parlor. (Women, he says, love to get their boots detailed.)

Michael Moor and the shop owner, General Lee Bynum, have tried to convince Curtis Phillips to come by and shine shoes again, but Curtis says his knees aren't what they used to be.

But on a recent day, the Mayor of Wilson, Bruce Rose, came by to get a shine. And Curtis Phillips proved that he can still buff with the best of them. He even "pops the rag." (A skilled shoe shiner can snap the shoeshine rag so skillfully that it sounds as though he is playing a musical instrument. It's done  primarily to get a reaction, and a bigger tip.)

The mayor appreciates the pride that Curtis Philips took in his work at a time when the man was known as a shoe shine "boy" and was likely not respected by many in town. "Shining shoes," says the mayor,  "it was a real art."

The photos

As for the photos of Curtis Phillips and the other competitors, they will be preserved at the John G. Zimmerman Archive in California. Prints will be donated to the county public library in Wilson. And, of course, the photographer's daughter, Linda, has made sure that Curtis Phillips has a complete set.