'Breathtaking' Images Discovered Of A 1950s Shoeshine Competition In North Carolina

Sep 11, 2014

In 1952, 12,000 people in Wilson, North Carolina turned out for an amazing event; children and adults gathered to watch a world-class shoeshine competition. Locals danced and played music, competing on showmanship, not just the quality of their shine.

The event was photographed for LIFE Magazine, but the images were never published, and they were almost lost to history.

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

Curtis Phillips shined shoes in town and decided to attend. Phillips had dropped out of school to make money for his family in the 1940s. He regularly lugged a handmade shoeshine box to a street corner in town, and soon he was employed at the Cherry Hotel.

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

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

Credit John G. Zimmerman / John G. Zimmerman Archive

Curtis Phillips took home $6 in prize money.

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 1950s. 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.

Zimmerman 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 than 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 back story,” 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.

Linda was intrigued. Why was there a shoeshine competition? Who were the competitors? Are any still alive? Several Darden High School alums helped Zimmerman 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 before seen the photos.

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, 2014
Credit Carol Jackson

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

A lost art revived

Curtis Phillips is retired now, after working for thirty years at the Cherry Hotel. He raised six children.

Phillips' shoeshine chair is 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," Moor said. "[Then] 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.

WUNC's Carol Jackson went to Wilson, NC with a camera in tow: