Sonny Gibson admitted to being puzzled by the fuss being made over a corner of Union Station where he used to shine shoes on weekends.
Gibson, 78, polished many a shoe as a boy in the late 1940s and early ’50s, sometimes making $10 a day. Shines were a dime, but the tips were great.
“The excitement, to me, was all the people who would come to Union Station,” Gibson said Thursday at the unveiling of an exhibit about the days of the shoeshine stand. “I had my own shoeshine box, so I could just go all over the station and whoever wanted a shine could stop and get one.”
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But the center of shine activity was an alcove near the northwest elevators in the Grand Hall. Since the station’s restoration, many visitors have wondered about those two granite steps that seem to go nowhere. That’s where the chairs were. Gentlemen would sit there to get their shoes polished. The holes where the footrests were anchored to the floor are still there.
Countless thousands of feet rubbed the stone throughout most of the 20th century, leaving still-visible impressions.
Henry Lyons, president of the Olathe branch of the NAACP, swears you can still smell the polish.
What might seem to be a mundane, old-time custom was anything but.
Generations of enterprising African-American boys and men practiced the art of making shoes and boots sparkle when that was an important marker of social distinction. And they made good money doing it. A “master shiner” could earn as much as $200 a day, according to the exhibit.
When train travel was king, the railroad station was the place where everything connected, for travelers and locals alike, and the shoeshine boys were plugged in. They heard plenty — and they could dispense it.
“They were keepers of information,” said Union Station spokesman Michael Tritt.
They had nicknames like Cobra and The Magician.
“Politicians. Gangsters. People coming into town wanting to know where the action was in Kansas City,” said Lyons. “The shoeshine guys could tell them.”
Union Station Stories, a history exhibit on the second, third and fourth floors of the station, already had some material on the shoeshine stand. Lyons approached station officials about creating an exhibit on the spot where the shiners practiced their trade. It was in the same general area as the barbershop and the men’s smoking room. The modern public restrooms are nearby.
The exhibit consists of a case with period brushes, polish and other items and panels with information from local historian Joelouis Mattox. The display occupies a nook that had been empty space.
“It’s really a special place and now we’re telling the story of what makes it special,” Tritt said. “It’s a small place with a very big story.”