Photo by Elizabeth Dranitzke

John (Peterbug) Matthews

John "Peterbug" Matthews says his goal is to "save souls and heel people," a play on words that connects his Shoe Repair Academy to activities that benefit those in need, especially children. 

Peterbug was interviewed by Stephanie Deutsch in 2012 when he received a Community Achievement Award for those efforts. A stammerer during his early life, Peterbug found his life's work after being assigned to school tracks for disabled children and studied shoe repair at Phelps Vocational High School and Oklahoma Technical Institute. Federal City College provided access to speech therapy and a degree in sociology, but shoe repair provided a living and an incomparable opportunity to make a difference in the lives of neighborhood children, a contribution he has made to the community since 1977.

Read Transcript
Interview Date
February 11, 2012
Stephanie Deutsch
Lauren Wechsler
Elizabeth Lewis

Full Directory


DEUTSCH: This is Stephanie Deutsch. It is February 11, 2012, and I am with “Peterbug” Matthews at his Shoe Repair Academy on Peterbug Matthews Way [13th and E Streets SE].

MATTHEWS: Exactly.
DEUTSCH: Why don’t we start by talking about where you grew up.

MATTHEWS: I grew up in Washington, DC. I’m probably a fifth generation Washingtonian. We started out in southwest Washington, DC, and from southwest Washington, DC, we moved to 121⁄2 Street alley [about 1961 or 1962]. Right there where Potomac Gardens is built now. They took our little alley house and made Potomac Gardens. So we moved from 121⁄2 Street alley to 1245 L Street SE. And then the freeway came in. So we had to move again [to 739 13th Street SE].

DEUTSCH: When was that that the freeway came in?MATTHEWS: It was in the early, early 60s, and the freeway came in.DEUTSCH: So you had to move again.

MATTHEWS: We had to move again. No, no, I’m sorry the freeway didn’t come in. They built 1000 project housing [Hopkins Plaza Housing Project at 1000 K Street SE, near Potomac Gardens, which is at 1225 G Street SE] down there. So the government came in and got the little house from my grandfather. We lived with my grandfather, we had a total family structure. The government bought the house from him for what it was worth, and then we moved to 739 13th Street SE. We had to move again because they put the other part of Potomac Gardens up, and then we moved to 307 11th Street SE between C and South Carolina Avenue. And my grandfather said this [was] the last place he’s going to move: “I’m not moving anymore!” And we’ve been there now. I am the keeper of the castle.

DEUTSCH: Who all lives there?
MATTHEWS: My son, James Matthews, and myself, and my two puppies, Jack and April.DEUTSCH: Is this April?
MATTHEWS: This is April here.
DEUTSCH: And is Jack the same kind of dog?

MATTHEWS: No, Jack is a Presa Canario from the Canary Islands. I’m kind of an exotic kind of dog man.

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

DEUTSCH: And what kind of dog did you say she was?MATTHEWS: This is a South African Boerboel.DEUTSCH: So you grew up with your grandfather?MATTHEWS: Right.

DEUTSCH: And your parents?

MATTHEWS: And my mother.

DEUTSCH: Sisters and brothers?

MATTHEWS: Sisters and brothers. Had nine of them.

DEUTSCH: What did your grandfather do?

MATTHEWS: My grandfather worked for the highway department. He was a truck driver, and my grandmother worked in the laundry up at Mount Vernon Avenue Square. My mother did housework.

I knew my father. I didn’t realize my father had a trash company in the city. Johnny Matthews Trash and Truck Company. So I didn’t know how that thing worked at that time. But since I’m grown, I know how it worked, now. I knew that I was really born out of wedlock, and it didn’t matter to me at first, you know, because I had a grandfather, and my grandfather was my daddy. So my daddy never let me even think about I didn’t have a father because my granddaddy was very active, and he did a lot of things with us that normally fathers would do.

So I got older, and then that curiosity comes in. What about that curiosity? Curiosity says, “Oh man, I got my father, and he’s over here, and I’ve got my father, who’s over there.” And somebody says, “You know your father’s got a business over there on 14th Street NE.”

I said, “Oh, I got to go see him.” And then I think he was more afraid than I was for me to just come over and say, “Hey, I’m your son.” But I didn’t have to tell him, he already knew.

DEUTSCH: He already knew. Was he the father of all of your sisters and brothers?

MATTHEWS: No, no. My older brother, who went to the other side, you know, he passed away ... He was a shoemaker himself. His name was James Roger Matthews. I named my son in honor of him by naming him James Matthews.

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

So my father fathered two children by my mother. Then my mother got remarried to a wonderful guy named Charles Chandler Kingsley and he was from New York. He was an ex-police officer, veteran in the war, and I really didn’t like him at first, you know, because he took us from my grandfather’s house to live with my mother and him. But then you get grown, and after you get grown now, you realize that this man came in, went for a woman who already had two children ...

DEUTSCH: And took them on.

MATTHEWS: ... and took them on, and became their daddy regardless of what we said to him. He reminded us of one thing: he said, “Look it, you know what, I know you have a father, but guess what I’m going to be? I’m going to be your daddy.”

DEUTSCH: How old were you when that happened?

MATTHEWS: Like 13, 14. When he first came in, we were like 6 and 7, 8 and 9 years old. And that kind of like stuck with me for a while. And then I really didn’t appreciate him until the day I saw him sick, and when I saw him sick, I got emotional because you know what? This man is getting ready to leave my life ...

DEUTSCH: And I never appreciated him.

MATTHEWS: ... and I never, never really appreciated what this man has done for my mother and my other siblings. So from that point, that was when I was kind of like, well, there’s some kind of mission. I didn’t know what it was.

DEUTSCH: You had some kind of mission?
MATTHEWS: I had some kind of mission to do something. Because I’m like, “Wait a minute!” For

someone to come in and take over like that, you know ...DEUTSCH: He didn’t have to.

MATTHEWS: He didn’t have to do a thing, and the abuse that he was getting from us! You know, he’d tell us something to do, and then, you know, the first thing children say: “You ain’t no kin to me. You ain’t my father.”

DEUTSCH: You’re not my father.
MATTHEWS: Right. So that means my mother had to say, “Look. Whatever he says goes.” We can’t

believe that because we still got a granddaddy who is our father. Ok. All right. So we have problems, we page 4

Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

go to our grandfather. Because that was the only man in my life that really said, “Hey look it, you got a problem, come back to Granddaddy,” because Granddaddy could solve all those problems.

So we started ourselves in Washington DC. We’re here. So then, time to go to school.DEUTSCH: Time to go to school.

MATTHEWS: Time to go to school. Went to John Tyler Elementary School. Just three people in there that I’ll never forget: Mr. Flemming, Miss Schwartz, and Miss West. Miss West could whistle like a man. I never seen a lady put her fingers in between her teeth and ...

DEUTSCH: Was she one of your teachers?

MATTHEWS: No. She was in charge of the safety patrol. The school bell didn’t ring outside, so they had a big bell—bing, bing, bing. That bell rung—bing, bing, bing. But Miss West didn’t need a bell. The only thing that Miss West needed was that whistle. Miss West started whistling three times, and everyone came and got in line, because elementary school children had to get in line outside on the playground because you had to get yourself in some kind of order before you go back into the school. You got to calm down a little bit. You know, you’re outside at recess and at lunchtime ...

DEUTSCH: Time to calm down.
MATTHEWS: Time to calm down. So I remember them very, very well. Now, leaving elementary

school ...
DEUTSCH: Were you a good student at elementary school?

MATTHEWS: I don’t think so. Because at that particular time, I had a speech problem. I stuttered very, very bad. So school was hard for me.

DEUTSCH: Did kids make fun of you?

MATTHEWS: Oh, I was Porky Pig. Folks used to always tell me what ... If I say something, they already knew what I was going to say out of my mouth. That used to make me so mad. So what happened is that I left, graduated, promoted to the seventh grade [in 1963]. All of my sisters and brothers were going to Hine junior high school. We only lived a block away.

DEUTSCH: Yeah, that’s close.

MATTHEWS: Close. Now you know what school they sent me to? Randall Junior High School. South Capitol Street and I SW.

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

DEUTSCH: Now why did they send you to Randall?

MATTHEWS: Because I had that speech impediment. Didn’t know it at the time.

When I went to Randall, didn’t know anybody. Now you’re crossing boundaries now. I’m leaving 11thStreet. Going down by Arthur Capper [public housing project located across the freeway from Garfield Park from 1958 to 2005], going to Carrollsburg Place SW and then crossing southwest. Ooh. Hey. You don’t know anybody, you know, you’re going to get ... [In a subsequent conversation, Matthews explained that his walk took him through “other people’s territories” that were “run” by “athletic clubs” with names like the “Baby Cavaliers.” He said “I was a Stonewall going to a Cavaliers’ school in southwest.” He also noted that “you couldn’t go to Barney’s Circle.” Kresge’s store at Pennsylvania and Seventh Street SE was “run by Italian gangs dressed up in straw hats. You couldn’t go there unless you were with your parents or your own gang.”]

DEUTSCH: And you don’t have any brothers or sisters.

MATTHEWS: And I don’t have my brothers and sisters to back me up. I’m walking to school by myself. Wasn’t no car tokens. My mother didn’t have no money for car tokens. She got eight other people she got to take care of up in there, and my stepfather didn’t have it. And then you couldn’t always go to Granddaddy now and borrow it.

Everyone walked to school. So you’re going to learn the experience of walking to school. So I walked— rain, hail, sleet, and snow—going Randall Junior High School. Got to Randall Junior High School my first day. Oh, I’m kind of scared, seeing all kind of different kind of people, you know everyone ...

DEUTSCH: It’s not the neighborhood anymore.

MATTHEWS: It’s not the neighborhood now. This is new people. They all kind of corralled us into the auditorium. Everybody got to go to the auditorium. Now in the seventh grade now, they’re going to pick your section, because at that time we was on the track system. And they’re going to let you know where you’re going to go. So I’m thinking , the higher the number, the smarter you are.

They call 7-1. All these fall out, people with the 7-1. 7-2. A whole lot of people. When they got down to 7-20, I looked around, but I didn’t say nothing because I know I’m in 7-20. I’m smarter than them people in 7-1. I’m real smart. Woo! I’m glad my mother told me to come to this school, you know, because, oh, I’m smart!

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

Until that man named Vandyke Walker. Vandyke Walker lived on 12th and South Carolina SE. Vandyke Walker got up: “The rest of you all are coming with me.” I looked around in the place. We didn’t go to the first floor. We didn’t go to the second floor. We didn’t go to the third floor. We went to the basement.

DEUTSCH: What was his name?

MATTHEWS: Vandyke Walker. We went to the basement. And in the basement, I looked around, and everybody in my class had a physical disability. And then I looked around and looked at me and thought, “You know what, I got one too if I’m in this class.” So my disability was my speech.

I went home, told my mother I thought I was in a crazy asylum because the people who I saw ... At that time, they didn’t want people on the first floor looking like us or talking like us because, you know, that was the kind of thing that grown folks had. They didn’t want ... “No, no, no, put them in the basement. I don’t want them limping around the school. I don’t want one arm stronger than the other.”

So we’re in the basement. I went home and told my mother, “I can’t go back to that school no more. I can’t go back to the school anymore because, let me tell you this, I’m in a crazy asylum.”

My mother said, “Baby, sit down. Let me tell you.”

“Why can’t I go to Hine?”

She said, “Baby, you can’t go to Hine because that’s the school for you to go to.”

I must have cried for about two, three days. I must have cried for about two, three days about me got to stay in Randall Junior High School.

DEUTSCH: With no one you know.

MATTHEWS: No one, nowhere. But [in] the process of trying to be family oriented, I got to meet people, got to meet some folks. I was like, “Whoa, wait a minute! They got a problem, I got a problem. Hey, we can hang out. We can be friends.” I made a lot of friends at Randall Junior High School.

So, from Randall, from the basement now, I’m in 7-20. So I’m going to eighth grade. So they’re moving me down. I’m at 8-14. Ooh! I’m improving. Ok, let me tell you. I met Andrew Jenkins, the superintendent of DC Public Schools after Randall. He was the physical education teacher. I had some athletic ability. One thing is this: I knew I could run because folks used to chase me, and they could never catch me. So, I got on the track team. Andrew Jenkins was the physical education teacher.

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

After 8-14, then they moved me to 9-8. Oh, I’m moving up! But let me tell you what they did also. Everybody from Randall was going to either Wilson, Western, Dunbar, or Eastern. You know what they told us in those grades? You have to go to a vocational high school.

DEUTSCH: Because you were coming from Randall.

MATTHEWS: Because I was coming from Randall, and in that section I was in, you had to go to a vocational high school. But you know what? I’m very, very lucky, because at that time, my brother who went to Hine, who was smart, went to Phelps Vocational High School. He was in shoe repair. There was two schools I could go to vocational-wise, well, three. I could have went to Chamberlain ...

DEUTSCH: Which was here.
MATTHEWS: Which was here, right down the street. I could have gone to Bell Vocational High School,

or I could have went to Phelps.
DEUTSCH: So Phelps was and is a vocational high school?

MATTHEWS: Phelps was and is a vocational high school. I said, “I’m going where my brother is. My brother and I, we going to tear the school up, man! I know I’m going to be home now.” My brother is already in the 11th grade when I get there in the tenth. Yeah, yeah. He’s established himself already.

“Hey, man, that’s Matthews, man, he’s alright. Matthews’ little brother is coming over here.”

But they didn’t know that Matthews’ little brother had a stammering problem. Whew. I was hurt in junior high school. But high school, they’re crueler. Oh, there’s some cruel people in high school. Oh, they talk about you bad. But I had my big brother, who kind of kept to the side a little bit. And then, I got into the same class my brother was in, shoe repair. I had a teacher named Colonel Guy Pannafino. Guess what happened? Guy Pannafino stammered too.

Ooh, I couldn’t believe it. I mean these things are coming into place. I couldn’t believe it.DEUTSCH: And there he was, teaching school.

MATTHEWS: And there he was, teaching school. He was a colonel in the army and a teacher! And stammered! And guess what, stuttered worse than me. I said, “Whoa, I know I’m alright.”

And you know what, he took a liking—well, he already loved my brother—he took a liking to me like my brother gave him another son. This is his project. I was his main project, and it got to a point now where Mr. Pannafino ... And to be truthful, I’m truthful, the only time that white folks came to my house, [it]

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

was either the police or the person collecting the money for insurance. Guy Pannafino came to our house for dinner. Whoa. Now, we didn’t have much, but he ate with us.

DEUTSCH: He was white?

MATTHEWS: He was white. He was an Italian. He brought me lunch to school. That cheese that smelled real bad on sandwiches. I didn’t know what it was. I said, “Mr. Pannafino, you brought a rotten sandwich to school!” “Now eat that, it’s good for you!”

But Mr. Pannafino came to our house. It was like a neighborhood kind of big event. “Uh oh, what happened over there?” People was asking us, “Hey man, what’s going on? What that guy doing in your house?” You know what they said: “What’s that white man doing in your house? You all telling on people?”

I said, “No, that’s my school teacher, Mr. Pannafino.”

Mr. Pannafino was ... I told you, the only two [white] folks I knew was the police and the insurance man, and the guy on the corner who owned the store. Ok, alright. So Mr. Pannafino was the first person who I had contact with. So my brother left school, graduated, went to New Mexico State.

DEUTSCH: He went to college.

MATTHEWS: He went to college. First one in our family. Came home two years after that, got an associate’s degree, and then he got married. Oh, my grandfather went crazy because he didn’t go back to college. My grandfather just went completely crazy.

So my year coming up to graduate. Ok, now during that time Woodward and Lothrop used to have a tool award for high schoolers, grade-wise, and you was the best in your shop, in your craft. They had a partnership with Phelps Vocational High School. My brother won the award, and then the next year, I won the award. Now, in 1968, I graduate from Phelps Vocational High School. Mr. Pannafino said, “I need you to fill these papers out.” I don’t know what these papers are for, but I’m reading the papers. “Oklahoma. I’m not going to Oklahoma, Mr. Pannafino.” This is after the riots. This is after the death of Martin Luther King.

DEUTSCH: This has been a bad spring.
MATTHEWS: It’s bad. He’s stuttering, “You need to go.” “I’m not going out there.”

“I got everything. People want you there. I’ve got everything. You don’t pay for nothing. We’re going to try to get you an airplane ticket. You’re going.”

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

I’ve never be on no airplane. “I’m not going.” The first thing is that I’m not going on an airplane, number one. “Because they’re going to blow the airplane up.” That’s what I’m thinking. So we didn’t get on an airplane. I had to catch the bus, because I wouldn’t ride in a plane. It took me about four, five days to get there on the bus, the Greyhound.

DEUTSCH: So you filled out the papers?

MATTHEWS: I filled the papers out, and my mother and them convinced me to go. I got my tool award. I got my own tools. I’m going out to Oklahoma Technical Institute. For shoemaking and saddle making. Whew! We didn’t make no shoes at Phelps Vocational High School because the DC public school system didn’t give us much to do anything with.

DEUTSCH: So you did shoe repair?
MATTHEWS: We did repair. We didn’t make. We didn’t do any saddles because we didn’t have ...DEUTSCH: Horses.

MATTHEWS: I mean, we was at Phelps Vocational High school, 99.9 percent is black students from poor neighborhoods. So what we got there was what the instructors brought in for us to use. The budget there was not in favor of us, unfortunately. Because after I read that thing—kids first, children first, I don’t what that means. [They were not providing supplies.] But anyway. So get out to Oklahoma.

DEUTSCH: You must have been a little nervous about that.

MATTHEWS: I think they was nervous about me, too, because I’m the first black guy there! They’ve seen some black folks. They’ve seen them in TV, the cinema ... but to actually have a black guy in your class! And I’m like actually having white folks ... Stan, my roommate, is white. Whoa! I went back home, and I said, “You’re never going to believe this.” I told my mother, “You’re not going to believe this here.” We got a room. We got the schedule.

DEUTSCH: You went by yourself?

MATTHEWS: Went by myself on the bus. I had 15 cents to call back home. Not home, called my grandfather because we never had a phone. I had to call my granddaddy. I called Granddaddy. Granddaddy would come and get me. He had a phone, or he would send some money to get me a ticket.

So got into the college. Went to the first class: Introduction to Leather Craft. Ooh, now we did that at Phelps. They never had it before, so I’m shining in this class. Then we go into shoe repair. Whoa!

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DEUTSCH: You know that!

Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

MATTHEWS: And the maintenance of the machinery. Mr. Pannafino taught us that. Mr. Pannafino always said this: “Anybody can fix the shoe, but if your machine breaks, can you repair it?” I thought Mr. Pannafino was crazy, but I took the class, listened. You know, never hooked or never skipped Mr. Pannafino’s class, because it was fun. And I’m glad I did it because when I went to Oklahoma, I was the king, the kingpin, whatever you call that person. At first, everyone was saying, “This guy from Washington,” I don’t know. They might have called me another name, it didn’t matter.

But guess what, after they saw my work, guess what I became? I became “Matthews.” “Hey Matthews, come here for a minute, man, help me out with this! Help me out with this, Matthews! Come on Matthews, help me out with this.” Oh, I’m “Buddy” now.

Matter of fact, my mother and them used to send me that little package and stuff, I didn’t have nothing but sardines. I had a sardine stack.

I’m down there eating with them. They’re taking me home. You know, the parents are looking at me like, “Oh ok, this here’s your friend, huh.” And you know, I got another kind of vibe [friendly]. “Oh this your friend, oh come on in! This is what we’re having.”

I never ate that food before in my life! They was eating steaks and stuff. These folks eat, and they eat good! At least, I thought it was good. At that particular time, steak is better than sardines. Pasta is better than the Fritos.

So, finished that associate degree.


DEUTSCH: So you were at Oklahoma State, and now you’re coming back to DC.

MATTHEWS: Coming back to DC. I should have stayed in Oklahoma, but I came home over the summer, and they opened up this brand new college: Federal City College. I said, “Oh boy, I’m going down to this new college. I’m going to stay home.” Went down and applied, got accepted. At that time, it was open enrollment anyway. Went down to Federal City College. And I’m still stuttering now.

DEUTSCH: You’re still stuttering?

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

MATTHEWS: I’m a stutterer. Ok, I kind of like this young lady. She was in the nursing program at Federal City. So one of her courses was Speech and Hearing. Guess what I did? I went and signed up for the Speech and Hearing class. I had no business in there, but I wanted to be with her. I wanted her to see me in the class. You know what, I got to the class, and the instructor found out that I stuttered, directed me to DC Teachers College on 11th and Harvard Street [NW] to a speech therapist. I took a course where I was in a room with maybe about 25 young people, my age, who stuttered.

DEUTSCH: Oh my gosh.

MATTHEWS: And we went looking in the mirror, breathing, taking your time, relax, don’t get too excited, think about what you’re going to say before you say it, just don’t out it, just don’t break out with it. So I learned all those tactics. I learned all those little methods. And I came back, and I still stuttered, but it was like kind of seasonal. When it got warm, I kind of stuttered more. When it got cold, I was cool. It was kind of off and on and off and on.

So from Federal City, I got my degree in sociology. Couldn’t find a job because I’m going to be a counselor, I’m going to help somebody. Everybody in the world got a sociology and a social welfare degree. So that’s during the time, everyone trying to ...

DEUTSCH: That was the fashion.

MATTHEWS: That was the fashion at that time. That was the fashion at that time. So do you know what I had to do? I had to use my shoe repair skills. Went down to the North building at Woodward and Lothrop. Junior Ferguson was the guy in the charge, the head foreman. I came in, filled out the application, told him I needed a job. My references kind of superseded anybody in there because most of the folks in there were either trained in Lorton or Mr. Joe taught them, but Mr. Joe didn’t teach me.


MATTHEWS: Mr. Joe, the guy who had the shop. You came in, you swept the floor, he let you put a nail in, and after that, he let you shine the shoes. No, no, no, no. I got papers. I got papers. I got papers, and I got tools, and I got skills. So I was Junior Ferguson’s dye man. I dyed every shoe that came into Woodward and Lothrop. They came off the truck, off the ship. If they were white, they had damage spots in them. If they were brown, that’s the shoes that went on sale. I dyed all those shoes. Half price, you know what they’re doing. Shoe’s damaged.

From Junior Ferguson, I went to work for a guy named David Stern on Seventh and O Street [NW] before they built the Kennedy playground. And I worked for what we called Old Man Stern. Old Man Stern was

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

very, very good to black folks. I mean at that time, I was making $1.65 an hour. That was big money for me.

DEUTSCH: And what was his business?

MATTHEWS: Shoe repair. He had about five shoe repair shops in the city. So where I worked was the warehouse. So they collected the shoes and brought them in. They had pick-ups. Until one day, his son named David came home from college, David Stern, and his father let him run the business, give him a little business experience and stuff, which a lot of folks do. I understand it at this time. At that time, I didn’t.

We finished all the shoes in the shop, so we’re in the back. The older guys, they’re cutting up, I’m cutting up. We’re saying jokes, you know, and he, out of all the people back there, he came and got me and said, “Look, I need you to wash the windows down in the front.” And I looked at him and said, “Now, I don’t wash windows.”

“If you want to work here.”
I said, “Let me get my tools together. I ain’t got to work here.”
At that time, they paid you in a brown envelope. “Give me my money, now.” “You can’t get paid until Friday.”
“I’m quitting. I want my money today right now. Give me my money.”DEUTSCH: Did you feel like it was demeaning? Or he was treating you ...

MATTHEWS: I was thinking he was picking on me because of shortness. I had this little short complex. But I thought he was picking on me because of that, and I thought he was picking on me because I stuttered. I told him, “Give me money,” and I promised myself from that day, if I ever fix another pair of shoes, I’m going to fix them for me. So from that point on, the whole time what I was doing was trying to work, trying to buy me some equipment, trying to get my own shoe repair shop.

Now my brother’s a shoe repairman also. He used to work at a place called R & G. One year, we made the Easter Seal person—the little girl who rode the bicycle—we made those braces right in here. We bent the braces so she could put them on the bike, so her little legs would curve out and do that, and we did them free. My brother said, “Do you know how much this stuff cost?”

I said, “That’s alright.”

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

But anyway we go back, and I’m going to fix no more shoes unless I’m going to fix them for myself. So I was taking in shoes, going around to people’s ... going to jobs, passing out cards. I’d pick up shoes and bring them back.

DEUTSCH: Were you here then? [i.e., at Peterbug Shoe Repair Academy, E and 13th Street SE, known as Peterbug Matthews Way]

MATTHEWS: No. I wasn’t here. Let me tell you this. My grandmother passed, and I used my grandmother’s house and brought some shoe repair equipment and put it in the living room. So my neighbors went to work in the morning, and I got up, and I went to work. By the time they got back home, all the machines was off.

So I used my house before we got into this building here, and then we submitted a proposal to the recreation department about a shoe and leather academy. Everybody thought it was a joke. “You can’t open up a school!”

Well, Harriet Tubman opened up one, Mr. Washington opened up one, Mary McLeod Bethune ... “Wait a minute, why can’t we have one?”

“Ah, you can’t do this.”

Anyway, they said, “Ok, look here, we got a place that you might be able to use.”

I said, “Ok. I’ll use it.” We came in.

DEUTSCH: What year was that? Like ’75?

MATTHEWS: ’76. Kind of. Because we didn’t open up until ’77. So we got everything outside now. We got dope. We got hustlers.

DEUTSCH: Yeah, this was not ...

MATTHEWS: This place was not pretty. At all. The first day here, someone’s going to kill me because I’m messing up their profits on making their money. At least, they thought I was anyway. Because now, what I’m doing, I’m bringing some other kind of people into the community. They think every time they see another color, they think it’s the police. So in the neighborhood, I became” hot,” whatever “hot” was. “Hot” means that you’re a snitch. So you know what a snitch is.

They said, “Snitches get stitches.” But they didn’t know the path that I come from. They didn’t know what I had to go through. I’m going to get me some stitches just to keep our place going.

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

I said, “The first thing we need to do is come in, we need to take the children.” So I got some pencils. It’s called the Peterbug Tool for Higher Learning. And the folks were like, “Why you got these pencils?”

Because now the whole time I was stuttering, I developed this inner person in me—my imaginary friend—because I didn’t have any person to listen to. And I used to talk to him. In my mind, he talked back to me.

And then, folks said, “Man, you’re going crazy.”

I said, “Well you know what ...” We had a long time before we had a name for the shop here. We were going to call it the Capitol Hill this, we’re going to call it that. I said, “No, we’re going to call it Peterbug.”

DEUTSCH: Was Peterbug the friend?

MATTHEWS: No. Peterbug was inside of me. My imaginary friend. That’s right, my friend, Peterbug. So guess what happens now? I got this Volkswagen. Wrote “Peterbug” on the side of it. It was a joke to everybody. Everyone looked at it, oh man! I didn’t really realize what Peterbug meant until I picked up the Webster Dictionary. [It was sexually suggestive.] Whoa! But guess what we’re going to do? I’m going to make that name “Peterbug” [into something people won’t laugh at].

When people look at Peterbug now, the first thing that people are going to say, “Oh, he stands for the children. He is an upright man. Whatever Webster say.” Guess what, we’re going to make an amendment to Webster, because when you hear “Peterbug” now, you’re going to say, “We know him. This man right here works for the children in the community.”

Let me tell you what I did. Now, from the pencil, you could not get that pencil unless you had a notebook.DEUTSCH: So you would give them a pencil if they came with a notebook.

MATTHEWS: If they came with a notebook. Big, pretty pencils with my name on it, and then, we did a coloring book: The Adventures of Peterbug, which meant I write stories now.

DEUTSCH: Do you have a copy of the coloring book?
MATTHEWS: I have a copy of the Christmas card we sent out. It’s called “The Night Before Bugmas.”

And what happened is that I used all the characters in the shop.

At that particular time, the first Adventures of Peterbug came out was about the drug guys out front, and how Peterbug came to save the day. Oh you know, they were going to do something to me then because,

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

guess what, they got a hold of the coloring book. And we didn’t name any characters, but the artist I had kind of drew some of them look like them. So they were talking about the drugs, they were talking about all this stuff, and it was simple. It was really, really simple. So they got a copy of that.

So they had a thing called a Neighborhood Planning Council, and the Neighborhood Planning Council was one of them federal programs that the Mayor had where they fund youth programs that is going to do something for people in the community and all that. So the drug boys got to the point where they took over the Neighborhood Planning Council. So they gave you like, $1500, $2000, but the drug boys had all the money. All their programs was ...

DEUTSCH: When you say the “drug boys”?

MATTHEWS: I’m talking about the folks who were selling drugs on this corner up in here, the ones who told me, “You won’t be here long.” And this senior citizen told me, “What you do, start sweeping. You keep sweeping, you’re going to sweep them away.”

Corner cleaned up, and if they do come past, the first thing they say, “That’s Bug Man. We got to move this man.” We didn’t do that up here. We don’t do drugs up there. We don’t do that here.

And then, we went up to Eastern Market. The Eastern Market Day. The Eastern Market Day, when I used to go to the Friendship House, was always the day when children came and took their crafts and stuff and could sell the little crafts that they had.

I went to Eastern Market. It was like New York City festival. Didn’t know anyone. Didn’t know any of the vendors because Eastern Market was the thing where folks would come in if their mother needs some rent. She could make some cakes and get a little rent money. A little hot dog, so the people in the neighborhood could really get something.

But now, that Eastern Market Day was totally way above our heads. And I could see that the children who I was dealing with from 1000 [the Hopkins project] [to] 1430 L Street SW [to] Capper were accepted there, but they really, really weren’t accepted because they really had no money to do anything. I mean you can go to the thing, you can go to the festival, but there ain’t nothing for you to do at the festival because you don’t have no money to buy anything. They got all the vendors, everyone cooking food, they got stuff there, and it cost too much money.

So I told this guy named George Gibbs, I said, “George Gibbs, we’re going to start a day.” He said, “What day?”

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“We’re going to start Bugzilla.”

Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

He said, “What, where do you keep on getting all of these names from? Bugzilla. Where did Bugzilla come from?”

It came from George Clinton from the Funkadelics because I’m a Funkadelic fan. George Clinton said there’s another earth, and we’re just here waiting to go back to it. So George Clinton and Bootsy Collins had Bootzilla. They all of these things which were like out of sight, outer space, so what I did, I took myself and put it in that mode. And then we made Bugzilla Day, and we changed Bugzilla Day in 1977. Nadine Winter was the Council President at that time, and she came out to the first Bugzilla Day. We must have had every little go-go band that the children heard about, but they couldn’t go where their big brothers and sisters went at. They was dancing to the music.

DEUTSCH: Out here?

MATTHEWS: Out in the street, down in the park, and they had so much fun. We must have gave away about 1000 hot dogs, sodas, Kool Aid, t-shirts. Now the t-shirts, I always got, but only for children from the age to about 10. After 10, you couldn’t get a t-shirt because from 4 to 10, you’re going to wear my t- shirt more than [ages] 12 to 15. Because somebody’s going to take that t-shirt and make it a rag to wipe the stove off, clean your car. But if I give you this t-shirt with my picture on it, you’re going to wear my t- shirt.

“Oh man, they’re not going to wear your t-shirt,” and you know what happened, I’d go to the Safeway, and I still see my t-shirts, “Peterbug Day.”

DEUTSCH: So that’s 1977. They did Peterbug Day for a long time.MATTHEWS: This year, it will be 35 years.
DEUTSCH: You going to do it again this year?

MATTHEWS: This year. Let me tell you this, we honored Peaches and Herb one year. Down in the Hole [a patio area also known as “Peterbug’s Park,” located beside the Shoe and Leather Repair Academy, where concerts are often held.] This guy Al Johnson came to sing with a group called the Eurythmics. Used to write with Norman ... What’s that guy’s name, jazz guy ... Phyllis Hyman ... [Norman Connors]. Down in this hole. On Peterbug’s Day.

[In a subsequent conversation, Matthews described the Peterbug Day in 1986 or 1987 that boxer Muhammad Ali visited the Hole. He said the children who spent afternoons at the Shoe Academy

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

developed a cookie dough made of oatmeal, pecans, and coconut. The Sunbeam Bread bakery on Eastern Avenue allowed adults to come bake the dough in its ovens after midnight when the ovens were not otherwise in use. The children sold these cookies as “Champ Cookies” and were allowed to keep part of the money they collected. “Someone at the Muslim mosque took a cookie to Ali, and the next thing I knew he was walking up to the Hole on Peterbug Day and Kathy Hughes of WOL-AM Radio was on air live.”]

DEUTSCH: When is Peterbug’s Day?

MATTHEWS: May 19th. And it starts at 8:30 in the morning because we have a parade now. We invite all the local high schools to come out, folks who have cars, walking. You can walk your dog. You can push in the parade. DC Ice [DC Inner City Excellence, skating-based youth development programs] they come out and skate. They lead the parade with the banner. And I know they walk the route.

DEUTSCH: And where does the parade go?

MATTHEWS: It starts at Congressional Cemetery [1801 E St SE]. It goes up to 15th and Potomac Avenue, and takes a right on 15th and Potomac, and crosses Pennsylvania to 15th and K. It takes a right on 15th and K down to 12th and Potomac Avenue. Take the right on 12th up to D Street. We cross Pennsylvania Avenue two times. We coming down D Street to Kentucky and, at the Safeway, we make a right down 14th. We get to 14th and E, we make another right. The reviewing stand is out in front of the shop, and the parade comes past the reviewing stand. It ends up at Peterbug Way D Street.

DEUTSCH: Now, who is in the reviewing stand?

MATTHEWS: People from the community. [DC Councilman] Tommy Wells told me one day, he said, “Look Peterbug, you’re the only guy I know who can cross Pennsylvania Ave two times, and you have all the police in the world with you. I can’t get people to get a permit just to block off the street. How do you do it?”

I said, “Tommy, I can’t tell you. I’ve got some secrets.” But every year, Tommy walks with us every year. Tommy’s been a very, very good friend of the Peterbug Shoe Repair Academy.

DEUTSCH: Well, I think Tommy’s honored. Do you consider him one of the Shoe Shop Boys?MATTHEWS: Tommy went through the initiation because the initiation is almost like ... As you can

see, I’m a Mason.
DEUTSCH: I didn’t notice that.

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

MATTHEWS: So you know there’s some obligations and some things that I have to be up to. That’s one of the organizations that I thought at that particular time that I joined that I need to be in. After that, that’s when I started my organization called the Shoe Shop Boys. But now, they don’t like to call themselves [that]. They say Shoe Shop Boys to Men. If they want to be Shoe Shop Boys to Men, I have no problem.

DEUTSCH: So now they’re men.MATTHEWS: They’re Shoe Shop Boys to Men.DEUTSCH: Now you teach, right.

MATTHEWS: I teach at Spingarn High School [2500 Benning Rd NE]. This is kind of like a strange thing. I had another friend named Dr. Freelander. Came and got me in 1993, and said, “Peterbug, I need you to save the shoe repair shop at Chamberlain High School [Potomac Avenue between 13th and 14thSE].”

I said, “Dr. Freelander, I’m not going to deal with these people, these people are crazy. Teaching? Public school is crazy.”

“Mr. Peterbug, I need you to come down and save it. Will you do that for me for six months?” Six months ... I’m still teaching.
DEUTSCH: Is Dr. Freelander part of DC Public Schools?

MATTHEWS: No, Dr. Freelander was an advocate, a community advocate for the shoe repair shop. He used to come in and get his shoes fixed all the time. Every time, he came up from Florida, he would come and get his shoes repaired.

So since 1993, I’m still trying to save the shoe repair shop at Chamberlain, but now I’m at Spingarn. So it’s been that long. They closed Chamberlain, moved me back to the high school where I graduated from, Phelps Vocational High School. Now, I’m a big man on campus now. I graduated now, now I’m teaching. I’ve still got some teachers over there still calling me “Little Matthews,” but, hey, now I’m not really mad because now I’m in them little meetings with you all! Yeah.

DEUTSCH: Now let me ask you this, when did you stop stuttering?MATTHEWS: In probably ... I’ve got to say I still stutter.DEUTSCH: There certainly hasn’t been a hint of it.

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MATTHEWS: On occasion.DEUTSCH: When you’re tired?

Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

MATTHEWS: When I’m tired. I guess when I’m kind of really excited. Oh, you know something like that. But probably 1984, when I ran for delegate for Jesse Jackson. And I won, and I went to San Francisco.

DEUTSCH: To the convention?
MATTHEWS: Yes ma’am.
MATTHEWS: I was the little people’s big candidate. John “Peterbug” Matthews. Had a song.DEUTSCH: And so that made you stop stuttering.

MATTHEWS: No, but it got me to a point where you had to make some speeches. You had to get up in front of people. So I had to practice all of those DC Teacher Harvard Street methods and put them in me. Do you know, it hurt because you had to go back, you had to relax, and then people call on you real quick, so you going to say something. You had to be ready, and you know what, that made me get ready. After that, I ran for School Board against Bob Boyd. I only lost to Bob Boyd by about 200 votes, so you know, I’m moving now.

Oh, you can’t tell Peterbug nothing because now what I’m doing, I understand the database. In 1989, I won the Minority Community Business Award from downtown. What do you call that place down there that runs everything in DC, the business people downtown? I forgot the name of the place. I won that award. We fixed 10,000 senior citizens’ shoes for free, and the way I knew we fixed them, I understood data. I got to get your name, address, and phone number. We didn’t have a computer. I still got the books. Some of them might have gone over to the other side, but I still have their names, and the service we did for them.

Because we did orthopedic work. I fixed their canes. Most of them had canes. Had to get the little rubber on them. And plus, they always have to get their Sunday shoes fixed because, guess what, all seniors go to church. You can’t tell me there are any seniors that don’t go to church.

But anyway, we did that. And then, I was hired because I used to work for Nadine [Winter, DC Council member]. I was Nadine’s first lieutenant because I’m the guy who’s got the grassroots people who can get out, put those posters up. I’ve got people who can work the polls. You come to me, I’ve got a man here

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

for eight hours, I’ve got a man here for two hours, I’ve got a man here for four hours. “Let’s go get Peterbug. He’s the organizer.”

And when I went to Nadine, and I asked Nadine, I said, “Nadine, you brought this person in here to be your campaign manager, give us some of that money. We’ve been helping you. We can help you even more. You spread that money through my people. Give them a little job. Give them $25, $30 or something like that. I’ve got this person to do that.”

I said, “Guess what, Nadine, we’re going to run against you.” That’s when Harold Brazil [DC Council member] came. We lost to Harold Brazil by 500 votes. We beat Harold Brazil and Nadine at Precinct 91. We spent $241. That was required—what you must have. I had children at the polls as soon as they got out of the school.

DEUTSCH: So what were you trying to do? Were you wanting to be on the City Council? Were you wanting to be in government? What was the goal?


MATTHEWS: The goal was to make sure that the people down the hill could get some services that the people up on the hill was getting. And during that time, there was down the hill, and there was up the hill. They might have said it was Capitol Hill, but we wouldn’t get any services at all. We wouldn’t get police response. We wouldn’t get any trash pick-up, street cleaning, programming.

And I said, “You know, look it’s time for some little folks to come up and be reckoned with,” and we needed somebody that could speak for the little folks. And I just made myself in charge of it. At least, I thought I did anyway.

So I kind of kissed my own little ego, and that was kind of a song [“Dr. Funkenstein”] that George Clinton said that says, “Look it, if you don’t kiss your ego, nobody else will.” You’ve got to pat yourself on the back one time, but not all the time. Because most of the time, I’m kind of humble because I really don’t want people to know really who I am. I just want the work to be done. It don’t matter who I am.

DEUTSCH: And when you say the work, what’s the work?
MATTHEWS: The work is be fair, help. If you can’t help, try to help.DEUTSCH: And something about children. You seem to care a lot about children.

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

MATTHEWS: I understood about children because I know what happened to me. I knew about not having a father, and how it can be much easier for one of my Shoe Shop Boys to Men to become a surrogate daddy to somebody, and that’s one of the requirements. Before you become a Shoe Shop Boys to Men, you must have at least one child that’s not your own that needs a daddy. And I always used to tell them, “You can come to Shoe Shop on Friday nights, and you can walk in there and pick you out a daddy if you need one because, guess what? I’ve got some daddies in there, and some men that will work.” And that’s been the whole thing we was doing. [In a later conversation, Matthews noted that “when I grew up, the rec teacher was the father of the whole village.”]

Plus, I’ve got to tell you, before that, we kind of worked at John Tyler. I worked at John Tyler as a volunteer, and you know who came over to interview us? Ted Koppel on Nightline [ABC News television news program]. Because at that time now, remember, the Potomac Gardens [public housing project, 1225 G Street SE] and that area was the deadliest street in America. The most dangerous street in America was down in front of the Salvation Army, 12th and G Street SE.

Ted Koppel came up and did a story on me. The story was about what we were doing in the schools: fostering parents, adopting—well, semi-adopting—children. Young men, trying to show them how to be a man. Well, really not being a man. Just showing you how to be a child. What we’ve encountered is that our children—five and six years old—everyone’s trying to treat them like they’re men and like they’re women. They’re children.

The only problem that I really, really have is with the Department of Recreation—because, you know, we don’t do any recreation anymore. I mean, we stuck on one sport, and if it ain’t football, it’s soccer, if it ain’t soccer, it’s basketball. We don’t have any archery. We don’t have any more track.

When they built this field over there, they should have built the track around it. And then the playground is locked. What are they going to do, tear up the field? The field is supposed to be tore up if you’re working, if you’ve got activity. The field is for the people in the community. Why are you locking the children out of the field?

DEUTSCH: Is this field locked?

MATTHEWS: It’s locked at night to protect something. I’m trying to figure out what to protect. What are the people going to do, cut the artificial turf up? Anyway, from there, we did a program with the Timberland Company. Ok, we’re moving now. They told us that we could not repair the Timberland boots. It was those hustling boots that the children wear, the light tan, because they said you have to bring them back to us or throw them away.

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DEUTSCH: This is a policy of Timberland?

Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

MATTHEWS: It’s a policy of Timberland. My brother and I took off the soles and got some Vibram soles the same color—honey color, neutral. Used some stuff, some kind of tone, acetone. And we wiped them down with the acetone, then put the sealant on, and then the acetone would go and make it stick even better.

So what happened, right before we did that, Bradley—the one that ran for President, Bill Bradley—we was on his show [“Biography Presents: Uncommon Americans,” an A&E Network special aired on December 28, 1997]. “Man Called Bug.”

DEUTSCH: Because of the repairing of the shoes?

MATTHEWS: The repairing of shoes and pulling children up by the bootstraps. He compared me with ... “The only difference between Walt Disney and Peterbug is that Walt Disney had money, and Peterbug has a dream.” And they stayed with me for three days—waking up in the morning, getting in the car, driving around and, you know, folks really looking at me now. You know I’m telling loads of people in the community. I laugh. But all the children was involved.

They came in, that was when I had the football team. I started the Rocket Hornets football team in 1993. At that time, before they became the Men, they were the Shoe Shop Boys. So we bought all the football equipment. We bought everything. We bought that grill that’s out there smoking now. We thank God that the elements didn’t rot it out and didn’t kill it. So we had that football team up until 1999. In 1999, I wanted to go and see whether I could go coach high school children. I coached football three years and I said, “I can’t take that.”

DEUTSCH: Too much pressure?
MATTHEWS: Too much pressure, too much pressure. And besides, I was losing time in what I really,

really like to do—save souls and heel people.

DEUTSCH: Heel people. E-e-l.

MATTHEWS: Yes e-e-l.

DEUTSCH: I have to tell my husband that. He loves puns. Save souls and heel people. So what’s next for you? What are your goals now? What do you think you haven’t done?

MATTHEWS: I’m going to tell you what my biggest goal is: to take five young children with me on a fishing trip. Not on a boat, because boats and myself do not have good times together. But we can surf

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

cast. And I’ve got this new thing that came about. I went fishing one day with somebody, and it hooked on like something that is in my body. I started out with two reels from the Salvation Army. I’m at the Bass [Pro] Shop buying stuff, learning how to make my own hook, pulling up stuff.

DEUTSCH: Where do you go fishing?
MATTHEWS: Under the 11th Street bridge. Not Baltimore, not Maryland, but you know what? The

catfish under the 11th Street is getting cleaner and cleaner and cleaner.

DEUTSCH: Yeah, got some pretty good catfish?

MATTHEWS: Let me tell this. They buy the catfish at the wharf. I shouldn’t say that. You know that? They catch the catfish in the Anacostia River, and they sell it to the folks at the wharf. I haven’t ate any catfish yet, but I’m waiting to see somebody because they’ve seen folks eat the fish. But how did they sell it?

I ain’t going to get into that. But normally, we catch, and we release. But what I really want to do is take the fish, tag the fish—I don’t know, you might get into trouble for that—tag the fish with my name on it, and if anyone else catches it, it will say Peterbug Shoe Repair.

DEUTSCH: Probably not allowed.

MATTHEWS: Probably not allowed. So I’m trying to figure it out. I’ve been talking to some people and say, “How do you tag catfish so that you won’t kill them or nothing like that?” I’ve been working with some people, so I’m hoping.

DEUTSCH: So how many shoes do you repair a year?
MATTHEWS: We’ve really never counted them. I think I might be doing at least 50 to 100 pair a

month. [Or] less—every two weeks. This is the only nonprofit shoe repair in the country.DEUTSCH: So are you teaching kids shoe repair in here?

MATTHEWS: Teaching them here and at Spingarn. I have a class on Mondays and Wednesday, and I have a class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays, I got to have at least one day for me, just to look at stuff.

DEUTSCH: So the kids who come here, are they just like neighborhood kids who come here after school?

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

MATTHEWS: Neighborhood children, folks who look me up in some kind of way. They put me on Google, so they look me up on Google, says I teach. So we’ve got folks from the neighborhood, got folks from Maryland, Virginia.

DEUTSCH: How many kids do you have, do you think?
MATTHEWS: I try to take no more ... In the Monday’s class, we’ve got six, and we’ve got about five

on the Tuesday class because I want to make sure I give them ...DEUTSCH: All boys?

MATTHEWS: No, we’ve got women. We’ve got majority women, and then we’ve got men. That’s strange.

DEUTSCH: Now you say women. Are they older?
MATTHEWS: Yeah older women, like teens and young adults, and plus some folks who have some

designs, have some sketches, who want to be a shoemaker.DEUTSCH: Because you know how to do that.

MATTHEWS: And what they want to do is put it together. Say, “We’re going to put it on paper, and now we want to come to you so that you can help us put it together.” I say, “No problem.” I say, “If you put that much trust in me, I can help, and I’ll go out all the way.”

DEUTSCH: So you do all that for no—

MATTHEWS: They don’t pay a fee. The only thing I ask them to do is one thing: buy your own tools, and if you want to give me something and you see somebody outside in front of this door asking for some change, give them some.

I mean, the main thing is that we’ve got beans, we’ve got potatoes, we’ve got corn meal, and we’ve got a beer sometime or soda, gas in the car. I’m rich. And folks look at me, and say, “You’re crazy.” And I say, “I know, but I’m rich.” If I get another kind of vegetable, then I know that I’m making some money, but I stay with my basics, and you know what, I bake my cornbread in a frying pan. So you know I’m old time.

DEUTSCH: Oh I do too.

MATTHEWS: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right, that’s right. That’s the best one, isn’t it? That’s right. I’m telling you. Look, I am so happy. If I could have done a couple of other things, I certainly would have done it another kind of way. But this was the life. I didn’t choose this. So what I tried to do was really

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

expand upon what I had. I have a speech disability, and what I was trying to do was let folks know, “Hey look, because I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t get my words out at one time, I still had something to say.”

DEUTSCH: And that’s a sort of lesson that you can look at other people and say, you know, they have something to say too.

MATTHEWS: Right. Now the children that they have in my class is all MR’s. Mentally retarded at Spingarn High School. I’m not a special ed[ucation] teacher, but all my children in my class are wonderful children because I understand the disability. What happened, we wrote a song, and I want you to hear it. I’m going to play it for you. I wrote this song in 1977. All my students know this song.

[Plays recording. Lyrics include: “Hey, Number One. Can you fix my shoes? I got to get into the groove. I got to get into the groove. Hey Number One.” Repeats.]

DEUTSCH: Let’s go back to that alley where you grew up. Tell me about the tomato factory back there.

MATTHEWS: Ok. At 121⁄2 Street alley, there was a tomato factory where the majority of the people in the alley worked. And what they used to do was bring tractor-trailers in, fill them with green tomatoes, and they put them in the tomato factory, and then the next thing we knew, the tomatoes were red. And they used to bag all of those tomatoes, and then another tractor tailor would come in and take the tomatoes that they [then] wrapped up. Put three or four of them in a bag, a case—those little plastic things they used at the Safeway. And we used to walk to the Safeway, and say, “Hey, those came from the tomato factory.”

DEUTSCH: And did you get paid for working back there?
MATTHEWS: Oh yes. I think it was like $1.75 an hour, so that was some form of income that was

coming in.
DEUTSCH: So you’ve seen a lot of changes in the neighborhood?

MATTHEWS: Yes. The place where we’re sitting in now, we couldn’t come across here. [In a subsequent conversation, Matthews called Pennsylvania Avenue “our railroad tracks, the dividing line between poor and middle class.”] I mean if we came across this place at that time, then the police would stop us and ask us where we were going. Then, it changed, and you could come across here.

Now, I think I’ve seen it change three times in my time on the planet. Three times. I told you the first time that the only three people that was white in the neighborhood was police, the corner store, and the

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Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project John “Peterbug” Matthews Interview, February 11, 2012

insurance guy. Then, it became the police became black, the insurance man was black, and the corner store man was black.

It’s going back together now. Making another change. Now you have interracial police. Now you have ... The insurance man, he don’t have to come to your house anymore. You can go to the internet, and then the corner store person is kind of interracial because sometimes it might be this, it might be that.

DEUTSCH: It might be Korean.

MATTHEWS: Right, because the only time we had a Korean in our neighborhood was a place called Kuhn’s. They used to be where they built the new Marine Barracks on Eighth Street across from the Navy Yard Valet. The Navy Yard Valet used to be on the other side of the street before it moved to where it is now.

It used to be a nightclub. It wasn’t a nightclub. It was a saloon where folks came in when they got off from work, bought their beer, and bought Chinese yak. That was noodles with gravy and onions all in it. Pork yak and stuff like that.

And the Korean and the Chinese washed clothes. That was the laundry. We never in this particular neighborhood had Korean or Chinese that had a variety store or something like that. It didn’t happen. But yes, I’ve seen the change. But I’m saying, I’ve seen the change from better to worse to even better now because I understand now that I want the same thing that everybody else wants. I want that walkable and that livable community. I want it to be safe. I want to come out of my house, and I ain’t got to worry about whether or not the boogie man is out there. And I understand the boogie man still lives, but I don’t want the boogie man in my neighborhood.

DEUTSCH: We all want the same thing.
MATTHEWS: That’s right. I don’t want the boogie man around.DEUTSCH: That’s a good place to end.


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