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.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Greek Who Never Went Home....

Most of the immigrants who lived in Grinnell early in the twentieth century had come either from Canada or from western and northern Europe. But as the railroads prospered and Grinnell added some industries that required more labor, the migrant influx changed, reflecting the changes taking place all across the country as increasing numbers of US-bound immigrants came from the Mediterranean and Mexico. Consequently, for example, most of the men who worked in Grinnell as section hands for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad were Mexican. But the May 17, 1910 issue of the Grinnell Herald carried the sad news about a section hand who was not Mexican, and who was seriously injured.  The paper reported that Socrates Perras (the paper spelled it Perees), a Greek, was working on the tracks, and, having stepped out of the way of a passing freight train, had inadvertently stepped between two cars that were being switched on the next track. He was knocked down and thrown under the cars, his chest crushed and his back broken. Evidently still conscious, Perras was rushed to hospital where he soon died, far from his Greek home and family. The story of how Grinnell responded to this tragedy is often confusing, but simultaneously revealing about the town's encounter with an unfamiliar culture.
Grinnell Herald May 17, 1910, p. 1
Socrates Perras had arrived at Ellis Island in early May, 1907 aboard the S.S. Roma, which had sailed out of Naples in late April with a full complement of immigrants, many of whom were Greek. Responding to officials who compiled the passenger list, Perras gave his age then as 30, but his death record reports his age as 47, meaning that he was born around 1863, and therefore must have been 44 or so when he immigrated.  Perhaps he thought that providing officials a younger age would help him find work in America, or perhaps the immigration official misheard him—we'll never know.

The ship's manifesto reported the man's home as "St. Dimitri," or Agios Demetrios; as you might expect, toponyms like that are legion in Greece, so it is hard to say with confidence exactly where Perras originated. He traveled to America with two other men from St. Dimitri, and all claimed to be headed to Chicago, intending to stay with their friend, Gust Macris, and with Perras's uncle, Panogliotis Factoris (?), both of whom were said to be living at 1320 Portland Avenue, Chicago. No such address survives in today's Chicago, but Perras and friends might have confused Chicago with Chicago Heights, which was a destination for many immigrants around 1900 and which today still has a 1320 Portland Avenue. In fact, the 1910 US census did find a Gust Macris living at 1312 Portland Avenue, Chicago Heights, immediately next door to 1320 (where the census registered another group of Greek immigrants), so this is certainly where Perras was headed.
S. S. Roma (undated photograph)
How he ended up in Grinnell is unknown, but it seems likely that Perras acquired the railroad job in Chicago, where the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad had offices at the LaSalle Street Station. At the time of his death, Perras had probably only recently reached Grinnell, because his name does not appear in the 1910 Grinnell census nor in the 1910 city directory. Moreover, at the time of the accident, the Grinnell Herald admitted that the dead man was "little known," with the result that no pallbearers could be found—not even among railroad employees, several of whom had been called to testify at the inquest that investigated the accident.  Therefore, several businessmen (the grocer W. T. Moyle , the shoe company man, C. J. Card, the dentist, Dr. A. J. Brock, and three others) "dropped their work long enough" to serve at the "simple funeral."
Lasalle Street Station (ca. 1904), Chicago, Home of Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad (photo courtesy of

The funeral was indeed simple. Although two local clergymen—Rev. G. E. White (a Congregational missionary in Turkey but back in Grinnell for the funeral of his father), and Rev. Elias Handy, pastor of the Methodist Church—volunteered to conduct services, "their friendly offers were declined," the paper reported (in a maddeningly perfect example of why the passive voice is obfuscating). Certainly the dead man did not decline the offer, but who did is left unsaid.

The stated reason for declining the help of the volunteer clergy is also confusing: the newspaper explained the situation by saying that the "dead man was a Catholic, and Catholic services, if any, were required." "For this reason," the report concluded, "burial was made without religious service."
St. Columbanus Catholic Church, Main Street and Washington Avenue (photo ca. 1913)
However, if Perras was a Catholic, he could certainly have obtained a Catholic burial. Although Catholics had yet to gain a strong foothold in Grinnell (only about 5% of the town's population then identified as Catholic), a Catholic parish had existed in Grinnell for almost thirty years by the time that Perras suffered his accident; in 1910 the Rev. James Curtin was priest, and had been priest at St. Columbanus since 1897. So, although  there might have been some difficulty in reaching the priest, the problem could not have been so great as to deprive a dead Catholic of a proper burial.

Almost certainly, however, Perras was not Catholic, but rather Greek Orthodox, and there were no Orthodox priests in Grinnell—a circumstance that might truly have caused a difficulty for arranging funeral rites. In 1910 Greeks were practically unknown in Grinnell, although within a few years, a small clutch of Greeks had taken up residence in town. The 1915 Iowa census, for example, found Peter Staffanou, a Greek immigrant and co-owner of a confectionary at 825 4th Avenue (later known as Candyland); with his brother Theodore and his candy store co-owner, James Joris (another Greek), Staffanou lived at 927 West Street. Two more Greeks, Peter Marcopolos and Tom Koserar, operated a shoe-shine in town in 1915, but none of these men (all but Koserar were still single in 1915) lived in 1910 Grinnell. Staffanou, for example, told the census-taker that he had arrived in the US in 1910, but had been in Iowa only two years, meaning that he had arrived in 1913. At the time of Perras's death, therefore, Grinnell still had not made much acquaintance with Greeks.

But there was at least one Greek in 1910 Grinnell: Charles Plagakis, whom the newspaper mentioned as having given evidence at the inquest. Born in Greece in the 1880s, Plagakis had entered the United States in 1909 and found his way to Grinnell where, according to the 1910 US census, he was working as a salesman in some place called "candy kitchen"—probably what later became Staffanou's Candyland. In January 1910 in Perry, Iowa Plagakis had married a Greek girl, Stella Lonebesi, who had immigrated from Greece at about the same time as her new husband; the pair, along with a boarder who was apparently Charles's brother, James, resided at 828 Main Street in 1910.

Plagakis later left Grinnell, settling in Chicago. But in 1910 he appears to have played a central role in assisting Grinnell authorities with the death of Socrates Perras, perhaps explaining in his best English that Perras was "Catholic," and therefore not eligible to be buried by Protestant pastors. Mediation in behalf of an unknown countryman could only go so far,  however: Plagakis did not volunteer as a pallbearer, for example, nor, apparently, was he in a position to underwrite burial costs.

In any event, Perras was buried two days after the accident in Hazelwood Cemetery, not in potter's field, where the unknown and impoverished were usually put to rest, but rather on the slope that bends down to Arbor Lake. Did someone buy him a grave plot, one wonders? If so, evidently not much money changed hands, because no gravestone was erected in the man's memory.
Grave marker (?) of Socrates Perras, Hazelwood Cemetery
Visitors to this part of the cemetery today can find numerous grave markers spilling down the hill, along with a small cement slab, sunken now a bit below grade, half-way down the incline. Like some other gravestones of the era, the cement marker was modest both in cost and appearance. Nevertheless, many of these same cement markers reveal a simple identification of the deceased—a name and date imprinted on the cement before it hardened. The marker over the plot in which Socrates Perras was buried, however, remains anonymous, and no doubt escapes the notice of all but the most curious.
Modest cement gravestone for "infant son of J. F. Ferson, Dec 26 (?), 1921" (2015 photograph)
Cemetery records indicate that as many as ten bodies are buried in this fifteen-by-twenty plot, but only two markers identify those interred there—one recalls Alexander Kline, who died in November, 1909, and the other remembers Merrill James Quire, an infant who died in July, 1910; the rest, some buried before Perras, others afterward, are not remembered by any marker whatsoever. Why Perras ended up with this unlikely collection of the unremembered dead is unclear.

In this way the story of Socrates Perras's brief sojourn in Grinnell came to an end. Only a staccato epilogue played out later that summer in Chicago: in early August the Cook County Probate Court appointed John F. Devine to collect and administer the property left behind by Perras, who had died intestate. Devine reported that he had gathered "property and effects [belonging to Perras] in said County, the value of which does not exceed the sum of Ten Thousand Dollars ($10,000)." It seems unlikely that Perras had accumulated so enormous a sum in his brief time in America, so perhaps the number employed was chosen arbitrarily. However, as other Cook County intestate declarations indicate, it could have been a much smaller sum ($500, for example, in some other cases), so Perras evidently had accumulated a large treasury, even if the total was not so stupendous as $10,000.

What Devine did with the money I could not determine, although one may hope that the funds found their way back to St. Dimitri and the widow and six children that Perras had left behind. Sadly, none of that surplus was available to fund a gravestone in Hazelwood, where Socrates Perras still slumbers anonymously, far from his native Greece.