From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

1940 - Shoe Makers, Repairers, and Shiners in  Kentucky

In 1940 there were about 2,800 Kentucky-born persons in the shoe care business; of that number at least 277 were African Americans, according to the U.S. Federal Census. Though sometimes referred to as "shoe shine boys," these were adult men and a few women, many of whom were supporting families. The number does not include self-employed boys shining shoes on the street.

The 277 Kentucky African Americans in the shoe care business were employed in barber shops or shoe shops in Kentucky and elsewhere. They were few in number when compared to the more than 160,000 adults in the United States who shined, repaired, and made shoes in 1940 [source: U.S. Federal Census].

The significance of this profession in Kentucky is that since the days of slavery, the shoe care business that was once dominated by African Americans continued as a base employment for African Americans four decades into the 20th Century. More than 7,800 adult African Americans made a living caring for shoes in the United States in 1940, and this included at least 277 Kentucky competitors caring for shoes during one of the toughest economic times in the history of the United States [source: 1940 U.S. Federal Census]. There was the continuing economic depression and World War II was still in progress. 

It would be another year before the United States entered the war after Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941. The NAACP was pushing for the U.S. Armed Forces to be integrated. In Kentucky, it was the beginning of a wave of out-migration that would result in 13% of the population leaving for manufacturing jobs in northern states [source: A New History of Kentucky, by L. H. Harrison and J. C. Klotter]. This wave would happen a little later for African Americans because discrimination and segregation barred most from manufacturing jobs in 1940 when 412 of every 1,000 African American men were still employed in farm labor [source: "Employment and education" on p. 509 in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to present, vol. 1, edited by P. Finkelman].

There were 71 shoe makers in Kentucky in 1940 according to the U.S. Federal Census: 46 born in KY,  16 in another state two with an unknown birth location; and others born in Germany (2), Italy (1), Russia (3), and Sweden (1). 

Lexington had been a leader in the state with African American shoe makers in the 1800s, yet Felix Chapman was the only one listed in the 1940 U.S. Census. For individuals, the shoe business had changed from making shoes to caring for shoes. From 1930-1947, there were little more than 100 African American shoe repairers and shoe shiners in Lexington. The business of shoe care would continue to change with continued northern migration, the U.S. involvement in World War II, and fair employment guidelines at the national level.

In 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) won his third term as President of the United States and Henry A. Wallace became Vice President. Keen Johnson (D) was Kentucky Governor and Rodes K. Myers Lieutenant Governor. The annual average income of employed persons in the United States was $1,368, with the unemployment rate at 18.26% during the 1930s [source: D. Petro, "Brother can you spare a dime? The 1940 Census: employment and income," Prologue Magazine, Spring 2012, vol. 44, no. 1 (online at the National Archives website)]. The average annual income for African American males was $537.45, which would start to increase after the 1941 Fair Employment Practice Committee was established to monitor the hiring practices of companies with government contracts [source: African Americans in the Twentieth Century, by T. N. Maloney, an Economic History website].

For more see History: 1940 Overview, a U.S. Census Bureau website; M. S. Bedell, "Employment and income of Negro workers 1940-52," Monthly Labor Review, vol. 76, no. 6, June 1953, pp. 596-601; The Path to Mechanized Shoe Production in the United States, by R. Thomson; Feet and Footwear: a cultural encyclopedia, by M. DeMello; and The Shoe Shine Buff: the professional shoe care book, by J. McGowan.

Click on the links below for the first 74 names of 277 adult African Americans born in Kentucky and employed in the shoe care business in 1940 [source: U.S. Federal Census].

Last Names A

Last Names B

Last Names C

Last Names D

Last Names E

Last Names F

Last Names G

Item Relations

Cite This NKAA Entry:

“1940 - Shoe Makers, Repairers, and Shiners in Kentucky,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed April 14, 2024,

Last modified: 2022-07-20 17:08:08