Charles 'Al' Carter

The Baltimore Sun

Charles Alton "Al" Carter, who was better known as the "Shoeshine King" because of the high-buffed spit shine he delivered to customers for nearly 40 years from his bootblack stand in the old Hamburger's department store, died of a bacterial infection Aug. 10 at the Augsburg Lutheran Home and Village. He was 86.

Mr. Carter was born and raised in Dinwiddie County, Va., the son of a sharecropper.

"Al wasn't ashamed of his humble and poor beginning. His mother died when he was very young, and he and his brothers were raised by their father, Samuel Carter," said Frances Keene, a cousin who lives in Baltimore.

"He told stories of how his father had to put cardboard in his and his brothers' shoes so they could wear them to school. He said the owner of the land didn't have much more than they had, but he did give them a two-room house to live in and treated them well," she said.

Mr. Carter had to drop out of school at an early age to work on the family farm.

"He said he never got a basic education, but he knew how to work hard," Mrs. Keene said. "Al didn't have a degree, but because of his work ethic and his love of all people, he earned a doctorate."

In 1937, when he was 15, Mr. Carter left his family farm, traveled to Norfolk, Va., and purchased a ticket on an Old Bay Line steamer that took him to Baltimore.

He gravitated to The Block, where he began shining shoes for 10 cents, eventually setting up a bootblack stand in Hamburger's department store, then at the northwest corner of Baltimore and Hanover streets. After the building was sold for the Charles Center urban renewal plan, Hamburger's reopened at Charles and Fayette streets in 1963, with Mr. Carter and his bootblack stand in the store's shoe department.

Mr. Carter, who always dressed for work in a white shirt and tie, counted stockbrokers, bankers, lawyers, celebrities, sports figures and politicians as his customers.

One of his customers was Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, who served as Baltimore's mayor from 1943 to 1947 and 1963 to 1967.

"He'd come early to the store for a shine, even before it opened, and Al would say, 'Come on in, Mr. Mayor,' and while he shined, they chatted," Mrs. Keene said.

Through the years, Mr. Carter maneuvered his brushes and snapped his rag over the shoes of musician Mitch Miller, actor Robert Vaughn, comedian Jack E. Leonard and Brooks Robinson.

He also was proud of the fact that he had shined the shoes of Emmett Ashford, the first black umpire in Major League Baseball, who umpired American League games from 1966 to 1970.

Mr. Carter liked recalling a cold day when the manager of the Kansas City Royals brought his 25 players into the store and made each of them buy a hat and get a shine.

Mr. Carter, who favored Kiwi shoe polish, charged $1.50 for the seven-minute spit shine, which didn't really use spit. He used a combination of saddle soap, which he applied in several coats, and then buffed to a high gloss with a damp rag.

The longtime Lyndhurst Avenue resident told the Baltimore Business Journal in a 1988 interview that the real secret to the shine was "in the chat."

"Along the way, he said, he has picked up a couple of good stock tips, heard a few good jokes and overheard some deals in the making, but the secrets stay at the stand," the article said. "I listen, I just listen," he said in the interview.

When Hamburger's closed in 1992, Mr. Carter continued working several days a week at home, where customers dropped off their shoes for a shine.

He retired in 1996.

Mr. Carter, who enjoyed listening to classical and country western music, was an avid fan of blues and jazz.

"He was a happy man who smiled all the time. He used to say, 'God woke you up this morning, and that's a blessing,'" said his wife of 49 years, the former Rosa Elizabeth Wilson.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. today at the Vaughn Greene Funeral Home, 5151 Baltimore National Pike.

Also surviving are an aunt, Louise McDonald of Richmond, Va.; several nieces, nephews and cousins.

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