Thursday, November 26, 2015

Mr. Tibbs's Shoe Shine...

If you have your hair done at Headquarters on Grinnell's 4th Avenue, you may notice an unusual chair by the front window. Sometimes decorated with luxuriant greenery, the metal-wire outline sits higher than the average chair, and is punctuated with a wire-drawn heart in the seat back. Below the seat one can see a place for two feet, elevated enough to allow someone on the stool before it to clean and polish shoes. This attractive and unusual piece of furniture was the worksite of James Tibbs (1890-1941), another member of the small enclave of African Americans who made Grinnell home. The decorative heart offers an ironic reminder of the last days of Jim Tibbs, who worked a series of menial jobs in his lifetime, but spent his last years shining shoes for Grinnell men, some of whom apparently rode him hard and unfairly joked at his expense. Long after Tibbs's death, the chair remains to remind us of this hard-working man and his part in the history of twentieth-century Grinnell.
James Tibbs's Shoe Shine Chair (courtesy of Susie Kinney, Headquarters)
James Oscar Tibbs—later known as both Oscar and Jim—was born February 3, 1890 in Columbia, MO, the eldest of the three children of James and Amanda Tibbs. Still living in Columbia at the time of the 1900 census, young James was then ten and enrolled in school. His father reported his work title as "laborer," although in what industry the record does not say. By 1910 Jim was living out of the family household, boarding with another African American family in Columbia and working as a "table waiter" at a private home. When in 1917 he registered for the draft, Tibbs was living in Des Moines where he was employed as a porter at a Des Moines barber shop—"Ryan and Gloffe" is what the registration form reads, but there was no such barber shop in any Des Moines directory from these years. Tibbs must have meant "Grothe and Ryan," who, according to the 1916 Des Moines city directory, operated their barber shop in the basement of 210 5th Street. At this time Tibbs was a boarder at 750 10th Street in Des Moines.
Extract from Tibbs's registration for the US draft, June 5, 1917
US Army records indicate that Tibbs enlisted in July, 1918, serving as a private first-class until his discharge in June, 1919. Almost immediately—July, 1919—back in Des Moines and by then 28 years old, Tibbs married Mary Redrick, 25-year-old daughter of Grinnell's Robert and Mary Redrick. How the two met we do not know, nor is it evident why they chose Marshalltown to marry. The registrar there described Tibbs as "brown" but his bride as "black," and left only a question mark in that part of the form that asked after the groom's occupation.

The newlyweds moved into the bride's family home at 721 Center Street, Grinnell, and, according to the 1920 city directory, Tibbs began work in Grinnell as a "laborer on city streets." No later than 1923, Jim was shining shoes in Grinnell, but by 1925 the family had relocated, living at 1008 Sixth Avenue, Cedar Rapids, where Mamie (as Mary now called herself) cared for two young children born in Grinnell: Harold Daniel, born August 14, 1920, and Albert (Sylvester Alfred), born April 22, 1923. In 1926 (May 16) Mamie gave birth to her first daughter, Janet Winona (or Winona Janet or Jeanette as she was later known), so the Tibbs family was growing. Three more children later joined the household: two daughters, Shirley (1929) and Roberta (1932), and another son (Edward, b. 1933), these last two born back in Grinnell. The 1940 census (I could not find the family in the 1930 census) found James, Mamie and their six children (along with Mamie's brother, Robert) back in Grinnell at 608 Third Avenue, not far from the former Redrick home on Center Street. Sometime in the 1940s the family moved to 712 Elm in Grinnell.
Interior of Cedar Rapids Interurban station in 1947 (
During their sojourn in Cedar Rapids the family moved often and James worked a number of different jobs: city directories variously report James as working for "Sinclair" or as "janitor at interurban [train] station." Cedar Rapids in these years boasted several Sinclair gas stations, and James might have worked at one of them. But the T. M. Sinclair Company was a big pork and beef packer at the corner of Third and Sixteenth Avenue, and had a much larger work force than all the gas stations combined, so it seems likely that Tibbs was employed there.
Advertisement for Sanitary Barber Shop on 4th Avenue (Scarlet and Black Sep 19, 1931)
But when did he begin to shine shoes? Newspaper advertisements announced that Tibbs shined shoes at Grinnell's Sanitary Barber Shop already in 1923. The Sanitary Barber Shop had long been known in Grinnell, having occupied several locations downtown. In March 1925 it relocated yet again, this time occupying a building in the 800 block of Fourth Avenue. Its long-time proprietor, L. L. Grooms, had had as many as three fellow-barbers, including Jay Parrot, who continued the business after Grooms's 1942 death. How or exactly when these men came to include Tibbs in their business we do not know.
Scarlet & Black March 9, 1923
Ads for Tibbs's shoe shine disappeared late in 1923, no doubt as a consequence of the family's move to Cedar Rapids. Notices of Tibbs's shoe shine did not reappear until 1931, when the college newspaper regularly carried advertisements that announced, "It's really—fine to get a SHINE from JIM TIBBS At the Sanitary Shop," by then occupying space on Fourth Avenue. The barber shop continued to publish its own ads in the paper, without mentioning Tibbs, a fact that implies that Jim operated his shoe shine on an independent basis, perhaps paying rent or a percentage of receipts to Grooms and Parrot.

Tibbs's advertisements continued to appear in the 1932 editions of the Scarlet and Black, but thereafter disappeared, whether because Tibbs no longer needed them, had quit shining shoes, or for some other, unknown reason.
Grinnell Herald-Register January 9, 1941, p. 1
Only in January, 1941 did the newspaper public read again about Jim Tibbs: a brief front-page story in the Grinnell Herald-Register reported his death at Chicago's Edward Hines, Jr. hospital. According to the article, Tibbs, not yet 51 years old, had been a patient at Hines for two months and had been in poor health for more than a year, which means that Tibbs had certainly quit shining shoes no later than 1940, and perhaps earlier.
Gravestone for James Tibbs, Hazelwood Cemetery
No formal obituary was ever printed, and records of Grinnell's two mortuaries of the time preserve no details of Tibbs's funeral and burial. However, an editorial in the January 13, 1941 Herald-Register offered some consoling words. Acknowledging the humble status of the shoe shine, the newspaper nevertheless admitted that "Jim Tibbs worked hard all his life." "He was the father of a nice family," the article continued, and "he filled his niche in the world the best he could...." The editorial went on to praise Tibbs for his military service and the honor he did to the flag each Memorial day, and concluded somewhat ponderously, "Let all men speak well of a brother who did not find life's pathway easy and who trod it bravely."

Despite these niceties, the newspaper could not refrain from acknowledging that "The boys used to make a lot of fun of Jim. He was the butt of innumerable practical jokes and he didn't like it very well. He used to get mad, and the madder he got, the faster came the jokes...." The editorial imagined that, deep down, Tibbs "would have missed the rough joking if it had stopped," but the words ring false seventy-five years later, and point awkwardly to the injustice cruelly visited upon the man.
Grinnell Herald-Register May 16, 1996, p. 1
Little more was said about Jim Tibbs until one day in 1996 owners of the Headquarters got to work cleaning out the basement of their shop at 804 Fourth Avenue, the long-time home of the Sanitary Barber Shop. Along with old signs and the abandoned barber's pole, the Kinney's discovered Jim Tibbs's shoe shine chair, barely visible in the right-hand corner of the newspaper photo. The chair was soon reinstalled upstairs where Jim Tibbs had long tended it, and the heart embedded in the chair continues to remind customers of the man who for so many years bent down before his white customers to polish their shoes, even if they made jokes at his expense.

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