Black Spokane: The Civil Rights Struggle in the Inland Northwest

Black Spokane: The Civil Rights Struggle in the Inland Northwest

by Dwayne A. Mack

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In 1981, decades before mainstream America elected Barack Obama, James Chase became the first African American mayor of Spokane, Washington, with the overwhelming support of a majority-white electorate. Chase’s win failed to capture the attention of historians—as had the century-long evolution of the black community in Spokane. In Black Spokane: The Civil Rights Struggle in the Inland Northwest, Dwayne A. Mack corrects this oversight—and recovers a crucial chapter in the history of race relations and civil rights in America.

As early as the 1880s, Spokane was a destination for black settlers escaping the racial oppression in the South—settlers who over the following decades built an infrastructure of churches, businesses, and social organizations to serve the black community. Drawing on oral histories, interviews, newspapers, and a rich array of other primary sources, Mack sets the stage for the years following World War II in the Inland Northwest, when an influx of black veterans would bring about a new era of racial issues. His book traces the earliest challenges faced by the NAACP and a small but sympathetic white population as Spokane became a significant part of the national civil rights struggle. International superstars such as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and Hazel Scott figure in this story, along with charismatic local preachers, entrepreneurs, and lawyers who stepped forward as civic leaders. 

These individuals’ contributions, and the black community’s encounters with racism, offer a view of the complexity of race relations in a city and a region not recognized historically as centers of racial strife. But in matters of race—from the first migration of black settlers to Spokane, through the politics of the Cold War and the civil rights movement, to the successes of the 1970s and ’80s—Mack shows that Spokane has a story to tell, one that this book at long last incorporates into the larger history of twentieth-century America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806147123
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 08/20/2014
Series: Race and Culture in the American West Series , #8
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
File size: 13 MB
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About the Author

Dwayne A. Mack is Carter G. Woodson Chair in African American History and Professor of History at Berea College, author of numerous articles on African American history, and co-editor of Beginning a Career in Academia: A Guide for Graduate Students of Color.

Read an Excerpt

Black Spokane

The Civil Rights Struggle in the Inland Northwest

By Dwayne A. Mack


Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4712-3


Paving the Way

Spokane's Black Pioneers and the Settlement of Washington State

During slavery blacks were treated inhumanely; even most free blacks were refused citizenship and disenfranchised. Some managed to escape the horror of slavery and their repressive conditions by traveling westward along the Oregon Trail. In the mid-1800s a small number of blacks moved into the Washington Territory. Circumventing the prevailing racist conditions, some of these early Washington pioneers, through self-determination and hard work, became influential business and civic leaders within their respective communities. More importantly, these individuals laid a strong social and economic undergirding that facilitated late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century black migration into the state and ultimately the Spokane area.

Among the early African American pioneers in the Pacific Northwest was successful farmer and cattle trader George Washington Bush. In 1844 Bush left Missouri with his family and several other families and started an eight-month wagon trek across the two thousand miles of the Oregon Trail. They migrated north of the Columbia River into what eventually became the state of Washington. A "whites only" clause in the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 prevented Bush from owning the land he settled on. However, five years later, Bush and other community members successfully petitioned the Washington Territorial Legislature to allot Bush a 640-acre homestead. His land formed the area called Bush Prairie in what would become Thurston County, Washington.

Another black Pacific Northwest pioneer, George Washington, was born in 1817 in Frederick County, Virginia, to an enslaved father and a white mother. During his childhood Washington was sold to J. G. Cochran and his wife, Anna, who relocated their household (along with Washington) to Missouri. In 1850 Washington and his owners left Missouri in a wagon train. Their four-month journey ended in the Oregon Territory, where they stayed for two years. In 1852 the Cochrans freed Washington. To escape racial discrimination in the area, Washington then traveled with his family north to Lewis County, where in 1875 he founded the town of Centerville, later known as Centralia, on a 640-acre homestead. The town got its name from its central location between the Columbia River and Puget Sound.

Settlement of Spokane

The city of Spokane in eastern Washington, originally known as Spokane Falls, was settled first by the Spokane Indians ("people of the sun"). Pioneers were attracted to the scenic beauty of the territory located at the northern part of the Columbian Plateau. Surrounding the territory was a landscape of fertile lands, wooded foothills, bunch-grass, and mountains. Spokane Falls offered an untapped water power supply, and its diverse environment of woodlands, agricultural land, and minerals encouraged early European migration to the area.

The area's attractiveness and accessibility encouraged beaver fur traders from areas such as British Columbia to migrate there. Initially, white settlers conducted fur trading with the territory's Indian inhabitants. During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the Pacific Fur Company, the Northwest Company, and the Hudson's Bay Company operated their fur trading businesses on the future site of Spokane. The area's first American settlers, J. J. Downing, S. R. Scranton, and R. M. Benjamin, arrived in 1871 and opened a sawmill at the southern base of Spokane Falls. On February 13, 1878, territory officials platted Spokane Falls, and on November 29, 1881, following the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway, the territorial legislature incorporated the town of Spokane Falls. With the opening of Fort Spokane in 1880, an active railway system, and a gold and silver mining boom in nearby Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, in 1883, Spokane Falls attracted thousands more white American settlers. Successful white settlement, however, occurred at the expense of the area's Indian population, which dwindled through warfare with soldiers. Those who survived were relegated to nearby reservations.

A severe fire destroyed most of the town in 1889, and in 1891, after the community was reconstructed, it was renamed Spokane. Spokane grew rapidly in the last decade of the nineteenth century. By 1900 its population of about 37,000 people made it the second largest city in Washington, behind Seattle at 80,671, and the largest inland city north of Salt Lake City and west of Minneapolis. Most of early twentieth-century Spokane was built close to the banks of the Spokane River, with a large flour mill and several hotels providing employment for some of its population.

With woodlands to the north, fertile wheat fields to the south in the Palouse, cattle-grazing lands to the west, and productive silver and gold mines to the east in northern Idaho and western Montana, Spokane rapidly became the trading and shipping center for the "Inland Empire," which included eastern Washington, northern Idaho, northeastern Oregon, western Montana, and southern British Columbia.

The First Black Settler

The passage of civil rights legislation in the state of Washington in 1890 offered African American settlers some social freedom. Washington's first legislature passed a progressive public accommodations law, prohibiting discrimination based on race, and political leaders, unlike their counterparts in neighboring states, refused to pass laws that sanctioned segregated schools and banned interracial marriages or black suffrage. The southern post–Civil War economy also encouraged migration into Washington; competition for jobs was fierce among both whites and blacks, which in turn intensified racial tension and animosity against African Americans. The South's racially oppressive black codes, as well as the forthcoming Jim Crow laws and domestic terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, prevented most African Americans from achieving economic stability in that region. The Washington Territory's plentiful uninhabited space allowed blacks to purchase farmland land inexpensively, escaping the economic oppression of sharecropping in the South.

The first settlers of Spokane included both white and black pioneers. African Americans were mostly scattered throughout the city limits and resided in rental properties, existing homes they purchased, or houses they built. Some of these blacks were educated and skilled and soon emerged as successful entrepreneurs. They joined religious and civic leaders who arrived in Spokane, even before Washington was admitted as a state in 1889. Among these original settlers was a thirty-three-year-old African American Civil War veteran named Daniel K. Oliver, a former resident of Franklin County, Pennsylvania. He migrated to Spokane in November 1878, shortly after the first whites arrived.

Oliver was a skilled carpenter and budding capitalist who, in 1887, invested in the Wiscombe, Oliver, and Johnson Wood Mill and became part of management at the company. Later he became involved in other business ventures in mining and real estate. In 1896 Spokanites elected Oliver to serve a two-year term on the city council, making him the highest-ranking black elected official in Washington at that time and the first African American to hold public office in Spokane County. In a move to encourage permanent black settlement in the city, he built Oliver Hall, a multistory building that served as a meeting space for African American organizations.

Other blacks who migrated to Spokane achieved similar, if less spectacular, success. In 1887 John B. Parker, a native of Sandusky, Ohio, opened Spokane's first black-owned barbershop. A year later, Mississippi native Emmett Hercules Holmes relocated to Spokane with his family and soon became a prominent civic leader. During his first years in Spokane, he worked service jobs as a railroad porter, a hotel bellhop, and a butler. In 1904, Holmes became Spokane's first black county employee when he served as deputy county treasurer. In 1890, in an effort to promote spirituality within the small black community, Holmes cofounded Spokane's second-largest church, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Peter B. Barrow, Sr., also capitalized on socioeconomic opportunities in early Spokane. In doing so, he became arguably the most influential of Spokane's early settlers. Part of Barrow's success story is similar to that of his contemporary Booker T. Washington. Born a slave in Virginia in 1840, he escaped and went on to serve honorably in the Union Army. During Reconstruction he moved his wife Julia and their children to Bovina, Mississippi, where he served two terms in the Mississippi state legislature. Because of the prevailing racist conditions in the Deep South, Barrow moved his family in 1889 to Deer Lake, Washington, in Stevens County, an adjacent county north of Spokane. By 1900 he had purchased land in Deer Lake, becoming the area's first black landowner. A practitioner of activist-educator Booker T. Washington's principle that blacks should work as productive and prosperous independent farmers, Barrow founded a successful black business, Deer Lake Irrigated Orchards Company, in 1898. He took advantage of the area's farming opportunities by purchasing the 140-acre apple orchard for $15,600. He grew a variety of apples in his orchard, which became the largest in the Inland Northwest. The property was irrigated by sophisticated pumping machinery, producing thousands of apples that the company shipped throughout the United States. Barrow, a staunch supporter of self-determination, helped the black community by employing more than a hundred African American workers. In addition to hiring black employees, the company allowed both blacks and whites to invest in the orchard through stock purchases.

In 1890 Barrow helped establish the first permanent African American Baptist Church in Spokane—Calvary Baptist Church—eventually moving there to become its pastor. During Calvary's first thirty years the church site moved frequently, but in 1927 it relocated to East 203 Third Avenue, where it stands today. Barrow continued his political pursuits in the state of Washington. He became active in the Populist Party, serving in 1896 as party elector, a politically prestigious position at that time.

In 1906 Barrow died tragically in a Tacoma streetcar accident, but the company and his entrepreneurial spirit continued under the leadership of his son Peter, Jr. In keeping with his father's corporate structure, young Barrow's friend and business partner, Frank A. Stokes, served as vice president; Peter's son Charles as secretary; and Charles Parker, another Barrow family friend, as the treasurer and agriculturalist.

Rev. Peter Barrow's commitment to black empowerment in Spokane resonated throughout the early twentieth century, years after his death. In 1911 the Barrow family launched The Citizen, an African American issues-oriented newspaper published by Charles Barrow. Besides operating the newspaper, Charles became a member of the Typographical Union and owned the Quality Printing Company in downtown Spokane on West Riverside Avenue.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, the success of the Barrow family and other early pioneers inspired more blacks to migrate to Spokane. Nonetheless, the African American population remained small (and at times even decreased) compared to the white population, which also remained stagnant through the World War I era. In fact, the lack of jobs out west led the vast majority of southern migrants to avoid the region in favor of closer industrial cities in the Midwest and South. As a result, in 1900, out of a total population of 36,848, African Americans in Spokane totaled only 376, representing about 1 percent of residents.

Black Cultural Expression

As African Americans continued to arrive in Spokane, they formed social, cultural, and religious organizations similar to those created in other parts of the country. These organizations reveal a story of forged alliances between the old guard and "newcomers" that allowed both groups to cope with racism and discrimination. Several black churches ministered to the spiritual and social needs of Spokane's black community. They sponsored picnics, dances, athletic teams, and literary societies—group activities that formed the core of the community.

Calvary Baptist Church, the first black church in the city, established in 1890, and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1901, served the bulk of Spokane's black population. Other churches that served and galvanized the black community included the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, St. Matthews Baptist Church, and St. Thomas Episcopal Church.

The pastors of these respective churches united the community by extending their services, regardless of an individual's church or religious affiliation. Rev. Emmett B. Reed became pastor of Calvary in 1919, and one resident fondly described him as "very nice and very fine, and [he] had the community at heart." Every January 1, he telephoned blacks in and out of his congregation and cheerfully said, "This is Reverend Reed. Happy New Year." Because of his accommodating appeal, parishioners from other churches frequently attended Calvary. Even youth social groups, such as the Allen Christian Endeavor League from Bethel A.M.E., convened regularly at Reverend Reed's church.

Besides providing spiritual guidance, Spokane's black churches also helped new black residents acclimate to an unfamiliar environment. Members of the various black churches welcomed newcomers to the city by helping them find housing. More importantly, they directed them in behaving properly in public and in avoiding businesses that discriminated against blacks. The more settled residents advised those African American migrants unaccustomed to the local mores, helping them avoid jail or physical and verbal assault by whites.

African American churches offered some of the city's black population several other services, as well. For example, Calvary assisted longtime Spokane residents and newcomers in finding gainful employment, and in times of family crises, such as death, the church pastor was immediately called upon to meet the family's spiritual needs. Geraldine Gardner, a longtime black resident, lost a child. She recalled that because her husband worked outside of Spokane, her pastor was called first to her assistance.

The black church also served as an unofficial welfare agency for African Americans who needed financial assistance. The efforts of churches proved valuable especially during times of hardship, such as occasioned by layoffs or the death of a family's primary income earner. Churches such as Calvary, Bethel A.M.E., and Morning Star maintained a "Sinking Fund" that allotted their members money for delinquent bills. Gardner gratefully recalled that the church on two occasions assisted her family in paying its electricity and water bills and even supplied groceries. On another occasion, after Gardner's husband was laid off from his job, Rev. Reed gave the family money to pay their light bill. Similarly, a long-term black resident and member of Morning Star, James Ralph Jones, remembered his church assisting members who needed money for heating fuel. At Christmastime the church also prepared baskets for less fortunate families.

Calvary, serving as a bonding agent in the community and a safe social outlet for Spokane's black youth, held dances in its basement and promoted outdoor carnivals. The church sponsored dinners, and several families participated in cooking occasional Sunday meals for members and visitors. Other church events included "old fashioned icebox socials." During these events, the community elders brought homemade ice cream to the church. They would put it in individual ice cream boxes and auction each one off. Churchgoers also often picnicked at two of the city's popular parks, Franklin and Manito. Similarly, on holidays such as Mother's Day, Easter, and Christmas, the church became a place of pageantry, where well-dressed blacks filled the sanctuary and socialized. "So you see," as one longtime resident reminisced, "it [the church] wasn't just [about] religion; it was social."

As Quintard Taylor described in his study on black Seattle, African Americans "were bound together by an intricate web of mutually reinforcing kin, fraternal, religious, and social relationships." Often those blacks who did "not belong to the same church nevertheless joined the same social club or fraternal order, met at picnics and dances, or other community functions" and organizations. Such was also the case in Spokane. There, several secular black organizations, including the fraternal lodges, women's clubs, the Booker T. Washington Community Center, and other social service institutions, evolved from local churches. These fraternal organizations, for example, "had, after churches, the most broad-based membership" in Spokane. The orders included African Americans from various social, economic, and religious circles.


Excerpted from Black Spokane by Dwayne A. Mack. Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Paving the Way: Spokane's Black Pioneers and the Settlement of Washington State,
2. The Impact of the Second Great Migration on Spokane,
3. Responding to Racial Discrimination in the Inland Northwest,
4. The Elusive Double Victory: Race Relations during the Postwar Period,
5. The Momentum Swings: The Struggle for Racial Equality during the 1950s,
6. Challenging Racial Barriers in the 1960s,
7. Political Currents in Post–Civil Rights Era Spokane: Black Empowerment,

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