Union Station polishes shoe shine exhibit
Many visitors to Union Station have been fascinated by the stone steps that appear to go nowhere near the northwest elevators in the grand hall.
The mystery will be explained with the opening this morning of an celebrating the shoe-shine stand, a seemingly mundane old-time custom that 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 up to $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 “shoe shine 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.”
Henry Lyons, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Olathe, said “bootblacks” knew just about everything and everybody.
“Politicians. Gangsters. People coming into town wanting to know where the action was in Kansas City,” said Lyons. “The shoe shine 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 shoe shine stand.
Lyons approached station officials about creating a permanent exhibit on the spot where the shiners practiced their trade. There are impressions in the stone from countless thousands of feet throughout most of the 20th century. There are holes where the foot rests were anchored to the floor. Lyons swears you can still smell the polish.
Now there will be a few period artifacts in a case and educational panels with information from local historian Joelouis Mattox. The reason for those mysterious stone steps will become clear. That’s where the shoe shine chairs were. It was in the same general area as the barber shop and men’s smoking room. The modern public restrooms are nearby.
There will be a brief public ceremony at 11 a.m.
“Its really a special place and now we’re telling the story of what makes it special,” said Michael Tritt. “It’s a small place with a very big story.”