As the masses walk by, his voice is heard among them. “Come on over here, let me shine them shoes,” and “You looking real nice, but you need to shine those shoes,” he says.
Sitting at his favorite spot, decked out in his black beanie, black coat and dark denim apron, is Walter. With an empty chair beside him with shoe polish, brushes and his tools at his feet, this 61-year-old is ready to work.
Walter Frankie White was born Walter Wyche, but he says his mother could not spell and wrote “White.” He was born Feb. 10, 1951, started shoe shining when he was 14 years old in Petersburg, Va., and is a shoe repairman by trade.
In the 1970s, White worked at a shoe shine next to the Apollo, now an abandoned lot. He started fixing shoes in 2006 and turned his business to shining boots. A native of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn but raised in Virginia, White has been on his own since 17. His mother died at 32 and his father died at 60, and he hasn’t stayed still since.
White is also an ex-boxer. They used to call him Little Joe Frazier. He trained fighters at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Boxing Gym for 21 years and Harlem Boxing when it existed, but he learned his art in Richmond, Va., under Ray Brown. He boasts 36 fights, nine losses and 29 knockouts. He retired when he was 36.
He likes training fighters and people still ask him to help them train. He does, but right now shoe shining is what he likes to do. Nonetheless, when he has free time, White trains young boxers at Nate Boyd’s New Bed-Stuy Boxing Center on Marcus Garvey Boulevard, where alumni include Riddick Bowe and Mark Breland.
“I like to train the young people and give back. I don’t have as much time as I would like, but when I can, I go back to Bed-Stuy and train the young ones,” said White.
White was married but has been separated from his wife for 36 years and is looking to marry again. He has a 36-year-old son, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren in Virginia. His son wants him to go and stay with him there, but White feels that there is nothing down there for him and New York is where he needs to be.
While many have come up to him with negative criticism, reminding him that “slavery is gone,” White believes that his work is a tradition and an art, and “anybody can’t shine shoes.” Not everyone thinks it’s demeaning and wrong. Many elder people appreciate him keeping that traditional trade alive, but he says that a lot of young people don’t know what it is, and he loves to educate them about it. He is a servant to his community, he told the AmNews.
“I’m going to continue doing this, I don’t know for how long, but it ain’t too much about the money,” said White. “It’s just about me doing something in my community, for my people…instead of going downtown and shining Caucasian shoes.”
Despite certain feelings for the particular trade that White does, some onlookers can’t help but admire his genuine spirit. He seems to honestly love what he does and deems it a great honor to do it for his community. White loves dealing and communicating with people, and all he wants to do is continue providing his service to fellow African-Americans, he smiles. He is in the process of getting a stand so he can really set up shop and have people take him seriously. Like a passing police officer said, “Walter is the greatest man on 125th.”