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By his own bootstraps, a cobbler prospered

Self-educated and self-motivated, Alfred Williams Sr. honed a trade and turned it into a customer-pleasing business.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 20, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- For decades, Alfred Williams Sr. labored under a sign that defined his profession:

"We doctor shoes, heel them, attend their dyeing and save their soles."

From 1929 to 1971, Williams reigned as a businessman and a community figure. He innovated shoe repair statewide. He became the chamber of commerce's first black member. He was the first black commissioner of the local Boy Scouts.

"What person walks the streets of St. Petersburg who hasn't had his/her shoes shined at Bill's Shoe Repair Parlor?" the St. Petersburg Times once asked.

Williams was born in Ulmus, S.C., in 1903. His father, the town's barber, was found dead near railroad tracks when Williams was about 4 years old. His mother remarried, but Williams was abused by his stepfather. He ran away to his aunt's before he was 7.

"I never sat in a schoolroom in my life," he would say, according to his son Alfred Williams Jr., 74. "He was self-educated."

At about 18, Williams worked at an Asheville, N.C., resort as a dishwasher. He nurtured his business sense there; the concern's owners treated him as family. He became chef.

Williams later prospered at a Detroit Ford plant, advancing from floor sweeper to foreman. In 1924, he arrived in St. Petersburg. "With two steamer trunks of clothes and a lot of money, he stayed," said Williams Jr.

At Central Avenue's White Way Barber Shop, Williams learned shoe shining from Bob Pettigrew, whom he befriended for five decades. "That's when daddy became Bill," Williams Jr. said. "The (white) owner thought the name Alfred was too dignified."

Before Williams married Essie Wright about 1925, he and Pettigrew were shining shoes at Mel Hudson's United Cigar Store inside the Florida Arcade. According to Williams Jr., his father was making $500 to $600 a month.

"He went for the best," Williams Jr. said. "He was never satisfied with second for his family or his race. He hustled."

When Magnolia Arcade manager R.L. Hope saw Williams shining shoes in the rain on an orange crate in the arcade's alley in 1929, he invited him inside. "I started off on my own with just one chair," said Williams, who, after opening his business on Sept. 14, 1929, never left the 454 First Ave. N location. "My rent was $2 a year."

A carpenter later made Williams a four-seated shoeshine stand. "There's nothing too good for my customers," Williams said. "We have free pickup and delivery. And I don't mind picking up a prescription in Liggett's for someone."

In the 1930s, Essie frowned when the shop sent shoes out for repair. Williams then learned the trade from Eddie McGriff, and Bill's Shoe Repair Parlor was born. A decade later, Williams introduced the first heel bar in Florida. Trips to Atlanta harvested an eight-seat marble shoeshine stand and a finishing machine.

"(Williams) was an energetic, enterprising individual interested in satisfying his customers," said Don McRae, 70, owner of McRae Funeral Home and a former employee of Bill's.

The arcade alley provided his father with the city's first drive-through, according to Williams Jr. Clifford Williams, another of the cobbler's sons, said: "People were always going through the arcade. It was a local thoroughfare. Kind of exciting."

During World War II, Williams' business surged. "I had a government contract, working on soldier's shoes; had nine shine boys, two shoemakers," said Williams, whose children graduated from Morehouse College (Alfred Jr.), Hampton Institute (Diann and Constance) and Tuskegee Institute (Clifford).

In the 1940s, Tuskegee Institute sent interns to Williams. "It was part of Tuskegee's program where you could learn trades," said Clifford Williams, 73.

City officials in the 1950s and 1960s considered Williams their link to the black community. Florida Gov. Charlie Jones once issued a certificate to Williams naming him the state's ambassador of good will.

"He had the ears of the powers to be," Williams Jr. said. "He helped initiate bus transit to Jordan Park. People called him the black mayor of St. Petersburg."

During the 1960s, Williams housed black baseball stars, such as Elston Howard and Bob Gibson, who weren't welcome in hotels. Baseball, his family and work kept Williams vibrant. "I feel better today than I did when I was 30," he said in 1965, the same year he opened a branch at 325 Central Ave.

In June 1971, Williams suffered a stroke. "He was waiting on a customer and just stopped talking," his son said. Williams died about three weeks later at age 67; Essie and Clifford ran the shop.

About 1996, Bill's was razed. "It was a place out of time," said John Schuh, 54, a former patron. "It reminded you of a scene from a (Humphrey) Bogart movie. An institution for sure."

-- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzel@msn.com.

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