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From saving soles to saving souls

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, January 26, 2004

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Today, that world of 50 years ago seems so upside down.

The upcoming 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education has me thinking about how things changed over the years. Recently, I have been remembering Warren McKissick, who died in Charlotte last month.

Maybe you never heard of him. But, 50 years ago, in my hometown Davidson, everyone knew Mr. McKissick. He operated a shoe repair shop at the intersection of Main Street, next door to the M&M soda shop, and just across the way from the college church.

These days, the shoe repair business is everywhere in retreat. So often people just toss their old shoes away when they wear out. But 50 years ago, Davidson people rarely threw anything away. Certainly not shoes, which, like winter coats, Sunday suits, wristwatches, and refrigerators, we expected to last a lifetime.

When such lifetime items wore out or broke down, there was a place on Main Street where they could be put back in working order. If I stuck my head in Withers' Electric, I would almost always find Bill Withers working on an old refrigerator or toaster rather than selling someone a new appliance.

Next door, standing on the outside of Moore Reid's Garage, I could see Mr. Reid, with a half-smoked cigar firmly in his mouth, attacking the engine of a disabled auto that was long past its prime.

From the window of his jewelry store, I watched Mr. Henderson, with his jeweler's glass against his eye, leaning down as if he were about to crawl into the working parts of the small timepiece on his table.

Of these Main Street repair shops, I remember Mr. McKissick's shoe shop best. I was hard on my shoes. So I was a regular patron. I was also a customer of the polish and laces he sold. When I opened the door to his shop, a sharp bell rang out over the clomping noises of the machinery, and the active scents of oils, leather, polish, cleansers, and glues enveloped me.

Mr. McKissick would turn from his machines, face the counter, smile with a look of pleasant recognition and friendship say, “All right.” It was a statement, but there was also a hint of a question mark.

Mr. McKissick was one of three African-American business owners on Main Street. The other two, Hood Norton and Ralph Johnson, operated barbershops.

In those days, these three men and their employees were my only contacts with independent professional blacks.

Today, that world of 50 years ago seems so upside down. The barbershops, though operated by blacks, were open only to whites. Ralph Johnson cut my hair from time to time. Sometimes, he would give me a dose of his complaints about the opportunities that had passed him by because of his race. Ironically, it was in his barbershop, where the complex norms of those times required him to turn away all black patrons, that he was the first black person to address me directly about the inequalities of segregation.

On the other hand, Mr. McKissick never complained. If I tried to prompt him, he replied with his inscrutable but very warm smile, “Well, that is the way it is.”

Once I asked him if he were kin to the civil rights leader, Floyd McKissick. He said simply, “Yes, but not close.”

He was uncompromisingly professional, careful, and kind.

I always admired him and thought that if times had been different he would have been even more--much more--successful.

As it turned out, times did change and he became very successful. He closed the shoe repair business and became the very successful pastor the Greater Galilee Baptist Church in Charlotte, which grew from about 60 members to about 2000 under his leadership.

When I met him again during one of my political campaigns about twenty years ago, he allowed my mother to come to his church to testify to his congregation about what a good “little boy” I had been. It turned out for me to be one of those precious moments in hard politics that make all the rest of the experience worthwhile.

My mother teased Reverend McKissick that day saying that he had changed his occupation from “saving soles” to “saving souls.”

I saw him in Charlotte last year at a breakfast place, picking up a quick take-out, hurrying to work at his church--but, stopping to greet me, and as always, giving me time, listening and giving me words of encouragement. He was then about 85--going full steam saving souls. His wife told me that, although he had been ill recently, he preached every Sunday until about two weeks before his death.

Times have changed over the years since Brown v. Board of Education. The shoe shop is long gone from Davidson’s Main Street. People of all races mingle in the barbershop. The doors of opportunity are open wider for people like Ralph Johnson and Warren McKissick.

But there are more changes to come, perhaps even more difficult than those of the past 50 years.

I wish there were more men like Warren McKissick to help us through the next 50 years.

Note: Two recent books tell more about Davidson’s Main Street during times of change: Ralph Johnson’s Memoir, “David Played a Harp,” was published just before his death two years ago.

Also, James Puckett, son of a Davidson professor, has just published “Olin, Oskeegum & Gizmo,” a charming book of his recollections of people and events in those times. [END]


D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5PM. This week’s (February 1) repeat program features Isabel Zuber author of “Salt.”

Set in rural North Carolina, Isabel Zuber's debut novel “Salt” traces the joys and the sorrows of a passionate but troubled marriage in Appalachia at the turn of the last century. In this episode, the Winston Salem poet shares how she seasoned her first novel with her own experiences, the atmosphere of her native region and her familiar lyrical prose to create this heartwarming account of one woman's inner awakening.

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