Mr. John “Peter Bug” Matthews

Mr John Peter Bug Matthews

Happy New Year to all of you! To start off our New Year of 2011, we have as our spotlight for the month of January, Mr. John Matthews, who is known throughout the Washington, DC area as “Peter Bug.” Peter Bug is a community leader here in DC, who is also the founder and owner of the Peter Bug Shoe and Leather Repair Academy, located in Southeast DC. The 400 block of 13th Street, SE was just recently named “Peterbug Matthews Way.” We will find out how he was able to get such a great honor bestowed upon him, about his shoe academy, as well as other facets of his life’s journey.

Destiny – Pride: Good morning, Mr. Matthews. Do you prefer to be called “Mr. Matthews” or “Peter Bug”?

Mr. Matthews: Well, like my brother-in-law always said, “As long as you call me so that I won’t miss dinner, you can call me “Peter Bug” or “John Matthews” – it doesn’t matter.

Destiny – Pride: Okay, then, “Peter Bug,” Destiny – Pride thanks you for accepting its invitation to be its Spotlight for the first month of Year 2011. I have had the pleasure of knowing you for many years, but there may be those visiting us who know very little about you, or nothing at all about you. For their benefit, please tell us a little about yourself – your place of birth, your parents, siblings, your spouse and children, if any

Mr. Matthews: Okay, let’s go counterclockwise. I have three children – two girls and one boy [names]. I’m not married. Their ages are 47, 46 and a son who’s 28. Divorced for a long time, so I consider myself not married. Born in Washington, DC, named John Francis Matthews at the time of birth. My parents’ names are Grace Marie Matthews and John Francis Matthews. 

Destiny – Pride: What schools did you attend, both public and higher education, and what did you major in?

Mr. Matthews: I went to John Tyler Elementary School, Randle Junior High School and Phelps Vocational High School. From Phelps Vocational High School I went to Oklahoma Technical Institute in Tulsa. For two years, I learned shoe and boot making. I left there and went to Federal City College.  I got a degree in sociology anthropology.

Destiny – Pride: How in the world did you get to Tulsa?

Mr. Matthews: During the riots in 1968, I had an Italian teacher – his name was Guy Panofino – at Phelps Vocational High School. This was the only white guy who has ever been in our house besides the insurance policy man. He took so much pride in my brother and myself. Mr. Panofino used to come to our house all the time. I guess he saw the condition of where we were living and said “Hey, you know what? I’ve got to do something for this lady. I’ve got to make sure that these boys – or one of these boys – get out and do something.” So we learned the trade – shoe repair. There was an award that used to go out every year. It was called the “Woodward Award.” My brother and I were recipients of two of those awards.

Destiny – Pride: Was that your first introduction to shoe repair?

Mr. Matthews: Well, the first introduction to shoe repair was at Randle Junior High School. My brothers and sisters went to Hine [Junior High]. I was the only one going from 11th Street to South Capitol Street. That was a big difference. There were no school tickets or car tokens. In rain and snow, I had to walk. So that meant I had to go through some neighborhoods, but fortunately, I knew some people there. So, it wasn’t that bad because I was coming from Southeast to Southwest, and that was a big gap because when you cross those border lines, you had better know somebody.

When I first went to Randle, I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know anybody. When I went in there, I was staged in the auditorium where they called people out by their section. I thought I was in a section where I was a smart guy. They said “701,” and everybody went on. When they said “720” [laughter], I thought I was the smartest guy there. I said “Boy, I’m a smart guy.” 

So the guy came and got us. We didn’t go upstairs; we went to the basement. After what I saw in that basement, I thought I was in a crazy asylum. They were doing everything. I looked at folks, and I didn’t realize it then, but now I realize it – I had a handicap and they had handicaps. I had a speech impediment [stuttering]; they had physical handicaps. They were cock-eyed; they had limp legs. One’s arm was too small. I didn’t know where I was. I came home that day and I told my mother, “I can’t go back there. They’ve got me in the crazy school.” She said “Son, you’ve got to be there, because you can’t go no other place.” Having said that, you know momma is always right, and the two things she taught us were, first, “Baby, I love you” and “pay attention.”

Destiny – Pride: That was back at the time when they had the track system.

Mr. Matthews: I was in the track system. If I were in that predicament right now, I would have a free ride to school, car tokens, everything. The yellow bus would come by to get me. Everything. But during that time, you were just there.

Destiny – Pride: The track system went from 701 to 710, and just like what you said, if you were in 701 .

Mr. Matthews: You were a brain! [laughter]

Destiny – Pride: And you were in 710 [laughter]

Mr. Matthews: You were in ‘20 like I was in ‘20 [laughter]

Destiny – Pride: There was no ‘20 [laughter]

Mr. Matthews: I was at Randle Junior High School in ‘20.

Destiny – Pride: [Laughter] There was no ‘20.

Mr. Matthews: I was in ‘20!

Destiny – Pride: [Laughter] Okay.  Who would you say has impacted your life in influencing you to be who you are today?

Peter Bug Day Singers
Entertainment at Peter Bug Day
Photo by: Kate McFadden

Mr. Matthews: I guess I have to give that credit, plus I have to spread it around, because everybody had some little part in developing me. I guess I have to start out with my mother, because my mother set a pattern that, regardless of what we had, we had it, and we made the best of it. My mother used to go to a place that I call “Macy’s” now, but at that time it was called “Miss Ann.” We got most of our clothes from Salvation Army. My mother washed them, ironed them. There wasn’t spray starch back then; it was that other starch, so she had to starch them. Folks didn’t know that we were getting that kind of stuff, so my mother, and especially my grandmother – my grandmother was like our mother, because she was our mother’s mother. 

The next most important person was my brother. My brother made sure that I didn’t do a lot of things that other folks used to do. So three of them: my grandmother, mother, and my brother had a real big influence over my life growing up from a little “Bug” to the big “Bug.”

Destiny – Pride: What is your brother’s name?

Mr. Matthews: My brother’s name is James Roger Matthews; they called him “Man.” My grandfather named him “Man” because he wanted him to be a man. So my brother took on that “man” role. For myself, my other sisters and brothers, he made sure we had everything we needed. I don’t care what it was. 

Destiny – Pride: And your grandmother, what was her name?

Mr. Matthews: Her name was Grace King.

Destiny – Pride: Tell us about your career path, and what I mean by that is that you went from one place to another to get to where you now are.

Mr. Matthews: I guess summer jobs was the thing that we always enjoyed because at that particular time you could have your own money and you could buy some of those things that you saw other peoples’ parents normally would get for them. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a program called the “Sumer Enrichment Program” with a guy named Rev. Jessie Anderson. At that time there was a center called the Southeast Enrichment Center.

Destiny – Pride: And where was that?

Mr. Matthews: That was at 738 8th Street, SE; right across from the Marine Barracks. What happened is that I went there and applied for a summer job. The Neighborhood Planning Council was being developed. So they said, “Okay. What we can do is we can give you a senior aid job.” That meant I would be supervising children. So I got that job. I worked it. And I came back, because they had a winter program, too. I guess that was the first pattern of my being in contact with children, giving them direction and letting them know “It’s all right,” because when I had those children, it was almost like me – I was just a couple of years older than them, and I could see the same kind of problems from Randle that these children had, too! I saw, I guess, neglect from Randle, because there were no speech therapists. There was nobody sitting around to help because I had an emotional problem; there was no psychiatrist; no social worker – none of that. So I said “Well, you know what? What I can do in this job is I can really influence these children – at least talk to them, because like me, they came from a single parent family. So I said, “You know what I can do? I can give them probably some of those things my father didn’t give me – at least an attentive ear. And that’s how it got started until I wanted to get an adult pay. I wanted to get out of working with those children, because I wanted an Electric 225 [automobile] and I wanted my own apartment. I got tired of sleeping with my two brothers, in the same room and sometimes in the same bed. 

So this guy named Moe Smith – they called him Mussah Rahim Arashi Bate – said, “Man, look here, you need to be with these young people. You know those young people you had last summer?  They came back and said they want to work with you. You need to be with them.” I said, “Moe, I don’t want to be in there. I don’t care, move me to something else. Let me be in an office. I don’t want to be with these young folks!” He said, “Well, look, man. They want to be with you. You got something. There’s something about you. The air about you brings people to you.” I didn’t know what he was talking about and I got tee’d off.

So, I started working with these young folk. I had the Rat Patrol job, the Courtesy Patrol jobs. We moved from Courtesy Patrol from our particular area to the headquarters at 750 Park Road, where I later became the Director of the Citywide Courtesy Patrol under Dr. Jimmy Jones and Mell Chambers and them.

Destiny – Pride: That was under the Walter Washington Administration. . .

Mr. Matthews: The Walter Washington Administration. I was trying to tell some folks that if we had those kinds of programs going on today – when we had men mentoring young men – we could move further than where we are. This is how my working with young people got started, through the Walter Washington Youth Opportunity Programs.

Destiny – Pride: Okay. Now moving from that . . .

Mr. Matthews: From that, now I got a group of Courtesy Patrol – little guys.  They’re like 13 years old. As a matter of fact, I still have them with me now.  So I have me a little job and I brought me a little Volkswagen – $1,895, from Rhode Island Avenue. I got the little Volkswagen and I went to Peoples Drug Store [now CVS]. You remember how we used to go through the auto magazines there. I had no intention of fixing my Volkswagen the way I did it, but I saw something that read “The California Bug.” I said “That’s different.” 

A lot of folks were thinking that I got my name from that Volkswagen, but what happened was, in your house folks have certain pet names they call you; and you don’t want your “boys” to hear those names that your momma called you – you know, like “Little Pee Wee.” Mother used to call me “Peter.” 

Every day I went to work, I washed my Volkswagen. I really washed that thing. I had those big old tires and big old pipes that made a lot of noise. I wasn’t going anywhere, but it looked like I could tear down the avenue. And I used to wash and wax it, because I listened to the old guys. The old guys would say “You take care of your car, your car will take care of you,” and I remembered that. 

So this guy, Mussah Bates kept saying, “Man, you keep washing that Bug, man.” And it just so happened that on this particular day, he went with me to my mother’s house – for some reason, I don’t know why. So we stopped past my mother’s house, and he came in. My mother said, “How you doing?” He said, “Fine.” And then he heard her say “’Peter,’” you be careful.”

Well, it didn’t happen that day, but a couple of weeks later I was outside of the Southeast Enrichment Center. I got me a bucket, because nobody had a hose. I’m wiping my car down, making my wheels sparkle and shine. He [Mussah Bates] came outside and he said, “You know, you’re nothing but a ‘Peter Bug.’” [Laughter] It didn’t really cross me. I kept thinking, “Peter Bug, Peter Bug.” At that time, I was still stammering and stammering hard: “Peter Bug; Peter Bug.”

I used to go down to the race track and watch folks race, and I used to see that these guys had names on their cars that was kind of reflective of themselves. They’d cut names out. So I went over to the sign shop on Naylor Road, and I told the guys, “Man, I’m going to need ‘Peter Bug’ put on the back of my Volkswagen.” Man, folks used to laugh at me. I would be driving down the street. They would say, “That boy is crazy! He has ‘Peter Bug’ on the back of his car!” That’s how “Peter Bug” began. 

It so happened that when I was at Federal City College, I went to a Funkadelics concert. That guy was talking about some of the things I could relate to because it seemed he was inside of himself. He had a name, and I had a name. Most of the stuff I came up with – because I went on that trip – was from George Clinton and the Funkadelics. I based my whole my whole thing on reading George Clinton’s album covers. Forget the songs. On that album cover, there was a story. Plus, what I did, I took my imaginary friend and I renamed my imaginary friend “Peter Bug.” And then Peter Bug came up with another friend named “Bugszilla.” I met this guy named Charles Robinson who was an artist, and I came up with my first coloring book – The Adventures of Peter Bug – based upon everything I went through in my life. Folks would say, “Hey, where’d you get that from?” I said I was there. 

For a while, folks thought I was going completely crazy because I started telling people that I was born in “Bugsylvania.” They’d say, “Bugsyvania? Where is that?” I would say, “A hundred light years out of “Buggington.” Folks would go by and tell my mother, “Marie, something’s wrong with that boy.” She’d say “There’s nothing wrong with him.” They’d say, “Something’s wrong. He says he’s from Bugsylvania. Then he changed his name to ‘Peter Bug.’ He’s got somebody named ‘Bugzilla’ [laughter]. The whole time, I’m doing some creative stuff that I didn’t think I could do. But I still had my little boys with me. Then I remember that George had a group called the “Funkateers.” So if they could have a group called the Funkateers, then Peter Bug has to have a group. I had my boys with me. They were 15, 16 and 17 years old. They’re going to be the “Shoe Shop Boyz.” Folks asked “Where’d you come up with ‘Shoe Shop Boyz?’” Now, I’m basing this on the story of George Clinton, and I came up with the “Shoe Shop Boyz” because every hero had to have somebody to support. Not that I wanted to be a hero, because I wanted to be invisible. But I wanted to at least let some folks know, and participate in some of the ideas that I thought would help children. 

So I got this band of young folks who would jump out of the window for me. Now I could have done some other things with them. We could have gone to the “dark” side. It just so happened that I didn’t go to the dark side, but there were opportunities to go there. I mean, I could have taken those five or six boys and I could have been the “big man on campus” or the “big man in the street.” But I took them another way – on another kind of journey. I made sure of one thing, though. I told them “You got to go to school. I don’t care what you think, you got to go to school!” I told them “I’m going to be at the school everyday to check on you. I’m going to be at the PTA meetings. If your mother’s not there, I’m there. I’ve got to see your report cards. I’ve got to talk to your counselors. We’re going to get you through this. And I’ve got to see homework.”

That went on for a while until we came up to the building on 13th and E Streets, right where I’m located right now. We went into that building. It was a drug place – a shoot-up joint. I had my little guys with me. I said, “Man, you know what? I’m going to take that building.” That was the first time we went to the “dark” side. That night, we kicked the door in; changed the locks; and just sat back and waited until the next day to see what the reaction would be. They thought we were going to get killed. They said, “Man, you’re not going to be here too long,” because they thought for sure that I was from North Carolina somewhere. But they didn’t know I’m five generations from Washington, DC and was just as thoroughly crazy as they were. But I was using my “other” side. I said, “Now, I’m not going this way and I’m not taking them with me.” So we changed the locks. 

We then went to the Neighborhood Planning Council. We wrote a proposal.  I think we got funded $1,500 at that time, but that was big money then. 

Destiny – Pride: So the Neighborhood Planning owned the building?

Mr. Matthews: No. The Department of Recreation owned the building at that time. But we had the key now. We went in and cleaned the place up. Got all of the drug paraphernalia out of there. Cleaned it up. Painted the place up. It used to be one building. So we cleaned it up. The drug dealers and shooters used to look at us, grumbling and mumbling. I took that $1,500 and I gave it to my brother, Man. I said, “Man, we need to buy us some shoe repair equipment.” He said, “Okay.” I looked in the newspaper. There was a guy on Mount Olive Road who had a cleaners, called Mount Olive Road Cleaners. He went to Phelps, and he had a finishing machine – it’s a long machine that finishes shoes – and he had a sewing machine. We told him what we were planning on doing: we were planning on opening up a school. 

Now that’s another story. When you tell black folks you’re going to open up a school, they say, “You’re crazy. You can’t open a school up.” Then I started citing everybody who did open up a school. So we took that $1,500 and we got us a finisher. We got us a patch machine. My brother worked for the Department of Recreation at that time, doing fields. He had a lift truck. If we had to put it in my Volkswagen, my Volkswagen would be dead [laughter]. We got the machine and put it on the truck.

That night, we went down Southwest, got the truck, backed it in front of the place where we changed the locks and put the machines in there, with no electricity – nothing. Then we went to the Department of Recreation and said, “Look, y’all got some trouble down there at 13th and E Streets, SE. Yeah, you’ve got trouble. You’ve got the police. You’ve got drugs. They’re doing all kinds of things. They’re killing. They’re doing everything.” I said, “Look, there’s a building down there that we want to use.” They didn’t even know that they had the building. At that time Dr. Rumsey was in charge. Dr. Rumsey said, “Well, if you think you can do that, go ahead and do it.” I didn’t know at that time that one of Dr. Rumsey’s hips was shorter than the other one. That was kind of our key, because we could do his orthopedic work. They were charging him $700 to fix that one shoe.

So Dr. Rumsey said, “If you can do that, go ahead, son. Go ahead and do it.” I didn’t know Dr. Rumsey from the Man in the Moon. We went in there. We got an electrician. Hooked up the machines. In order to get people to come to us, my little Shoe Shop Boyz had to go to the senior citizens buildings and pick up senior citizens’ shoes. We asked what building they were in and what floor they were on. If they had three floors, somebody had a floor. So you got on your bicycle and went on down there. What we were showing was entrepreneurship. At that time, that word was like, “What is an entrepreneur?” Now it’s a word everybody uses. I was showing those young folks how to get themselves some money. So we established that. What we did was we kept a record of everybody’s shoes that we fixed. That particular year, I think we might have fixed about 10,000 senior citizens’ shoes.

Peter Bug Street Sign
Street renaming – Peter Bug Matthews Way Photo by: Martha Loomis

Mr. Matthews: We got the Minority Community Business Award of the Year. That’s when Marlene Cooper was in charge. We were shocked! Somebody had put our name in. We didn’t want all of that. The only thing we wanted was to make sure our young people were striving to make some money by performing a service. We later went back to ask the Neighborhood Planning Council for some money. They never gave us any money. 

They became angry with us – Neighborhood Planning Council 16. During their anger, we didn’t receive any money. We didn’t get funded by the Department of Recreation. There was no money out there for us at all. The only way we could make money was to go get some shoes and let the folks come in and pay for the cost of materials. They would pay for the cost of the materials, and the labor was free. I’ve got folks working in here, and we’re not supposed to be working like this. What my brother and I had done was to take them through the same curriculum that we learned at Phelps and I learned in Oklahoma. I had seven shoe makers that weren’t yet seventeen years old. Folks couldn’t believe it, but people started bringing shoes in. 

From there, most of my boys who were sixteen and seventeen – my first Shoe Shop Boyz – went to college. Michael Banner went to Clark Atlanta.

Destiny – Pride: Mike started with you over there.

Mr. Matthews: Michael Banner was 13 years old when he started with me. Michael Banner went to Clark Atlanta and then got his MBA. After that, he came back to work with me. 

We had a program called “Neighborhood Penny Stocks.” All the young folks would come up on Saturdays. They would take their pennies, and buy stocks. We were working now, we’re cooking! Derrick Marshall worked at the Library of Congress. We used to take the children down to the Library of Congress. Folks had never been to the Library. They’d walk past it, but had never been in it. We showed them all kinds of things. 

I met up with one of my college friends, Carroll Payne – “Skeezie” Payne. Skeezie Payne was telling me, “Man, look. There are problems over at John Tyler Elementary. I said, “Wait a minute. That’s my school.” I went to John Tyler. He said, “Look. There’s a principal named Ms. Kelley who said she’s having some problems from the kids at Potomac Gardens,” which was down the street from me. I’m not the guy that they listen to, but Skeezie was, more or less, a theory operator. I was more a disciplinary guy. 

Destiny – Pride: Is that when Skeezie was with the Roving Leaders Program?

Mr. Matthews: That is when Skeezie was with the Roving Leaders Program. So we went down there everyday. We were doing Roving Leader work. We were like the school hall monitors because those little 5 and 6-year old boys and girls from Potomac Gardens at that time, were a mess. They needed somebody to say, “Hey, if you’re in this line, you need to move on. And you have to pay attention.” That was our main thing. Pay attention.

From that, Skeezie and I were on the Ted Koppel Show. He did a series: “Two Men in Washington, DC Straightening Out the Children.” They did an interview and a little boy said “When Uncle Skeezie and Peter Bug come down, they don’t play. The make us do our work. If we don’t do our work, we’ve got to do exercises. 

Destiny – Pride: So you were spotlighted on Ted Koppel.

Mr. Matthews: Yes, we were spotlighted on Ted Koppel’s Nightline, when all the shootings were going on at Potomac Gardens . . .

Destiny – Pride: And Potomac Gardens, for our visitors, is what?

Mr. Matthews: It’s a DC public housing project that’s located at 13th and Potomac Avenue – between G and Potomac Avenue. What happened is when the drugs came – the crack cocaine and stuff – it became a harbor for criminals, who really invaded on the people that lived there. 

Destiny – Pride: And that was in the ‘80s?

Mr. Matthews: That was in the ‘80s.  We also were on the Geraldo Show. 

Destiny – Pride: Okay. Geraldo Rivera.

Mr. Matthews: Geraldo Rivera. “The Dangerous Street in Washington, DC: 13th and G.”

Destiny – Pride: Did Romeo come from that area? Li’l Romeo? HBO did a special on him . . .

Mr. Matthews: Yes.

Destiny – Pride: . . . because he relayed back then that he loved beating white folks because he loved to see the way they bled when he shot them.

Mr. Matthews: What happened during that time in Potomac Gardens is there were single parents, that were young parents, that had young children. When they put the drugs in these particular areas they make sure that the first thing that they do is kill the head of the family – not really “kill” them, but get them on something. They got them on crack. The difference, I thought, with heroin and crack is that the heroin mommas took care of their babies. They got the dope and came back home. They might have been nodding in the house, but they were cleaning up. Heroin people always tried to be as clean as possible at that time, I thought. When crack came in it was the opposite. The house was dirty. The momma was gone. The children had to raise themselves. That’s when Skeezie and I and the Shoe Shop Boyz came to be a major, major factor.

Destiny – Pride: We’re getting ready to get to that, but I know personally of your involvement at Phelps and Spingarn High Schools and your commitment to the development of the young people there. What was it that got you so interested in the lives of our young people?

Mr. Matthews: Well, I wanted to give back some things that probably my father didn’t really have the time to give me: a tentative ear and a faithful heart. I just wanted to let them know, “Look, man, you can do it! It doesn’t take a lot.” My theory for the shoe repair – an oath that I made up – is that shoe repair is an old and honest trade. It is a profitable trade. It can be learned readily – patience, alertness, neatness and common sense are the main qualifications. I didn’t say you have to be the best reader; didn’t say you have to be the best mathematician. The main thing is that you have to be “patient.” You have to be “alert.” If you’re patient and you’re alert, then guess what? You’re going to get this trade and you’re going to become very, very good at it. I saw that when I was at Phelps – I’m at Spingarn now – that they’re still treating my trade like it’s a trade for slow and educationally disadvantaged children. And I keep asking them, “Well, who is making those Cole Haans you’ve got on? Are they slow, educationally disadvantaged people? But you put them in my shop, and once they come to my shop, they’re this way, but when they come out, at least they have some knowledge of what they’re doing. Unfortunately, we’re still in a state that I was in when I was young. Everybody who can’t learn, who we feel that we don’t want to teach, we’re putting over here, because everybody wants an “A” student. I want one, too!

Destiny – Pride: I think you have already dealt with this, but you might want to add other comments. How did you get started in the shoe business? 

Mr. Matthews: The Peter Bug Shoe Repair Academy came out of an entrepreneurship vision – Where I could teach young people how to fix and make shoes. The other purpose was to teach folks about economic development – some entrepreneurship skills. I said, “You might never fix shoes in your life, but at least one thing: you can do a business plan. Now what’s this 14 year-old boy doing with a business plan? I then gave them a bank account. The bank account was an imaginary bank account. They had to do a report every month on their profits and their interests and their losses. Each person had an imaginary $950. With that $950 you had to pay yourself. You had to buy your equipment. You had to buy your supplies. You had to pay for your help. You got to get toilet paper. So you have to balance all of that out of $950 and it would come out to be a profit, or you maintained, or you were at a loss. This was the kind of program that I learned and it’s the same thing I’m teaching now at Spingarn High School and am still teaching at the Academy. 

Destiny – Pride: You have also already addressed this, but what gave you the idea to connect the youth with your shoe repair business?

Mr. Matthews: Well, it was the only thing I could really use because I didn’t have any other ammunition in my gun. I had a “gun,” but it wasn’t shooting anything. So I figured what I’d do is take what I know and try to put this shoe shop stuff and this shoe business in this big “powder,” and try to “sprinkle” it around so that folks would say, “You know what, man, this is all right” and let people realize that shoes should be a part of clothing, should be a part of fashion. People look at shoes in another kind of way.  You should check your shoes the same way you check the back of your shirt; you check your pants; you check your dresses; you check everything.

Destiny – Pride: You say you teach at Spingarn. What do you teach there and what sport did you coach there?

Mr. Matthews: At Spingarn, I coached varsity football. Spingarn is not known for winning, in the later years, any games, but I wanted to let the folks know that there’s a great history and tradition at Spingarn High. Plus I probably was the first one at Spingarn High School to form the tradition during the time I coached where, after every home game, each football player had to go to the goal post and sing the school song – win or lose – and face the building, because now we’re going to develop some pride. Most of the time, when you got young folks that believe in you, and other grown folks see it, jealousy comes up. So they fired me. I got fired as the football coach at Spingarn High School. It probably was great for me, because now, I can get home [laughter].

Destiny – Pride: I went to Chamberlain Vocational School, and there was a time when there were a lot of vocational schools. We had Martha Washington, Chamberlain and a lot of others. All of a sudden, they got rid of vocational education. I hear the current mayor-elect saying that we must go back to that. What are your feelings about it?

Mr. Matthews: As long as we can keep this thing separate. You see, they have a new program now called “career technical education,” that is not “vocational” education.

Destiny – Pride: That’s what Phelps is now.

Mr. Matthews: Yes. It’s a career technical high school. That’s not vocational. At this particular time, DC public schools have cut out all barbering and cosmetology in the day time. 

Destiny – Pride: So there’s no woodwork, mechanics, plumbing . . .

Mr. Matthews: None. The only place you can get that is at Phelps. But you can’t get woodworking. You can get carpentry – there’s a difference between carpentry and woodworking. You can get industrial plumbing, but you can’t get regular plumbing.

Destiny – Pride: Can you get brick masonry?

Mr. Matthews: You can get brick masonry there. 

Destiny – Pride: Does Phelps have shoe work?

Mr. Matthews: Phelps does not have shoe work. As a matter of fact, I’m the only shoe repairman in the DC public school system, and the DC public school system doesn’t even know that I exist.

Destiny – Pride: Another question. Are they going to renovate your building?

Mr. Matthews: At the Academy?

Destiny – Pride: Yes.

Mr. Matthews: Well, we’ve been fighting for that for a long time and some of the Shoe Shop Boyz said we should have pressed our councilman a little more, a little harder.

Destiny – Pride: And your council person is . . .

Mr. Matthews: Tommy Wells. And I tell them, “Man, what we have to do, is we have to be patient. It’s going to come. It has so happened that, from being patient we are going to have a brand new football field at Watkins – Watkins field. It’s going to be Astroturf. Young people are going to love to play on it. We’ll get a chance to have our little Pee Wee football teams there, our Soccer on the Hill there. Last year, we brought back the fast pitch softball there. So the field is going to be normal; it’s going to be used a lot. In the transition of doing the field, Tommy and the City Council have made a way that they’re going to take some of that money and use it to improve the shop. So it will be a better looking place. To some folks, it’s an eyesore, but at least we’ll have some modernization in there. We’ll have an upgraded heating system and an air condition unit.

Destiny – Pride: When will that be completed?

Mr. Matthews: Well, you know, we’re hoping it’s going to be completed before Peter Bug Day.

Destiny – Pride: And Peter Bug’s day is, so that our visitors will know?

Mr. Matthews: Peter Bug’s day is held on the Third Saturday of May. That was the day that we opened up the Shoe Repair Academy. What we try to do is give back something. If the Academy made anything, we try to give it back to the people.

Destiny – Pride: In what way?

Mr. Matthews: Now entertainment. We used to give away food. Children received free tee shirts, pony rides, moon bounce, and things like that. That was kind of an answer to what Market Day was. When we went to Market Day, we saw that we were moving away from the original Market Day. Market Day used to be on 7th Street, SE, Washington, DC – Eastern Market. Eastern Market used to be a Friendship House event that was located across, on Pennsylvania Avenue. Friendship House now is out of business, but at that time all the craft was made by the children in the community, and we used to go in front of Eastern Market and sell our crafts and wares.

Peter Bug Day Cook
Cooking at Peter Bug Day Photo by:  Kate McFadden

When we went up there, we saw what was happening and I told some of the guys – the Shoe Shop Boyz – “We’ve got to have us a day.” They said, “What kind of day are you talking about?” I said, “Man, we’re going to have us a Peter Bug Day.” They said, “You can’t have no day!” I said, “We’ve got a shop. Who said we can’t have a day?”

It was election time and we invited everybody that was running – the candidates, the front runners, everybody. If the front runners know that all those guys that are running against them were going to be there, then they’re coming, too. It was really, really nice. We had free hot dogs, tee shirts. It was real nice.

We started out with go-go bands in ’77. Over the years, we figured that if you were 13 in ’77 and it’s 2008 now, I don’t think you want too much go-go anymore. So what we did was move it to the rhythm and blues category.

Destiny – Pride: On Saturday, December 18th we celebrated with you as the 400 block of 13th Street SE was renamed “Peterbug Matthews Way” in your honor. Getting a street named after yourself generally is not an easy process, and in some jurisdictions requires the named person to have been deceased for a number of years. How were you able to achieve such an honor, being that you are alive and well?

Mr. Matthews: Well, I’m going to tell you what happened. The Shoe Shop Boyz meet every Friday at the shoe shop. They came in one day and they said, “Man, Chuck Brown’s got a street named after him.” I said, “Man, that’s good.”

Destiny – Pride: Okay, let the people know who Chuck Brown is.

Mr. Matthews: Chuck Brown is the Godfather of go-go music in Washington, DC. He’s a good man. As a matter of fact, he’s been around a long time. So somebody said, “If Chuck Brown can get a street, then Peter Bug, with all that you have done, you need one, too.” I said, “Man, I’m not thinking about getting a street.” But they got a petition going around and I guess they got enough signatures. When I got a letter saying that we needed to come down and testify for the renaming of the 400 block of 13th Street to “Peterbug Matthews Way,” I was shocked. I said, “What? Renaming the street? What are y’all getting ready to do?” So all of that effort has to be given to the Shoe Shop Boyz. I did nothing. Well, the thing that I did was, probably set the motion for the work I had already done. Folks – well at least grown men – have always told me this: “It doesn’t matter who does the work as long as the work gets done.” A guy told me, “Man, look, if you keep sticking your face out there in front of the camera, your face is soon going to be gone. Whatever you do, you push your product – put your babies out there – and you be in the background. They’re going to find you, because they see what you’ve already developed.”

Destiny – Pride: You have a special relationship with Councilmember Tommy Wells, from Ward 6. Tell us about that.

Mr. Matthews: Yes. Tommy Wells. I met him during the elections when Marion Barry ran against Walter Washington.

Destiny – Pride: That was a long time ago.

Mr. Matthews: Tommy Wells had just come up from Georgia.

Destiny – Pride: 1978?

Mr. Matthews: That’s right. I knew Tommy Wells in 1978. Tommy Wells was a “green horn” at that time because the city was still 100 percent black. It was Tommy, along with Lorraine Bennett. Lorraine Bennett was the Ward 6 Coordinator for Marion and Tommy was the Assistant Ward 6 Coordinator. At that time, I was a foot soldier, because I figured you had to get into politics to make sure your program goes. So I figured, let me hook up with this here, because at that time Marion – the mayor – was the man. And still is. So what happened is I hooked up with him. I lived in Ward 6. I knew some people in Ward 6 through all of the work we had done. So that meant I knew folks at Potomac Garden project housing. I knew people at the Arthur Capper project housing. I knew some people at 1430. I knew some people. In Ward 6, the projects were mine. If you wanted to organize in Ward 6, I knew the folks and could help you to organize.

Destiny – Pride: So that was the long journey of your relationship with him

Mr. Matthews: A long journey with Tommy Wells.

Destiny – Pride: What are your thoughts on the plight of our black youth today, and what would you suggest as the answer to changing their mindset to a more positive and beneficial one?

Mr. Matthews: Well, my approach might be a little different. I think what happened is that men – black men – ran away and locked themselves out. There’s a song that Public Enemy put out: “Don’t Believe the Hype.” What we did is we believed the hype of the young folks: They got a gun. They’re going to kill you. Don’t go over here. What happened is that the family was destroyed and torn apart because they believed the hype.

Destiny – Pride: You said the black man ran away. Expound upon that. What do you mean?

Mr. Matthews: He went into the house. He went undercover. We couldn’t find him anymore. We couldn’t find that guy who was once on the playground who used to say, “Hey man, get off of that. Don’t throw those bottles over there.” There’s some guys making too much noise outside in front of your door. Instead of you going outside and saying, “Excuse me, young men, can y’all move that down the street?”, you say nothing. We don’t care anymore. What we did was put our heads down. So they didn’t really run away. They just put their heads down. They never looked the kids in the face. They let the young folks be what the mothers wanted them to be, because what has happened is that 13 and 14 year-old boys now think that they know more than grown men.

Destiny – Pride: What would you consider to be among your greatest accomplishments, and, on the opposite end, what would you say have been major disappointments?

Mr. Matthews: My major success was to go back to the high school I graduated from – Phelps Vocational High School – to teach there and to see some of those teachers who probably said “Whoa, I know he isn’t going to make it.” Also to sit in the audience at Spingarn when Dr. Andrew Jenkins – Past Public School Superintendent, and my physical education teacher at Randle Junior High School – was giving a presentation. At that time, he was doing some subcontract work with the DC Public School System. He looked out in the audience, scanned the audience – he was also a graduate of Spingarn – and said “I’ve got to stop! You all won’t believe this. Either he’s in the wrong place . . .” [laughter]. And I’m trying to duck down because I don’t want to be seen. He says, “Either he’s in the wrong place or you have Pee Wee Matthews working at Spingarn.” He said “Pee Wee Matthews, come down to the front.” Then he put his hand on my shoulders and said to the audience: “Let me tell you people something. If you all want to know how bad could go good, this is the man right here.” He said, “Let me tell you this. When I go back and tell Ms. Labu – that was my homeroom teacher – and the people from Randle Junior High School that Pee Wee is teaching at school, I might have to have to have the ambulance with me because they’re going to fall out.” [Laughter] He said, “This is the most enjoyable time of my life.” And that was a big thing for me to let Andrew Jenkins, the Superintendent of DC Public Schools, see that I was doing something positive, too.

Now, the disappointment is that I couldn’t get everything I wanted for my shop – I mean the machinery that was needed. Another disappointment was when we went up to the Timberland Company in Fairmont, New Hampshire. They had seen us in an article in The Washington Post: “Kids Getting a Head Start with Shoes.” We took some soles up to the Timberland Company and put new soles on their Timberland shoes. “It can’t be done,” is what they said. But they didn’t know who they were working with at that time. We had to be greater because those Timberland boots cost too much money for you to throw them away then, like the children throw them away now. But at that time, folks used to get brand new soles on them, clean them up, and all that.

“Red Wing” is the father of the Timberland Company. Red Wing is a construction boot that folks wear. If you go to any southern town that is the boot they wear. So the father had the Red Wing; his son had Timberland, but Timberland was only for folks in Alaska and those cold climates. The grandson brought the “Urban” Timberland down – with the fashion hats and coats. He had read the article about us in the newspaper and he sent an agent down here first to see if we were really legit. He then sent us airline tickets to Boston. When we got to Boston, a limousine picked us up and took us to Hampton, New Hampshire, to the Timberland Manufacturing Company. I took one of my students and my brother with me. We stayed there for three months at a bed and breakfast. I didn’t know what a “bed and breakfast” was. We were staying at somebody’s house, but they called it a “bed and breakfast.” Everything closed at 6:00 in Vermont, New Hampshire.

So we’re there. The first thing they asked us was how did we do it? We brought our tools, and you always give them a test, and especially if you’re black and you’re going into a white environment. Especially in the shoe environment. When we got to the airport, people looked at us like we were with the circus or something. When we got to the Timberland Company, they were so happy to see us.

The test was that they wanted us to show them how we re-soled their Timberland boots. We showed them what we did with the Timberland Boot. We were in what is called a model room, where you made shoes. I had experience in making shoes. My brother had experience in making shoes. My student would assist in some things. So we got the leather and other material off the rack and we made a pair of Timberland shoes. They were so impressed with us that they told us, “Look, there’s a show in Massachusetts. You all go to Massachusetts. We’re going to tell the vendors who have the manufacturing machinery about you and this is what we’re going to give you. We’re going to pay you 75¢ an eyelet. We’re going to guarantee you 500 pairs of shoes a month. So they would pay us 75¢ for each eyelet and to sew in the tongue, because most of their shoes are made in Puerto Rico.

Destiny – Pride: Okay, for our visitors, explain what an “eyelet” is in relation to shoes.

Mr. Matthews: Okay. The eyelet is on a quarter of the shoe, up near where your ankle is – what your shoe strings go through. The tongue is the divider so you have some cushion between the two quarters that house your shoestrings.

Destiny – Pride: So you mean eyelets are what you put the strings through?

Mr. Matthews: Right. Each one is what you put the strings through. So you figure, on each side, Timberland has six eyelets – that’s twelve at 75¢ each. Now, at that time, the only thing the DC Administration – Sharon Pratt Kelly – had to do was match the funds from the Timberland Company. That was a million dollars. If she had matched that million dollars, we would have been the manufacturing company for Timberland here in this area. She didn’t. So that was one of the tragedies of the dream that we thought we were going to fulfill.

Destiny – Pride: I’m curious – and I’m sure our visitors are also curious – about what made it so difficult that you couldn’t re-sole a Timberland boot?

Mr. Matthews: They had a special cement and that cement was kept within themselves. The supply people wouldn’t sell it to anybody but Timberland. As a matter of fact, they wouldn’t distribute it to the local jobbers [businesses]. So what we had to do is we had to go back to the old way where they used a chemical called acetone – the same stuff they use to clean your clothes at the cleaners. We had to use acetone, and we had to use all-purpose cement. What that acetone did was open up the rubber, because rubber can’t breathe. There are air pockets in rubber. So it opened up the air pockets – the acetone did. And we could spread our cement out and it would go down to the air pockets. You had to do both of them – the shoe and the sole – at the same time, and let them dry and then press them together. After you pressed it, you couldn’t sand it with sandpaper. You had to rub it on a metal brush – the same kind of metal brush that takes paint off of woodwork. So what we did was we had two brushes on the machine. We modified our machine to put the brush on a rotary. We had a long brush that would cut down. Then we took another brush and cut the long wires off and made them short. That short brush would just rub the sole all the way around. Timberland couldn’t believe it.

Destiny – Pride: And the reason why Timberland did that is because they wanted you to have to throw your shoes away and purchase another pair?

Mr. Matthews: Exactly!

Destiny – Pride: Okay. What relaxes you?

Mr. Matthews: That’s what I’ve been trying to find out for a long time. You know what really relaxes me? When I can see people having fun. Folks ask, “Man, why do you do all of this [referring to his annual Peter Bug Day]?” I say, because I want to hear folks say, “Man, we had a good time.” I need people. I need to be around people. I can’t stand to be by myself because I might drive my car off a bridge [laughter]. I’ve got to have some people around me. Just to make people feel happy and be proud of themselves – that relaxes me.

Destiny – Pride: I can see that because it never ceases to amaze me that when I pass by Peter Bug’s Academy, I see around it some of our city’s most studious alumni, from which you hold confabs. You all are always there talking about social issues, what’s going on in politics, religion. What’s that about?

Mr. Matthews: Well, one thing is, my being in Section 720 [from the school track system] at Randle Junior High . . .

Destiny – Pride: We’re still at that track thing – it didn’t go up to 720 [laughter] . . .

Mr. Matthews: . . . I knew I had to go out and recruit some people who were ten times smarter than me. That might have been one of the most successful things that I did – I went out and got those folk that were smart to believe in the concept that I was talking about. I’m saying God has really, really blessed me with those guys. You know why? Because some of those guys I probably could never have been around because some of them are on a level where they can jot some stuff down and in two or three minutes they got a proposal together; they’ve got an idea and I just say, “Whoa, man. That sure is great.” But I was blessed – blessed, blessed, blessed, blessed – to have those guys.

Destiny – Pride: What faith are you?

Mr. Matthews: Well, I like to say that I’m a Centralist.

Destiny – Pride: What in the world is a Centralist?

Mr. Matthews: I’m a Centralist because I believe in a lot of Christian. I believe in a lot of Muslim. And I believe in a lot of Judaism. So sometimes I feel like going to the mosque. Sometimes I feel like going to the church. Sometimes I feel like going to a synagogue. Sometimes I feel like going to a Catholic Church.

Destiny – Pride: So you just look at Abraham and all of you as being cousins in the faith.

Mr. Matthews: In the faith.

Destiny – Pride: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Mr. Matthews: You know what? All of us believe in the same thing: That there is a grand architect of the universe, whatever you call him. You may call him Jesus, or geometry, but we’re still all going to the same place.

Destiny – Pride: Have you any last thoughts or insights that you would like to leave with our visitors?

Mr. Matthews: Well, my last thought is to remember one thing: pay attention. That’s it. Pay Attention.

Destiny – Pride: Mr. Matthews, Destiny – Pride thanks you for giving us the opportunity to get to know you. We applaud the strides you have made professionally and the efforts you continue to make in helping to bring a sense of purpose and self-worth to the lives of many of the young people you have encountered as a teacher, a cobbler, a pseudo-parent, a mentor and a friend, and we wish you a very happy and prosperous New Year – mentally, spiritually, and financially. We thank you.

Mr. Matthews: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

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