"At the corner two bootblacks caught me, one on either side, shrill and raucous, like blackbirds."
Description of bootblacking from
Public DomainDescription of bootblacking from "My Impressions of America" - Credit: Charles Wagner (1906)

As a 1925 edition of Survey Graphic records, the only career options available to African Americans during the early twentieth century were “’blind alley’ jobs which lead to nothing beyond the merit of long and faithful service”. Bootblacking was one of the most humble and least remunerative of these. It was so strongly allied with race that it practitioners were assumed de facto to be black, though the trade was of course also plied by poor whites. 

 

The likening of the bootblacks to blackbirds ties in with the unpleasant racial stereotypes of the time, as this poster illustrates.

 

 

 

 

Studio portrait of three young shoe shiners and their customers
Public DomainStudio portrait of three young shoe shiners and their customers - Credit: Robert N. Dennis