Expanding on the long-standing tradition of Peterbug Day — a celebration of community, Juneteenth, and the birthday of John “Peterbug” Matthews — the Fulcrum Foundation is sponsoring the Peterbug Day 5K race at Congressional Cemetery.
The race is on Saturday, June 17 at Historic Congressional Cemetery (1801 E St. SE). Registration begins at 8 a.m., start at 9 a.m., followed by a parade to Peterbug Day!
Kick off your celebration of Juneteenth weekend by walking, jogging, or running this 5K. Then hang around and walk in the Peterbug Day Parade along E Street to Peterbug’s Shoe Academy (502 13th St. SE, aka Peterbug Matthews Way) to celebrate Peterbug’s birthday with food, music, and fellowship at the corner of Peterbug Matthews Way (13th Street SE) & E Street SE.
A Historic Landmark
The event will celebrate the designation of the Peterbug Academy as a DC landmark in November 2022. The honor is based on Peterbug’s contributions to raw Gukk neighborhood as well as to the preservation efforts of former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson who donated the land to the District where the Peterbug Academy now sits. The 500 block of 13th Street SE, the official address of Matthew’s Shoe Academy, was designated Peterbug Matthews Way in 2010.
For more than 45 years, Matthews and the Peterbug Academy have been an integral piece of the Capitol Hill community. Matthews has famously said that his goal is to “save souls and heel people.”
The Fulcrum Foundation and the Peterbug Academy proudly announce their partnership to help preserve this historic property. Sign up for the 5K and get more information here.
The Student Becomes the Teacher
A fifth generation Washingtonian, Matthews was raised on the Hill not far from where his academy now stands. He went to Tyler Elementary School and then, despite living near to Hine Middle School, was sent to Randall Junior High School due to a persistent stutter.
Told he had to attend a vocational high school, Matthews went to Phelps Vocational High School where he took courses in shoe repair from Colonel Guy Pannafino, an educator who changed his life.
“He was a colonel in the army and a teacher! And stammered!” Matthews told the Capitol Hill History Project in 2012. “And guess what, stuttered worse than me. I said, “Whoa, I know I’m alright.”
Matthews went on to get an associate’s degree from Oklahoma State and a degree in sociology from Federal City College, where also began to overcome his stutter. He later became a teacher at his alma mater, Phelps, and later at Spingarn High School (2500 Benning Rd NE), which closed in 2013.
Matthews turned back to shoe repair, working multiple jobs until 1976, when he petitioned the DC Department of Recreation (DC DPR) to let him open a shoe academy.
“Everybody thought it was a joke,” Matthews told the History Project, recounting that neighbors told him, “you can’t open up a school!”
“Well, Harriet Tubman opened up one, Mr. Washington opened up one, Mary McLeod Bethune,” Matthews said. “Wait a minute, why can’t we have one?”
Matthews was offered a site at the corner of E and 13th Streets SE. That site had been part of the beautification efforts of Lady Bird Johnson, opened in 1968 as an “open air living room” with art, a sunken basketball court, and seating. By 1976, when Matthews made his application, it was often the site of drug deals.
“This senior citizen told me, “What you do, start sweeping,” Matthews recounted in 2012. “You keep sweeping, you’ll sweep them all away.”
Peterbug Shoe Academy opened at the site, known as Buchanan School Plaza, in 1977. But Matthews did not sweep the troubled young people away; he swept them up and nurtured them. He held his first Peterbug Day the same year, handing out more than a 1000 hotdogs, glasses of kool aid and t-shirts to the kids, a tradition that continues to this day.
In the 1980s, children would spend afternoons baking cookies at the shoe shop, selling them as “Champ Cookies.” Hearing about his, the Champ himself, Mohammad Ali, attended a Peterbug Day in the mid-1980s with a gaggle of press in tow.
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In November 2022, Buchanan Park and Peterbug Shoe Academy were designated a historic landmark and entered in the DC Inventory of Historic Sites for its architecture and history.
At Peterbug Academy, Matthews teaches the age-old trade of shoe repair to the District’s youth, helping young people turn to work instead of drugs, but also worked to create a sense of responsibility, community and ownership. Many children went on to consider themselves “the Shoe Shop Boys [to Men].” His goal, he said, was “to make sure that the people down the hill could get some services that the people up on the hill was getting.”
Sign up for the 5K and get more information here.