A Story to Tell: Book chronicles history, legacy of black-owned business


Charles "Lala" Evans stands with a book that chronicles his family's shoe shine business (photo by Ryan Phillips, SDN)

By: 
RYAN PHILLIPS
SDN EDITOR

Charles “Lala” Evans is a bit of a local celebrity.

The 85-year-old lifelong resident of Oktibbeha County was the city of Starkville’s first black mail carrier and has even appeared in a music video for rock band Mutemath.

But his childhood also holds a rich selection of stories that paint a picture of how life in Starkville has evolved through the years. And those stories and more are the subject of a recently published book, titled “Shining Shoes With Dignity: The Journey of a Shoe Shine Boy.”

Copies of the book, which was written by local author and historian Jerry Boyd Jones, are available for purchase at the Book Mart & Cafe on Main Street in downtown Starkville.

‘AN INSTITUTION’

Lala’s father, George Evans, opened George Evans Shine Parlor on what is now Lampkin Street in the early 1940s - a place it would occupy for decades on a site that is now in between Carole Gaston Realty and the law office of Mark Williamson.

George Evans was born in 1899 in the Chapel Hill community in southeastern Oktibbeha County, where his family lived at the Rice plantation.

Before opening up his shoe shine parlor, a young George Evans traveled and performed with the popular Rabbit Foot Minstrel out of Port Gibson. This minstrel company featured notable members and performers like Ida Cox, Louis Jordan, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, and Big Joe Williams, and is credited with being instrumental in the spreading of blues music throughout the south.

“My Daddy played music in the band,” Lala said. “Every time the minstrel show would come to town, prior to the big show, they would have a parade downtown and every store in town would close for the parade and big show.”

Lala said his Daddy traveled with the “Foots” for several years, before returning to Starkville to take a job repairing shoes at Reed’s Shoe Repair working for Paul Reed, who was a professor at Mississippi State University.

George Evans eventually asked Reed if he could operate a single shoe shine chair in the business, which would be the first of many business accomplishments for the young father of five. “Back in the 40s, late 30s, Mr. Paul (Reed) got a better job at LSU, so he closed the shop down and that was during the second World War,” Lala said.

As luck would have it, a local barbershop owner let George Evans move into his building on Lafayette Street while he was serving in the Navy during World War II. When the owner returned from the war and resumed operating his store, Evans and his family set up shop for the shoe shine parlor on Lampkin Street in what Lala referred to as a small “shack.”

Lala fondly remembered the small building brimming with people, white and black, and the smells of dye chemicals, Kiwi and Esquire shoe polish and leather.

“My Daddy sat in the front window with the spray gun, spraying chemicals and dyeing shoes all colors,” Lala said. “The professors from on campus would come in and say ‘George, ya’ll need to wear masks, there’s a lot of chemicals in this product you use.’ They kept on for years and he finally started wearing a mask.”

The air was so thick with chemicals, in fact, that the small heater used in the shop always had a red flame, instead of blue.

The time spent working at his Daddy’s shoe shine parlor was special for Lala, who said he followed a 12-step approach to his craft. Each shine cost 15 cents and Lala commented that he would have to shine seven pairs of shoes to earn a dollar.

“There was always 10 or 12 boys in there looking to make some extra money,” he said.

BIGGER THAN A BUSINESS

It goes without saying that being a black businessman in the heart of the Deep South during this time was something special and George Evans would go on to become a legend in the community because of what his shop meant to the people it served.

In the days of segregation, George Evans was a trailblazer.

The building on Lafayette Street was owned by a Dr. Scales, according to Lala, and the entrance to the front of the store was reserved for whites only. Black patrons had to go through a muddy alley to get to the back of the store.

The front of the old shop was also reserved for white customers, while blacks were forced to do business in the back.

“We started letting black people slip through (the front) so they didn’t have to go through the mud, and the old police chief found out about it,” Lala said. Lala said when the white police chief at the time heard about blacks being let in through the front entrance, he confronted George Evans about it.

“But Dr. Scales got wind of it, he was a little ole short guy, chief was a big guy,” Lala said. “Dr. Scales called him raising sand one morning, he chewed him out and promised to whoop his butt, saying ‘I said black folks can go through the front door!’”

From then on, black patrons were allowed to enter through the front of the store, but still had to go to the back.

“There was a little cafe right next door to us,” Lala recalled. “We could go in the cafe through the front door, but we had a black side and a white side. You can imagine how it went.”

TIME MARCHES ON

After opening George Evans Shine Parlor on Lampkin Street, business grew to 15 chairs and Lala said over 500 boys would go on to work their way through the “little business.”

According to his youngest son, George Evans was a master of his craft.

“Daddy did all kinds of leather work, he refurbished leather jackets, resueded shoes and shined shoes,” Lala said. “He had a patent on refurbishing leather jackets and suede jackets. This patent, my Daddy figured out, he’d make old suede and old leather look brand new. He’d get the cleaners to clean the jackets and the guys at the cleaners kind of wanted to get (the patent), but they didn’t.”

The business would eventually be taken over by Lala’s brother Maurice Evans, who passed away in 1999.

“After my Daddy got older, how the new shop came about, they wanted to get out of the old building and my daddy and brother went and got this loan and got this new building, so my Daddy lived four or five years, died in 1981, and my brother took over the business until 1991.”

As the years passed, other changes and opportunities would ultimately alter the course for the Evans family.

“You can imagine the Civil Rights movement came through and we had to make the change that everybody could sit anywhere,” Lala said. “Then Adidas and Converse came along and they put a lot of hurt on the business, we had three families trying to live out of one business.”

An important opportunity then presented itself to Lala - a part-time job working two hours a day at the Post Office in downtown Starkville.

Lala recalled that minimum wage at the time was 65 cents an hour, but the job he was offered paid close to $2 an hour, which he couldn’t pass up, given the scarcity of gainful employment for black people at the time.

“I got the opportunity to get two hours at the Post Office, my Daddy passed and that left the business to my brother,” he said.

While the fond memories outweigh the bad for Lala, he expressed his belief that the chemicals used in the shine parlor ultimately led to health problems for him and his family.

“I believe that my Daddy and Brother, both had cancer and I was kind of over the shine part, they were over the dye,” Lala said.“I never smoked, never had a beer in my life, but about four or five years ago, I had lung surgery, for five and a half hours, and I can only believe that that stuff is in my body and it came out later in my life, all those chemicals. You walk in there and had people who loved the aroma, but it was killing us.”

Before his death in 1981, George Evans was also instrumental in the Boy Scouts and passed that passion on to his two sons.

He served as a scout master and founded Boy Scout Troop 100, which Maurice took over until Lala got out of the Army. Lala would go on to serve as scout master for the troop for 25 years.

“My Daddy was a real servant to this city,” Lala said. “Ambassador, servant, civic worker, whatever you want to call it, he was at the top of the line.”

Despite the fact that the shoe shining business does not occupy the important place it once did, Lala said the memories of that little shop on Lampkin Street will live on through the new book.

“Some people that remember say ‘that wasn’t no shine parlor, that was an institution!’”

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