Remembering Gilbert Fuller Sr., the ‘Mayor of Germantown’

A few weeks ago, Gilbert Fuller closed his shop at 6327 Germantown Ave. and went home to die.

The shoes sat quietly on the shelves of Fuller’s Expert Shoe Repair and Shoe Shine. The ashtrays caught no flaming embers. The screen door remained silent, too, as an institution began to fade away with him.

He was an old-school gentleman of warmth and grace, a hard worker and a man of principle.

1931-2012

In his 81 years, Mr. Fuller saw the world change tremendously, and not at all.

Born before television and antibiotics, he attended a segregated elementary school where his black teachers taught him how to survive in a white world.

Now, we have the internet and heart transplants, but a black kid still can’t get a fair chance. There are fewer people left to teach them like Mr. Fuller had, or as he had been taught himself.

The closure of Mr. Fuller’s shop sends shivers up and down this part of the city.

Every day, the regulars stopped in to occupy its many seats, bathe in the warmth of the cigarette smoke and discuss politics, history (a lot of history), racism, the weather and anything else they could think of. No politician ran for office without visiting Fuller’s early and often.

A kind soul

Despite the lessons of his experience, his heart was big enough to welcome people like me, who wanted to make the world right, even though he knew it would never happen.

I rarely saw another white person at the shop, but Mr. Fuller made me welcome there, read my articles, saved copies and shared them with his customers.

We all sat around discussing my latest slavery research, and I got to learn what it really meant, to the people who mattered most. His encouragement and good humor kept me going through dark times. Believe me, when Mr. Fuller worked himself up for an occasional “Right on!”, the spirit was with you.

In the secular white world where I grew up, when people die, they’re gone.

I got to know Mr. Fuller as an elder in his community, in an African-American context where you are inseparably linked to those who have come before you and the unborn who will someday follow.

I have lost one of my most stalwart friends, and I will miss him terribly. But I am proud that he will now be an Ancestor. He’s going to work this job to perfection, like everything he ever did.

Gilbert Fuller Sr. died Aug. 12 after a lengthy bout with cancer. According to an obituary in the Daily News, he “had lived in Germantown since 1954, when he and his family were the first blacks on Morton Street.” His daughter Barbara Fuller told the Philadelphia Tribune that “he was a surrogate father to some, a mentor, an educational advisor, as well as a dedicated friend.”

Services were held this past weekend. Fuller was buried Saturday at Ivy Hill Cemetery.

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