| Chap. 1 | Chap.
2 | Chap. 3 | Chap.
4 | Chap. 5 | Chap.
6 | Chap. 7 | Chap.
8 | Chap. 9
The Black Urban West, 1880-1940
This chapter includes vignettes which describe
the experiences of black western urbanites, who outside of Texas
and Oklahoma, were the majority of African American westerners
by the turn of the century. Vignette one, William Grose and
Robert Moran describes the initial encounter of a future Seattle
shipbuilder with the young city and one of its earliest black
residents. The second vignette, Houston's Fourth Ward, describes
the rapid post-Civil War growth of Texas's largest black community.
Biddy Mason and Post Civil War Los Angeles describes a black
woman whose real estate holdings in this rapidly growing city
eventually generated much wealth which she used to establish
African American community institutions in the city. The East
Bay black urban community is examined in A Black Community Emerges
in Oakland. Western urban public school segregation is described
in the next three vignettes: School Segregation in the West:
A Defense, School Segregation in the West: A Critique and School
Segregation: Tucson, Arizona. Helena and Topeka profile two
African American communities in small communities in the region.
The vignette, "The Western Tuskegee" describes a briefly
successful institution near Topeka, Kansas modeled after the
most famous black college in the United States. Black Omaha
and the Red Scare: The Court House Riot, depicts the single
worst lynching anywhere in the West while Jack Johnson: A Social
History and The Reaction to Jack Johnson describes the response
to his 1910 defeat of Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nevada while Bessie
Coleman: Pioneer Aviator describes the first African American
to get a pilot's license. W.E.B. DuBois Visits the Pacific Northwest
provides one black leader's assessment of race relations in
the region in 1913 while Langston Hughes in Kansas profiles
the influence of a western childhood on the most important of
the Harlem Renaissance writers. Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro
Improvement Association is described in The UNIA on the West
Coast and Marcus Garvey: A Seattle Woman Remembers. Black writers
in the West are profiled in the vignettes A Black Western Literary
Tradition, Wallace Thurman in the West, Langston Hughes in Kansas,
and Langston Hughes Confronts Segregation. We get a glimpse
of black western political activism in Beatrice Cannady: Portland
Activist and A Protest in Denver, 1932. Black entertainment
in the region is traced through the following vignettes: Jazz
in the West: The "Territorial" Bands, Central Avenue:
The "Pulse" of Black Los Angeles and Black Hollywood
in the 1920s. Finally a legendary UCLA sports figure is described
in Kenny Washington at UCLA, 1937.
Terms for Week Seven:
- William Grose
- Robert C. Owens
- Pullman Porters
- Fourth Ward
- William L. Eagleson
- Rev. Jack Yates, Antioch Baptist Church
- Western Tuskegee
- Court House Riot, 1919
- Jack Johnson
- Bessie Coleman
- Langston Hughes
- Wallace Thurman
- Beatrice Cannady
- Territorial Bands
- Stepin Fetchit
- Hattie McDaniel
- Central Avenue \Los Angeles
- Kenny Washington
WILLIAM GROSE AND ROBERT MORAN
As many of you have read, Seattle African
American pioneer William Grose “staked” Robert Moran,
who would eventually build the first steel ships in Seattle
and establish the largest shipbuilding company in the Pacific
Northwest. Moran, however arrived in Seattle in 1875 with ten
cents and asked for and received crucial help from Grose like
so many other down-on-their-luck Seattle newcomers. In the account
below provided earlier today by one of the Moran descendants
who now lives in Renton, Robert Moran describes his initial
encounter with Grose and Seattle on that cold, rainy November
day. Note Moran’s impressions of Seattle as a “frontier”
I arrived in San Francisco in October 1875.
My age would be eighteen the following January. I had no relative
or friend on the coast, and as 1875 was a very depressed economic
period, I could not secure employment in San Francisco, and
as my cash reserve ran low, I gave my last $15 to the Goodale-Perkins
Steamship Company for a steerage ticket to Seattle. We were
fed on “salt horse” and California red potatoes
on the voyage up the coast and I was dumped without with breakfast
on Yesler’s wharf, then the only deep-water dock on the
Seattle waterfront, at six o’clock in the morning, November
17, 1875. Seattle’s population at the time was about fifteen
As my capital account was then reduced to
ten cents, I was in a very embarrassing social and economic
condition. As I walked up the dock that November morning before
daylight, it was, as was natural at that time of year, raining.
I picked up a scent, about as a dog would looking for his breakfast.
It led me to a restaurant operated by Bill Gross. Some of you
may recall that fine five hundred weight colored man who operated
what he named “Our House.” Well, it certainly proved
to be my house. As I entered, I told Bill I had just arrived
by the San Francisco steamer, was without financial resources,
and if my faced looked all right, I would like to negotiate
a credit until I could secure employment to build up a financial
reserve. We concluded satisfactory credit terms, and on a new
economic start in life, I got my breakfast on credit.
Bill was a fine cook and administered his
own kitchen, with Mrs. Bill as dishwasher. Seattle was not then
advanced in the culinary arts to a point where it seemed necessary
to have short dressed, silk stockinged [sic], permanent waved
waitresses. The facts are that there was no available waiter
material of female gender in those days. And none was needed,
as far as Bill was concerned. He had cut a half-moon opening
in the partition between kitchen and dining room. Bill served
in the kitchen, all on one plate, passed it through the half
moon, and called the patron to “Come and Get it.”
That breakfast was pork sausage and flapjacks with coffee. That
was the scent I had picked up on my way up the dock that morning.
Bill had the window open and I presume that was his method of
advertising his fare.
Source: “Robert Moran Address”
in Malcolm E. Moran, ed., Pioneer Memories, (Seattle: 1939)
BERIAH BROWN ON CIVIL RIGHTS IN SEATTLE, 1874
When the enrollment of an African American
student at the University of Washington in 1874 stirred controversy
including complaints of white parents to the Board of Regents
and the very public withdrawal of some students by an angry
parent described as “an ardent and active Republican politician,”
Beriah Brown, editor of the Puget Sound Dispatch, defended the
right of the African American student in an editorial which
appears below. The names of the African American student and
the “ardent Republican” are not known. Brown was
elected Mayor of Seattle in 1878 when the town had approximately
3,000 residents including 19 African Americans. The University
(which was essentially a high school at the time) had about
100 students in total.
Bitter complaint has been made to the Regents
of the University against Professor Hill for admitting colored
children into the school and one parent—a very ardent
and active Republican politician—has taken his own children
out of school on that account. All discussion upon the proprieties
of this question was long since foreclosed. The paramount law
of the land guarantees to every colored citizen all the civil,
social and political rights secured to any white citizen under
the same conditions. Every child of African descent born in
this country has the same right of access to our public schools
as the children of the most privileged of Caucasian blood. No
teacher or school officer has any more legal right to exclude
one than the other. If there is a right of discrimination in
is in favor of the colored person. The exclusion of a white
child from a public school would subject the teacher or officer
who caused it to no penal consequences. Under the Civil Rights
act of Congress, to exclude a colored pupil on ‘account
of race, color or previous condition of servitude,” is
a misdemeanor, to be tried by Federal Courts, and punishable
by heavy penalties.
All good citizens are bound to obey the laws,
and whoever rejected the advantages offered by the Government
for the education of his children, upon the ground that those
advantages are shared by colored children, to be consistent,
would reject the plan of salvation and his hopes of Heaven on
the same account.
Source: Puget Sound Dispatch, January 19,
1874, p. 2
HOUSTON'S FOURTH WARD
Unlike other western urban centers, post-Civil
War Texas black communities arose in the shadow of slavery and
under the specter of segregation. The first significant numbers
of blacks to arrive in Houston were the hundreds of newly freed
slaves from nearby plantations, beginning an in-state rural
to urban migration in the summer of 1865 that continues to this
day. In the vignette below historian Cary D. Wintz describes
the community they established, an area they named Freedmantown,
the nucleus of the city's oldest black enclave, Fourth Ward.
The end of the Civil War brought dramatic changes to Houston's
black community. Not only did over a thousand black Houstonians
gain their freedom, but the city's black population surged as
several thousand former plantation slaves thronged into the
city during the months following emancipation. The black population
soared from 1,077 in 1860 to 3,691 in 1870. This population
was fairly evenly distributed throughout the city, although
the largest number settled in the Fourth Ward... Several thousand
newcomers...flocked into the city from nearby and distant plantations.
These freed slaves generally found their housing on the fringes
of Houston. A large number arrived from plantations along the
Brazos River, entering the city by way of the old San Felipe
Road, and settled in the first part of the town that they encountered.
The Freedmantown area of the Fourth Ward...abutted on San Felipe...
In the Fourth Ward, at least, the black family
seems to have survived the period of slavery fairly well. In
1870, 57% of the population over the age of fifteen were married,
34% were single and 9% were widowed, separated or divorced.
More significantly 77% of Fourth Ward black households were
headed by males, and 73% had both husband and wife present.
The black family was intact...
Fourth Ward was distinguished from other black
communities in Houston by the number of important black institutions
that it housed. It was the location of most of the city's early
black religious and educational institutions and many of its
black businesses and professionals were centered there. The
first black church in Houston, Trinity Methodist Episcopal,
which began in the antebellum period, was located at Travis
and Bell (in what is now downtown Houston). The most prominent
black church, Antioch Baptist, was also a Fourth Ward institution.
Antioch was established by white missionary William C. Crane
in 1866... In the summer of 1866, a black minister, I.S. Campbell,
took charge of the church and, after first holding services
in a "brush arbor" erected on the banks of Buffalo
Bayou, built a frame structure in 1868... Jack Yates became
pastor of Antioch in late 1868; in 1869 he moved the church
to its present site, a brick structure on Robin Street.
The influence of these early back churches
on the community extended far beyond religious matters. In 1869,
for example, black churches were involved in the organization
of the Harris County Republican Club...one of the few truly
integrated organizations at this time... The Club held most
of its meetings in Antioch Baptist Church... In 1872, Antioch
and Trinity Methodist worked together to raise money and purchase
a park for blacks in Houston. Both churches sponsored picnics
and Emancipation Day celebrations on wooded land north of San
Felipe in the Fourth Ward. In 1872, they acquired a permanent
park site, Emancipation Park (in the Third Ward). Antioch also
helped promote black education. [Jack] Yates, after failing
in his efforts to locate Bishop College in Houston, worked with
white missionaries to establish Houston College in rented facilities
in the Third War in 1885. In 1894, the school moved to its own
three-acre site west of the city limits on San Felipe... The
Fourth Ward was neither the first nor the largest black community
in Houston. A majority of blacks have always resided in other
wards during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nevertheless,
the myths of the ward's primacy in the history of black Houston
are rooted in reality. For the fifty years following emancipation,
it was the center of much black activity and culture...the "mother
ward" of black Houston...
Source: Cary D. Wintz, "The Emergence
of a Black Neighborhood: Houston's Fourth Ward, 1865-1915,"
in Char Miller and Heywood T. Sanders, eds., Urban Texas: Politics
and Development (College Station, 1990) pp. 98-109.
BIDDY MASON AND POST CIVIL WAR LOS ANGELES
Bridget "Biddy" Mason, born a slave
in Georgia, became one of the first English-speaking African
American settlers in Los Angeles when the city had fewer than
1,000 inhabitants. Here is a partial account of her life.
Nothing is left of the original homestead
of Biddy Mason, the first black woman to own property in Los
Angeles. In its place, at 331 South Spring Street, is the new
ten story Broadway-Spring Center, primarily a parking structure....
More than a mile away, close to the USC campus, an old church
that Mason founded still exists. The First African Methodist
Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, one hundred and eighteen years
old, is a testament to the complexity of Mason's life, work,
and impact on the city..... Biddy Mason bought her land and
built her house in 1866 in a town then so raw and new that the
streets were troughs of mud or dust. Gas lamps were individually
lit, one by one, every night, by a rider on horseback, illuminating
a scant few blocks of humble houses in the bottom of a dark,
sloping basin, now the valley of a billion lights.
Mason was born in 1818 in the state of Georgia
and sold into slavery at eighteen. She walked across America
in 1848 with the family who owned her and her sister--a Mississippi
family who'd converted to Mormonism and were trekking west in
caravans of wagons. They were a homeless people slouching toward
Zion, traveling with their slaves and stock and children in
oxcarts loaded with everything they owned. Biddy thus became
a western pioneer, a black slave caught up in a white religious
pilgrimage. She had three children at the time, including the
baby she carried in her arms. They walked from Mississippi to
Paducah, Kentucky, to Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Lincoln, Nebraska,
and points less charted to the west, seven continuous months
of walking, until eventually Biddy's party passed the valley
of the Great Salt Lake in Utah-where others settled permanently-and
went on to San Bernardino, arriving in 1851. But this Mormon
family, named Smith, who owned Biddy and her sister and their
children, didn't realize that California was a free state: If
you brought your slaves here, and they wanted to leave you,
they could. That's exactly what Biddy wanted, but Smith was
hoping to depart for Texas, taking his slaves along before anyone
could stop him.
Biddy, however, had made friends with free
blacks here, including Elizabeth Flake Rowan, Charles Owens,
and his father, Robert Owens, who ran a flourishing stable on
San Pedro Street. Owens got up a posse of vaqueros to rescue
Biddy and her kin, swooping down on the Mormon camp in the Santa
Monica mountains in the middle of the night. Biddy sued for
freedom in court, won her papers in 1856, and moved her family
in with the Owens. She was, at this time, thirty-eight years
Ten years after winning her freedom she had
saved enough money to buy the Spring Street lot; she eventually
built her own house there-the house in which the First African
Methodist Church was born. In time she bought more land. Her
grandsons were prosperous, in part because she gave them land
to start a stable, and later she erected a two-story building.
She became known for her good works. Before her death in 1891,
she also became rich enough to know the joys of opening her
hand and giving her wealth away.
Source: Judith Freeman, "Commemorating
An L.A. Pioneer," Angeles Magazine, April, 1990, pp. 58-60.
THE MASON LEGACY CONTINUES: ROBERT C. OWENS
The account below provides a brief description
of Robert C. Owens, the most famous grandchild of Biddy Mason.
When Biddy Mason died in January 1891, she
left a legacy of achievement and community service that was
universally heralded. Her obituary in the Los Angeles Times
read: "These...years have been filled with good works and
we are sure she has been welcomed into the better land with
the plaudit, 'well done'!"
Through the Afro-American community expanded
in the late nineteenth century, the descendants of Robert Owens
and Biddy Mason continued to exert great influence in the city
until the coming of World War I. The families were united in
1856 when Charles Owens married Ellen Mason, Biddy's oldest
daughter, a union that produced two children, Robert Curry in
1858 and Henry L. in 1860. Before his death in September 1882,
Charles had continued the family tradition of acquisition, buying
land on Olive Street and moving the Owens Family Stables to
1st and Main as the San Pedro Street property became too valuable
to house horses.
Robert C. Owens, who the Los Angeles Times
called the "richest colored man in Los Angeles," built
upon the foundation of his ancestors and far surpassed their
dreams in terms of wealth, political power and national repute.
During his youth Owens, his brother and his mother attended
J.B. Sanderson's school for blacks in Oakland. By the mid-1870s
he worked as a ranch laborer for the Slauson family. Beginning
in the 1880s, "R.C." toiled as a charcoal peddler,
a railroad worker in San Pedro and drove the street sprinkler
wagon for $1.00 per day. From this point, Owens managed the
family holdings with great success. He purchased land throughout
the city... An example of his skill is seen in a real estate
purchase located near the original Mason homestead. In 1890
Owens purchased a lot on Spring Street between 7th and 8th for
$7,200; when he sold the property in 1905 he earned a profit
of $65,000. Owens and his family lived in regal elegance in
one of the most beautiful homes in the city, located at 10th
Owens...maintained a vision of California
as a place of opportunity... [He said] "colored men with
money to make even small purchases; who will work the soil;
who want to better their condition and enjoy every political
right as American citizens should come to the golden West."
While Owens did not urge "wholesale emigration of colored
people to this section," he did believe that "a few
hundred farm families" would find equal opportunity in
the West. As a nationally known figure, friend of Booker T.
Washington and patron of Tuskegee Institute, Owens' own words
carried great weight in the Afro-American community.
Source: Lonnie Bunch, III, Black Angelenos:
The African American in Los Angeles, 1850-1950 (Los Angeles,
1989), pp. 18-19.
A BLACK COMMUNITY EMERGES IN OAKLAND
The following is a brief account of the growth
of black Oakland, with reference to the role of Pullman porters
in the early life of the community.
Although black Californians paid close...attention
to the progress of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the routines
of their lives were not significantly affected by the upheaval
in the South... Another event transformed the East Bay from
a chance stopping place for blacks seeking a better future into
a compelling destination for migration. The Central Pacific
(later Southern Pacific) Railroad chose Oakland as the western
terminus for its transcontinental route in 1869, just after
the Pullman Company introduced sleeping cars for long distance
travel. Pullman cars traveled on Central Pacific trains, and
each carried a porter to provide personal service to passengers.
By company policy, the porter was a black man. As the end of
the line, Oakland, which in 1870 counted 55 black residents,
became home base to a growing number of Pullman porters and
their families. The railroad also generated rapid expansion
in the entire East Bay economy and created a demand for new
workers that local people could not fill. Blacks were sought
after to replace the Chinese as laborers and domestic servants,
and the general growth created new opportunities for entrepreneurs.
The successful struggle to integrate the Oakland schools in
1872 revealed the combined effects of the new sense of possibility
for blacks due to the [14th and 15th] constitutional amendments
and the increase in black population, inaugurated by the coming
of the railroad.
Pullman porters were the most distinctive
new element in the black community. On the job, they were required
to follow rigid rules, wear uniforms and remain clam and courteous
no matter how unreasonable a passenger might become. The wages
were low (50 cents a day in 1872) and the hours long (over 400
a month was not uncommon), but the work was steady, and conditions
were better than in many workplaces that employed blacks. The
job carried prestige in the black community, in part because
these men wore the symbols of white-collar jobs--a necktie,
white shirt, shined shoes--and because they interacted directly
with the wealthy and powerful individuals who traveled on the
railroads. Most of the porters were relatively well educated
and used their constant travel as a means of acquiring further
knowledge and sophistication. They also became an important
channel for spreading information about job opportunities and
better living conditions for blacks in different parts of the
country. Later, the Southern Pacific hired blacks to work as
cooks, and waiters in dining cars, laborers in rail yards and
baggage handlers in passenger and freight depots. Railroad workers
were required to live west of Adeline Street in order to be
on call for unscheduled duty, and they became the center of
a significant black presence in West Oakland. Many of them lived
in company-owned rooming houses, others boarded with black homeowners
in the area, and eventually a numbers of them bought their own
With this influx of newcomers, the black community
in the East Bay [grew]. By 1880 there were 11 black residents
of Berkeley, and the black population of Oakland had grown to
593, enough to support an increasingly complex social structure.
Black churches, clubs, and fraternal organizations became more
sophisticated and, with more resources to supply the community
with intelligent and aggressive leadership, they became the
focus for an elaborate social life....
In the early 1870s, Oakland newspapers were
recording the activities of the Colored Citizens Library Association...
The Literary and Aid Society was established in 1876 to provided
a forum for black intellectual and cultural life... The most
ambitious service project undertaken by the black community
was the construction and operation of the Home for Aged and
Infirm Colored People, which opened in East Oakland on August
22, 1897. Planning and fundraising had taken five years under
the leadership of Mrs. Emma Scott... By the turn of the century,
over a thousand black people lived in Oakland and sixty-six
in Berkeley. A black business district had begun to take shape
along Seventh Street, and a stratified, complex and rich black
society was in place...
Source: Lawrence P Crouchett, Lonnie G. Bunch,
III, and Martha Kendall Winnacker, Visions Toward Tomorrow:
The History of The East Bay Afro-American Community, 1852-1977
(Oakland, 1989), pp. 9-10, 14, 15.
SCHOOL SEGREGATION IN THE WEST: A DEFENSE
Segregated schools emerged in many cities
of post Civil War West where the African American population
was large enough to meet the usual requirement of separate facilities
for ten or more black or Asian students. Helena, Montana Territory,
established the all black South Side School soon after the Territorial
Legislature in 1872 enacted a segregation law. Helena's public
school segregation policy was criticized, however, by a local
coalition of interests which included black leaders, the city's
leading newspaper, the Helena Daily Herald, the state superintendent
of instruction, and Republican Party leaders such as Territorial
Governor Benjamin F. Potts. Arguing that segregation was both
morally indefensible and fiscally irresponsible, they forced
a city-wide referendum on separate schools which was held in
May, 1882. On the eve of referendum, the Helena Independent,
advanced its reasons for supporting segregation despite the
high cost. That editorial is reprinted below. It was, however,
not sufficient to sway the majority of the electorate. By a
vote of 195 to 115, Helena voters chose to end the policy of
separate schools based on race.
Our twilight contemporary [the Daily Herald]
makes a labored argument to prove that it is best to have no
separate school for our colored children. He wants to know why
we might not as well exclude "Dutch" or Irish"
etc., as the negro. That is of course largely a matter of taste.
If our neighbor would as soon associate or intermarry with a
negro as with a nation of Germany or Ireland, we cannot of course
object. We believe in the largest liberty in such matters. As
we have said, we will have no quarrel with our neighbor or anyone
else over this question. For ourselves we prefer association
and amalgamation with the caucasian race rather than with the
African. As we have heretofore said, God has set his seal of
condemnation upon the amalgamation of the black and white races.
The hybrid mulatto breed that results from such amalgamation
is unable to propagate itself beyond the third generation. It
must intermarry wither with the pure black or pure white in
order to perpetuate its existence. This is not the case, however
with the Caucasian race. The Germans, the Irish, the Saxon,
the Celt, the Dane may combine, and meet and mingle into one
people when met upon the same soil, and the result is a hardier,
stronger and more intelligent race by reason of the mixture
of bloods. Hence there is no reason to exclude such classes
from association or amalgamation with our people. But amalgamation
with the negro would produce a mongrel breed inferior even to
the Mexican or South American races. There is consequently a
reason for preventing such association with the black races
as would lead to amalgamation.
The great underlying question is, whether
we are in favor of amalgamation with the colored race? If not,
then we must preserve race distinctions. But where shall we
begin? If the black race is admitted to the same public school,
why not admit them to our parlors and tables? After this, what
next? If all social distinction are abolished why not intermarry
as we do with the German, the Irish and the Dane? This would
be the inevitable result, beginning first with the lower classes
and afterwards extending to all. The line of demarcation should
be drawn somewhere if we propose to preserve race distinctions,
and we know of no better place to draw the line than in the
establishment of separate schools.
Source: Helena Independent, May 13, 1882,
SCHOOL SEGREGATION IN THE WEST: A CRITIQUE
In the editorial below William L. Eagleson,
editor of the Topeka Colored Citizen, the oldest African American
newspaper in the city, asks why black children continue to be
segregated despite the recent law prohibiting the practice.
He also suggests that legal action will be taken to challenge
local racial segregation. That action was the beginning of a
seventy-six year campaign to desegregate the city's schools,
culminating in the now famous 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision
in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
The public schools of this city were opened
on Monday, last, and now from every direction the little folks
are seen with books under their arms, wending their way to the
school room. Contrary to all expectations, the school board
has again opened and set in operation two or three little colored
schools, in different parts of the city, and thus again offers
insult to every colored resident of the city. We hear of no
Irish schools, no German schools, no Sweddish [sic] schools.
No, not one. All the children in the city are at liberty to
attend the school nearest them, except the poor child, that
God for some reason, chose to create with a black face instead
of a white one.
Our board of education, contrary to the law
of the State, the law of God and the laws of humanity, persist
in keeping up race distinctions by keeping up race schools.
Several times colored people from all parts of the State have
petitioned the legislature to so amend the school laws, as to
prevent such distinction being made, and at the last session
the word white was stricken from the school laws, but the boards
of education still persist in going on with their negro schools
in spite of law or right. It is true that in the upper grades
they allow the colored children to go in, that is on condition
that they ever get able to pass the very peculiar examinations
that they are put through. Just enough colored pupils have been
admitted into some of the schools to cover up the measures of
the board in forcing the others into separate schools.
We hold that nothing now in existence in this
State does help so much toward keeping up the low mean prejudice
against the colored man as these separate schools. Now, why
are we thus punished? Why is it that the colored child, simply
because he is colored to be thus treated. There is not a man
on the board of education today, that believes, thinks, or feels,
that he is doing right in pandering to a low prejudice by keeping
up a race school. All kinds of excuses are offered an arguments
advanced to justify this course, but, not even a member of the
board himself believes it is either right or just.
In the past we have borne as best we could
this injustice. But now we mean to have the matter tested in
the courts, and shall know before we are through just what right
any board of officers have to make distinction in public affairs
on account of the color of citizens. We say to every colored
man and woman in the city, to come together and resolve that
you will no longer submit to unjust discrimination on account
of your color. This thing has gone on long enough and now if
it can be stopped, lets stop it. A lawyer has been employed
and the matter will in a day or so be tested. In a word we say
to colored men, stand up for your rights. Let us never yield
Source: Topeka Colored Citizen, September
20, 1878, p. 4.
SCHOOL SEGREGATION: TUCSON ARIZONA
The following vignette, taken selectively
from Robert Kim Nimmons' 1971 M.A. thesis,, "Arizona's
Forgotten Past: The Negro in Arizona, 1539-1965," describes
the growth of public school segregation in the state during
the second decade of the 20th Century and the varied responses
of elements of Tucson's African American community.
In 1890 only two Negroes attended Arizona
schools. By 1900 a hundred forty-seven blacks were enrolled
in schools, and by 1910 more than two hundred Negroes were attending
classes. In response to this growth, the Territorial Legislature
passed Arizona's first clear-cut segregation law in 1909. Although
the law itself was eventually accepted by the public, a number
of citizens protested the action of the Legislature, including
Governor Joseph H. Kibbey. After months of heated debate, the
Legislature handed the bill to the Governor for his signature.
Governor Kibbey refused to sign the bill and sent it back to
the Legislature, accompanied by a veto message which labeled
the lawmakers' work as "....utterly ridiculous, unChristian,
and inhuman." Despite the Governor's effort, the Legislature
overrode the veto and the bill passed. This bill required that:
"...students of the African race must be separated from
students of the White race when a majority of the district's
residents desire such separation."
The bill was first tested in 1912 when Sam
Bayless petitioned the court to allow his three children to
attend Maricopa Elementary School rather than send them to the
all-black Madison Elementary School, which was located some
fifty miles from the family's residence. The court ruled that
the Bayless children did indeed have to attend the all black
school; and further, the family had to pay any expenses incurred
in attending the school, as well as pay taxes in support of
both schools. Until the court's ruling most school districts
did not segregate, but once the State Court upheld the 1909
law, school districts throughout the state began separating
Negro students. What followed would dominate the state's educational
system for more than fifty years. By 1920, Phoenix, Tucson,
Prescott, Flagstaff, Bisbee, Douglas, Yuma, and a number of
smaller communities had instituted segregated seating, classrooms,
facilities, and buildings to meet public demands.
* * *
Negroes in Arizona responded to segregation
and discrimination in much the same manner that Negroes throughout
the United States did. At first blacks adapted to the situation
by accepting the accommodation principles of Booker T. Washington.
For the most part, they sought to achieve integration through
economics while creating their own institutions.... In Tucson
and Phoenix Negro leaders advocated that... education would
be best achieved if Negroes themselves planned, built, financed,
and controlled their own schools. Charles Phillips, a long-time
friend of Booker T. Washington, led the drive for all-Negro
schools in Tucson. Arguing that the establishment of segregated
schools would give blacks a sense of ownership and develop a
school "spirit"...as well as provide employment for
Negro teachers, Philips was able to [petition] Tucson officials
to segregate the city's schools. The officials, although white,
had totally ignored the State legislature's segregated school
laws, and until  had kept Tucson's schools integrated.
But because Negroes were themselves asking for separate schools,
city officials...not only segregated the city's schools but
assisted the Negroes in financing the project...
In July 1912, several Negroes who had originally
opposed the move by Charles Phillips to force segregation of
Tucson's schools sponsored several mass meetings designed to
persuade the blacks to openly protest the establishment of a
segregated school system.... The group asked Negro parents to
refuse to support the school by not paying their taxes and by
not sending their children to classes. Because the whole affair
was too unorganized and because there were too few Negroes involved
the protest failed.... Feeling frustrated...the organizers of
the protest, led by Cicero C. Simmons, sought outside aid and
advice in their struggle. [They] succeeded in getting the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People to help organize
the movement.... NAACP advisors persuaded the organizers to
switch directions. Rather than protest against school segregation,
the advisors point out that because the Negro people of Tucson
had originally supported segregation the only alternative was
to protest the board's neglect to fulfill their original offer.
The Board members had promised to finance
and construct the all-Negro school. But instead, the board had
purchased Stonecypher's Bakery, and old, deserted and dilapidated
structure in the center of the Negro community, and then refused
to finance the remodeling program. Furthermore, the board hired
only one teacher, Mr. Simmons, to teach all eight grades and
to serve as the school's principal, janitor, and custodian.
J.D. McNeal, M. Washington and Mamie Jones thereupon organized
a committee to coordinate the activities of the protest group.
In September, 1912, the board accepted a petition [from the
committee] which demanded construction of a new school. The
board took the matter under advisement, but failed to act. Then
in October, 1916, the committee again presented the board with
yet another petition adding that the Negro citizens and their
white sympathizers were prepared to publicly demand action be
taken if nothing was done. Finally, in 1917, the board agreed
to finance and construct a school for Tucson's negro students.
Influenced by the success of the organized
protest in Tucson...as well as the sudden rise of the Ku Klux
Klan in Arizona, James L. Davis, R. D. Simpson, and several
other concerned Negroes decided that the only way to fight segregation
was to organize and act. In 1919 the Phoenix branch of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded
with R. D. Simpson serving as President. By 1922 active branches
had been opened in Tucson, Flagstaff, Bisbee, and Yuma, with
a membership of over a thousand blacks and whites.
Source: Robert Kim Nimmons, "Arizona's
Forgotten Past: The Negro in Arizona, 1539-1965," (MA Thesis,
Northern Arizona University, 1971), pp. 104-107, 126-127, 133-135.
HELENA AND TOPEKA
The 19th Century black urban West was not
simply small enclaves in the region's largest cities. From Dodge
City to Virginia City, African American women and men pursued
varied economic activities and contributed to the ambiance of
the western town. Often the most vibrant African American communities
thrived in smaller cities and towns such as Topeka or Lawrence,
Kansas, Helena, Montana, Roslyn, Washington, or Yankton, South
Dakota. The vignettes below describe two such communities in
Helena and Topeka.
Contemporary residents of the state capital
of Montana are usually surprised to learn that at one time over
400 Afro-Americans made their homes in the city... Mention of
Afro-Americans appears in fragmentary accounts of the first
pioneer activity reported in the Prickly Pear Valley. Reportedly
an unidentified black was one of three men who first discovered
gold deposits in the Helena area in August 1862. The U.S. Census
of 1870 reveals that 71 Afro-Americans resided in the city,
constituting 2.3% of Helena's 3,106 residents. Two decades later,
the black community numbered 279 in a total population of 13,843.
By 1910 when Helena's black population was at its height, there
were 420 persons representing 3.4% of the city's 12,515 citizens...
Families as well as single persons migrated
to Helena, and the family groups, not surprisingly, provided
the stable foundation for the whole community. At the core of
the developing community was the church. As early as 1867, a
clergyman named McLaughlin and several black families organized
a church society that prospered throughout the 1870s. But it
was not until 1888, when the Reverend James Hubbard of the Kansas
Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church established
the St. James congregation, that Helena's blacks had a strong
and well organized national church. An active congregation,
it provided religious instruction, established a literary society,
organized a library, and directed a ladies' benevolent aid society.
By 1894 the St. James Church had sufficient prestige to host
the annual AME convention of the Kansas Conference...
In subsequent years, Helena's black population
declined sharply... By 1920 there were only 220 blacks...and
by 1930 only 131 in 12,094 persons... During the progressive
era, Helena's blacks formed a strong and viable community characterized
by racial pride, pragmatism, and group-oriented action... The
story of Helena's blacks constitutes an important chapter in
the urban history of the frontier West.
* * *
The Great Exodus left its mark on...black
Topeka. After the manifold increase from 724 to 3,648 between
1875 and 1880, the twenty years ending in 1900 saw black numbers
level off to 4,807... At the turn of the century, Negroes could
be found in all of the city's five wards... Nonetheless under
the onslaught of the Exodus, established Negro neighborhoods
emerged as definite enclaves in which the concentration of blacks
was between 50 and 75%. Most resided in the First, Second, and
Third wards, which traditionally had been regions of black settlement.
The most important enclave adjoined the blacks business district
located of the first three blocks of Kansas Avenue, Jackson
Street, and Quincy Street in the Second Ward. This was the hub
of the black community's social and business life. Railroad
shops and yards, as well as agricultural processing plants in
the immediate vicinity, provided [jobs]. Real estate and other
service concerns, sundry small businesses, and the offices of...
professionals were additional building blocks in the structure
of black Topeka.
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s new neighborhood
churches developed... In the 1890s black Episcopalians offered
new spiritual and social alternatives. St. John A.M.E., Shiloh
Baptist, and Second Baptist churches, however, remained the
major institutional pillars of the community. Between 1880 and
1896, black Topeka claimed six newspapers, which reflected the
many facets of Negro life in the city and provided a link to
affairs in the state and nation.
Sources: William L. Lang, "The Nearly
Forgotten Blacks on Last Chance Gulch, 1900-1912," Pacific
Northwest Quarterly 70:2 (April 1979):50-51, 57; Thomas C. Cox,
Blacks in Topeka, Kansas, 1865-1915: A Social History (Baton
Rouge, 1982), pp. 82-83.
"THE WESTERN TUSKEGEE"
Although few western blacks supported segregation
in public elementary and secondary schools, African Americans
in Topeka, Kansas, were proud of the Kansas Industrial and Educational
Institute, which was called the "Western Tuskegee"
because it was modeled after Booker T. Washington's Alabama
school. The Institute was founded and supported by local blacks
who hoped its training program would provide African American
youth from throughout the region the skills they needed to enter
more lucrative occupations. A description of the Institute appears
The Kansas Industrial and Educational Institute
had an inauspicious beginning in 1895 as a kindergarten, sewing
school, and reading room. It was a small, one-room house located
in a heavily settled black enclave in the southeastern section
of the Fifth Ward called Mud Town because the unpaved streets
became a quagmire after a rain... The Negro founders, Edward
Stephens and Lizzie Reddick, for all their spirit and enterprise
in establishing the institute, were not in the published records
of the socially prominent, nor did they have any ascertainable
credentials as Progressive reformers. Stephens was an elementary
school teacher and a resident of Topeka since 1885... Reddick,
too, was an elementary teacher... Little else is known of her
social life. With funds secured from friends of the institute,
Stephens purchased in 1898 a small building on Second Street
and Kansas Avenue, in the heart of the black business district...
By 1899, through an unknown agency, the institute received an
appropriation of $1,500 from the state...
In 1900 the board of managers reorganized
the institute. They were aided by Booker T. Washington, who
sent advice for developing the school and a Tuskegee graduate,
William Carter, to superintend operations. The institute enjoyed
considerable success under Carter's administration....
[Yet] in 1916, Principal William Carter...received
the censure of the black community, allegedly for being on "too
friendly terms with some women members of the faculty."
James Guy and John Wright were among the Negroes who conducted
the investigation. Although no formal charges were proffered,
Carter's name disappeared from the roster of institute officials.
George Bridgeforth, formerly director of the agricultural department
at Tuskegee, became principal in 1917 and thereafter the administration
of the school was unsullied by public controversy.
In 1903, expanding services required and financial
stability permitted the institute to purchase a farm costing
$10,000 and consisting of 105 acres one and one-half miles east
of Topeka. The new location was on one of the few elevations
in the county. With its growing complement of buildings and
its bustling activity, the institute was "a city on a hill,"
in the phrase Booker T. Washington used to describe his school
at Tuskegee. State reports proudly asserted that from this vantage,
the institute had "one of the most commanding views in
A committee appointed by the legislature made
annual visits to the institute. In response to their consistently
favorable reports, the legislature granted increasing appropriations.
In 1908 and in 1911, Andrew Carnegie gave $5,000 and $10,000
to aid in the educational and building programs. Improvement
of the facilities for teaching industrial arts and the addition
of an extension service to provide training in scientific agriculture
for Negro farmers throughout the state were evidence of the
institute's expansion and progress. Prior to 1907, the institute
was an independent charity, partially supported by appropriations
from the Kansas legislature. By 1919 the major part of its funding
came from the state, and in that year the legislature assumed
full control and renamed the facility the Kansas Vocational
Source: Thomas C. Cox, Blacks in Topeka, Kansas,
1865-1915: A Social History (Baton Rouge, 1982), pp. 152-155.
AFRICAN AMERICAN OMAHA: THE COURT HOUSE RIOT
The vignette below describes Omaha's "Court
House Riot" of 1919, one of the most heinous lynchings
in American history.
On the surface the black community appeared
quite stable. Its center was a several-block district north
of the downtown. There were over a hundred black-owned businesses,
and there were a number of black physicians, dentists, and attorneys.
Over twenty fraternal organizations and clubs flourished, and
the NAACP had a strong chapter. Church life was diverse. Of
more than forty denominations, Methodists and Baptists predominated.
On past occasions, whole congregations had come north in mass,
the way blazed by their pastors who had gone on ahead. Of course,
outward appearances of solidity failed to hide a number of depressing
realities; white resentment, nominally segregated facilities,
low levels of education, marginal housing, abject living standards,
poor salaries, and few opportunities. Prejudice over color negated
any initial advantage that blacks had over other elements in
the Omaha melting pot.
The Omaha black community experienced dramatic
changes in the World War One decade. Of great significance was
the loss of political influence. During previous years, black
leaders had made certain small but significant advances. An
Omaha black served as a justice of the peace in the 1880s; and
in the 1890s another, Dr. M.O. Ricketts, was a two-term member
of the state legislature.... In 1900 he moved to Missouri and
Jack Bromfield emerged as the leading black [politician] in
Omaha. Critics charged that he displayed more interest in promoting
and protecting gambling enterprises than in furthering the status
of his race...and before long they had almost entirely disappeared
from places of influence. Concurrently there was an large influx
of blacks into Omaha. They came as part of a World War I migration
of rural southern blacks to northern cities. In Omaha many of
the newcomers obtained employment in the packing houses... The
1920 census reported that Omaha had 10,315 blacks.
The pressures created by the influx gradually
moved toward a disastrous confrontation. Whites returning from
[wartime military] service sometimes found their jobs taken
by blacks... Recent migrants had little respect for the older
leadership. Conditions started to deteriorate in the summer
of 1919--a Red Summer in American race relations... In Omaha
daily newspapers launched a crusade against black lawbreakers.
As the campaign intensified, the targets became alleged black
rapists... The Reverend John Williams, the editor of the weekly
Monitor, Omaha's only black owned paper tried to calm fears.
He contended that what happened elsewhere could not possibly
happen in Omaha. Events proved him wrong.
On Friday night, September 25, 1919, nineteen-year-old
Agnes Lobeck reported...while walking with a "crippled"
acquaintance, Millard Hoffman, a black man suddenly leaped out
of the bushes. After slugging Hoffman senseless, he assaulted
her and ran off into the night.... On the day after the alleged
crime the police arrested a suspect, William Brown, an itinerant
packing house laborer from Cairo, Illinois, Detectives took
him to Miss Lobeck's house, where from a sick bed she identified
him as her assailant. A crowd gathered, and the officers had
trouble getting Brown away to a jail cell on the upper floors
of the Douglas County Courthouse... Brown had severe rheumatism
and moved with great effort. It seemed hard to believe he had
either the dexterity or energy to stage a mugging and rape...
The major Omaha papers did not bother with such particulars.
Extra editions reported that still another assault had occurred,
and the culprit was under lock and key in the courthouse. By
Saturday night the crowd seethed with self-righteous indignation...
On Sunday afternoon several hundred teen-aged whites assembled
on a South Omaha school ground. Goaded on by Millard Hoffman...the
crowd marched on the courthouse... They were led by two students
beating drums. A squad of police who tried to stop the march
were cursed and brushed aside. When the marchers reached the
courthouse, they found it protected by thirty police officers.
For an hour nothing much happened, except officials ordered
a black detective inside after he infuriated the throng by drawing
his revolver in response to a racial slur. After that there
were friendly exchanges between police and demonstrators....
Brown, housed with 120 other prisoners on the top floor, appeared
in no danger. The police chief was not even present; nor had
he seen fit to take any extra precautions, such as securing
gun shops in the downtown district. He assumed that the crowd
would disperse and go home at the supper hour. It did not.
Things started to get out of hand shortly
after 5:00 p.m. News of the trouble at the courthouse quickly
spread throughout Omaha. Swarms of people, estimated well in
excess of five thousand, converged on the building. Leaders
[of the mob] began to emerge. Older and more determined men,
identified as from the "vicious elements," took the
place of the boys. They seemed to know exactly what to do. Some
looted sporting goods stores and pawnshops for guns and ammunition.
Others ordered people to get gasoline to burn the building.
A young man on horseback appeared, brandishing a heavy rope.
Two girls distributed stones out of tin buckets... Bricks crashed
through the courthouse windows and random gunfire echoed in
the street as the crowd continued to grow by the minute. The
chief of police and two commissioners had trouble getting into
the building, even though escorted by twenty officers. The mayor
of Omaha, Edward Smith, arrived, making an unobtrusive entrance.
Not long after that, fire bombs started to crash through the
windows, setting afire county offices on the first floor. When
firemen came, the mob overpowered them and took their ladders,
preparing to use them to storm the upper floors. As smoked poured
into the jail, guards took the prisoners to the roof, where
they lay flat to avoid gunfire.... Over a thousand active rioters
surrounded the courthouse, screaming "Give us the Nigger."
Some 25,000 spectators blocked all the streets in the business
district, making police reinforcements impossible. The mayor
and key safety officials were trapped in the burning building.
Discipline disintegrated around them. Officers became passive;
and some, reconciled to disaster, made farewell telephone calls
to their families....
Mayor Smith...walked out of the courthouse
to face the mob, but he never had a chance to speak. A man cried
"He can give us the nigger if he will, and save the courthouse."
Several thugs assaulted Smith, kicking him to the ground. When
some horrified spectators tried to help him, a husky youth yelled"
Don't let them get Mayor Smith away. Let's string him up. Shoot
him. He's a negro-lover. They elected him. He's no better than
they are!" The mayor, covered with blood, shouted; "No,
I won't give up this man. I'm going to enforce the law, even
with my own life." At an electric pole, men dropped a noose
around his neck and threw the end of the rope over a beam. An
unidentified man cut the rope as it was being drawn tight, and
ran back into the crowd. Another person pleaded: "He's
a white man. For God's sake, use a little judgment. Don't do
something you'll be sorry for. Don't be a bolsheviki..."
At that point, police appeared with drawn pistols. They formed
a ring around the mayor and without further incident took him
away to a hospital... After realizing what had happened, [the
mob] retaliated by burning a police car and launching a violent
attack on the courthouse.
The frenzied mob went from room to room in
the unburned parts of the large structure, smashing furniture
and starting small fires. The chief and the commissioners stood
aside and watched helplessly. The sheriff defended a stairway,
which the mob bypassed and cordoned off. A group of prisoners
took Brown...and pushed him down a flight of stairs into the
arms of the mob. Men passed Brown head over head to the outside
of the building... By the time Brown reached the ground, he
had been beaten unconscious, castrated, and stripped. Someone
threw a rope around his neck, and men attached the other end
to an auto bumper. As the vehicle dragged Brown through the
crowd, persons fired bullets into him. At a major intersection,
Eighteenth and Harney Streets, Brown's battered and beaten remains
were lynched from an electric light pole. Crazed white men fired
hundreds of bullets into the body before it was cut down....
While a news camera flashed and thousands watched, boys poured
oil out of street lanterns...onto the remains which were then
ignited as those present roared approval. Men tossed a rope
around the heap of charred flesh and bones and dragged what
was left through the streets for close to two hours, as crazed
spectators hooted and cheered. Before the riot ran its course,
a white boy died, killed by a stray bullet; and many other persons
received injuries. By dawn Omaha was peaceful; its night of
Source: Lawrence H. Larsen and Barbara J.
Cottrell, The Gate City: A History of Omaha (Boulder, 1982),
JACK JOHNSON: A SOCIAL HISTORY
Florette Henri provides in the following account
a brief history of the most controversial black boxing champion
in the 20th Century, Galveston, Texas native, Jack Johnson.
Jack Johnson, born in Galveston in 1878, fought
his way up in the heavyweight ranks until he finally defeated
the white champion, Tommy Burns, in a 1908 bout in Australia.
This victory made Jack Johnson heavyweight champion of the world,
a situation intolerable to many--perhaps most--white Americans,
the more especially because of Johnson's liaisons with white
women. So Jim Jeffries, who had retired as undefeated heavyweight
champion in 1906, was called back as the "white hope"
who could put Johnson down. But on July 4, 1910, in a bout in
Reno, Nevada, Johnson scored an easy knockout over Jeffries
to become beyond any argument or technicality the world's heavyweight
This apparently threw the country into a delirium
of race hatred. Almost forty years after the Johnson-Jeffries
fight a white sportswriter recalled: "Man alive, how I
hated Jack Johnson in the summer of 1910..." Blacks were
wild with exultation because their man had won while white spectators
were yelling, "Kill the nigger." Within half an hour
after word of Johnson's victory flashed over the wires, race
violence broke out in many parts of the county. In Pittsburgh,
blacks chased whites off streetcars. Three black were killed
that night in Uvalde, Texas. A black constable was killed in
Mounds, Illinois, when he tried to arrest some black men where
were celebrating with guns. In Little Rock, Arkansas, a train
conductor was shot during a fight between black and white passengers.
In New York, a gang of whites roamed the streets terrorizing
and beating blacks, and only police intervention prevented a
Johnson's private life continued to scandalize
white Americans. He ignored pleas by the black press form morality
and moderation... Champion Johnson, like other pugilists, lavished
his money on big, fast cars and fast living... But Johnson did
what was considered unforgivable in twice marrying white women.
Immediately there was an outcry in northern states for laws
forbidding marriages, and a Georgia congressman demanded a Constitutional
amendment prohibiting intermarriage saying: "No brutality,
no infamy, no degradation in all the years of southern slavery
possessed such villainous character and such atrocious qualities
and the provisions of the laws...which allow the marriage of
the negro Jack Johnson to a woman of Caucasian strain."
After a flamboyant and sensational few years,
Johnson was convicted of violation of the Mann Act, although
there was no evidence of abduction of the white girl, Lucille
Cameron, who had gone to live with him. Johnson was sentenced
to jail for a year and a day, but escaped to Europe. In London,
at the end of 1914 a fight promoter...arranged a bout between
Johnson--still a fugitive--and the new "white hope,"
Jess Willard, to be fought in Havana, Cuba. Willard won that
fight, on April 5, 1915 by a knockout, which Johnson always
insisted he had agreed to in advance...in exchange for assurances
that the Mann Act charges would be dropped and he could go home.
The deal may indeed have been made, but it did not work out.
Johnson returned to the States, gave himself up, and served
his prison term.
Johnson never ceased being the champion to
black people, and was undoubtedly for many years the hero of
this race, probably better known throughout the black community
than Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois combined.
Source: Florette Henri, Black Migration: Movement
North, 1900-1920, The Road from Myth to Man (Garden City, N.Y.,
1976), pp. 196-198.
THE REACTION TO JACK JOHNSON
Long before Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, or Joe
Louis, there was Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing
champion and, with the possible exception of Ali, the most controversial.
On July 4, 1910, a Reno, Nevada, crowd of 20,000 sat in temperatures
in the 90s to watch Johnson defeat Jim Jeffries for the boxing
championship. Anticipating some African Americans would find
unwarranted comfort in Johnson's victory, the Los Angeles Times
thought it necessary to present an editorial titled "The
Fight and It's Consequences" as a reminder to whites and
blacks of their respective places in American society.
It was a fight between a white man and a black
man, but it is well at the onset not to pin too much racial
importance on that fact. The conflict was a personal one, not
race with race. There are other black men who can whip other
white ones, and a greater number of whites who can whip blacks.
Even if it were a matter of great racial import, the whites
can afford the reflection that it is at best only a triumph
of brawn over brain, not of brain over brawn.... The white man's
mental supremacy is fully established, and for the present cannot
be taken from him. He has arithmetic and algebra, chemistry
and electricity; he has Moses, David, Homer, Shakespeare, Milton,
Byron....Darwin and Edison to fall back upon. His superiority
does not rest on any huge bulk of muscle, but on brain development
that has weighed worlds and charmed the most subtle secrets
from the heart of nature.
Let the white man who is worthy of the great
inheritance won for him by his race and handed down to him by
his ancestors "take his medicine" like a man. If he
put his hope and the hope of his race in the white man who went
into the ring, let him recognize his foolishness, and in his
disappointment let him take up this new "white man's burden"
and bear it like a man, not collapse under like a weakling.
And now, a word to the black man.
Do not point your nose to high. Do not swell
your chest too much. Do not boast too loudly. Do not be puffed
up. Let not your ambition be inordinate or take a wrong direction....
Remember, you have done nothing at all. You are the same member
of society you were last week.... You are on no higher plane,
deserve no new consideration, and you will get none.... You
must depend on other influences to put your race on higher ground,
and you must depend on personal achievement to put yourself
on higher ground. Never forget that in human affairs brains
count for more than muscle. If you have ambition for yourself
or your race, you must try for something better in development
than that of the mule.
Do not dwell too much on matters of race...
Think rather of your own individuality, of your personal achievements.
Be ambitious for something better than the prize ring. Cultivate
patience, grow in reasonableness, increase your stock of useful
knowledge.... Their possession will do you more good and count
for more in behalf of your race than it would if a black man
were to "knock out" a white man every day for the
next ten years.
Source: Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1910, p.
BESSIE COLEMAN: PIONEER AVIATOR
The following vignette describes the life
of Bessie Coleman, a native of Atlanta, Texas, who became the
first African American pilot in the United States. This brief
account of Coleman is taken from an undergraduate paper which
was later published in the Journal of Negro History.
Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1893
in Atlanta, Texas. She began life in an environment which was
poverty stricken. She and her family had to pick cotton and
launder clothing to survive. Her mother, Susan, was African-American
and her father was of Indian descent. Between them, they had
thirteen children, Bessie being the twelfth. When Bessie was
seven years old, her father left the family in search of Indian
Territory, mainly in Oklahoma. He encouraged Susan and the children
to come, but she refused and he departed.
Susan and Bessie rejected the idea of being
helpless. Susan encouraged her children to go to school and
earn an education. Bessie did not argue. She enjoyed learning
and was also assigned the family bookkeeping responsibilities.
She even taught herself to read:
I found a brand new world in the written word. I couldn't get
enough. I wanted to learn so badly that I finished high school,
something very unusual for a black woman in those days. The
teachers I had tried so hard. I don't wish to make it sound
easy, but I decided I wanted to go to college too. Since my
mother could not afford college, I took in laundry and ironing
to save up the tuition money.
After graduating high school, Bessie had saved some money and
enrolled in Langston Industrial College in Oklahoma. Unfortunately,
she could only attend one semester because she lacked the funds.
After leaving Langston, she moved to Chicago to live with her
brother(s) and soon enrolled in Burhham’s School of Beauty
Culture to study manicuring. After entering into the cosmetology
field at the White Sox Barber shop in Komisky Park, she found
it uninteresting and began to pursue a career as a pilot. She
began to study the lives of her idols, Harriet Quimby, the first
American woman to earn a pilot’s license in 1911, and
Raymonde de Laroche, the first woman to earn a license in 1909.
In order for her to fulfill her desire of becoming a pilot,
she needed money. Therefore, she took a second job as a waitress
at a chili parlor in Chicago to supplement her income.
Dishearteningly, she was not allowed to enroll
in an aviation school in the United States. The Jim Crow segregated
schools only catered to white men and a few white women claiming
“there was room for blackbirds in the sky over America
in the early days of aviation.”
IN 1920, Bessie met Robert S. Abbot, publisher
of the Chicago Defender. Ecstatic at the idea of a black woman
pilot, he suggested that she look to Europe for an aviation
school since the institutions in the U.S. would not serve blacks,
especially black women. As an extensive supporter, he, with
the assistance of Jesse Binga, founder and president of Binga
State Bank, helped Bessie by raising money to send her to Europe.
He rallied community support by publishing her pursuit in his
local paper. Bessie began studying the French language and by
1921, her dream was about to come true. She was on her way to
France to become a student in the Federation Aeronautique International.
While in France, she took lessons from the chief pilot for Germany's
Fokker Aircraft Company and many other French and German pilots.
In 1922, Bessie Coleman earned her international pilot’s
license and became the first African American pilot in the world
and the first American granted an international license.
Source: Kim Creasman, "Black Birds in
the Sky: The Legacies of Bessie Coleman and Dr. Mae Jemison,"
Journal of Negro History 82 (Winter 1997): 158-59.
W.E.B. DuBOIS VISITS THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST
In the Summer of 1913 W.E.B. Dubois, founding
member of the NAACP and editor of its magazine, the Crisis,
visited the Pacific Northwest. In the following article he records
his impressions of the black communities of Portland, Seattle
The characteristic of the Great Northwest
is its unexpectedness. One looks for tall black mountains and
ghostlike trees, snow and the echo of ice on the hills, and
all this one finds. But there is more. There is the creeping
spell of the silent ocean with its strange metamorphoses of
climate, its seasons of rain and shine, until one is puzzled
with his calendar, lost to all his weather bearings.
Then comes the cities. Portland one receives
as plausible; a large city with a certain Eastern calm and steady
growth. The colored population is but a handful, a bit over
a thousand, but is manly and holds its head erect and has hopes....
Typical was the effort to establish a social center, to enlarge
and popularize a colored hotel, to build new homes and open
new avenues of employment.
From Portland one goes with a sense of puzzled
inquiry. Why have colored folk come here? Why should they stay?
Then comes Tacoma and the first surprise.... Here are less than
a thousand colored folk, but peculiarly free and sturdy and
individual. They have a colored paper which is not colored.
They have a branch of our association with a genius for secretary--a
soft voiced woman, utterly feminine, and yet an untiring leader
of men, who may yet make colored Tacoma famous. Here the fight
against race prejudice has been persistent and triumphant. There
is no freer city in America, in hotel and restaurant and soda
fountain. Laborers have a man's choice, and in the civil service
are many colored people. The mayor of the city, being wise,
came to our lectures and ate at our banquet....
Next day three of us went to Seattle. See
America and then--Seattle. Seattle is the crowning surprise--the
embodied unexpectedness. Imagine, if you please, north of the
northmost woods of Maine, a city of 300,000, gleaming with mighty
waters, where the navies of the world may lie. Washington has
over 6,000 Negroes and 2,500 live in Seattle. They rival Los
Angeles as a group. There is the lawyer, Andrew Black; the doctor,
David Cardwell; there is the caterer Stone, who dines us, and
the inimitable Norris, who look at you with twinkling gravity
and talks of "your people." There was the minister,
clean in body and soul.
Why [should] a thousand colored people in
Tacoma, or 3,000 in Seattle mean so much more to themselves
and the world than 100,000 of the same people in parts of Alabama
or Georgia. The answer is clear to the thoughtful. The colored
folk in Tacoma and Seattle are educated; not college bred, but
out of the shackles of dense ignorance; they have push, for
their very coming so far westward proves it; and, above all,
they are a part of the greater group and they know it. The great
group recognizes them as men and women. Their social education
goes on apace.... They glory in Rainier, for Rainier is their
God of the Mountains. They are one with the land.... Yet they
have not forgotten their people. They want them to come and
find freedom as they have.....
Source: W.E.B. DuBois, "The Great Northwest,"
The Crisis, 6 (September 1913), pp. 237-240.
RACIAL VIOLENCE ON THE SOUTHERN PLAINS: TULSA, 1921
On June 1, 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma exploded
in black white violence following the arrest of Dick Rowland,
a 19 year old elevator operator for rape. In the following account
published in The Nation NAACP official Walter F. White described
the carnage and provides his assessment of the reasons behind
A HYSTERICAL white girl related that a nineteen-year¬
old colored boy attempted to assault her in the public elevator
of a public office building of a thriving town of 100,000 in
open daylight. Without pausing to find whether or not the story
was true, without bothering with the slight detail of investigating
the character of the woman who made the outcry (as a matter
of fact, she was of exceed¬ingly doubtful reputation), a
mob of 100-per-cent Ameri¬cans set forth on a wild rampage
that cost the lives of fifty white men; of between 150 and 200
colored men, women and children; the destruction by fire of
$1,500,000 worth of property; the looting of many homes; and
everlasting damage to the reputation of the city of Tulsa and
the State of Oklahoma. . .
This, in brief, is the story of the eruption
of Tulsa on the night of May 31 and the morning of June 1. One
could travel far and find few cities where the likelihood of
trouble between the races was as little thought of as in Tulsa…a
thriving, bustling, enormously wealthy town of between 90,000
and 100,000. In 1910 it was the home of 18,182 souls, a dead
and hopeless outlook ahead. Then oil was discovered. The town
grew amazingly. On De¬cember 29, 1920, it had bank deposits,
totaling $65,449,985.90; almost $1,000 per capita when compared
with the Federal Census figures of 1920, which gave Tulsa 72,075.
The town lies in the center of the oil region and many are the
stories told of the making of fabulous fortunes by men who were
operating on a shoe-string. Some of the stories rival those
of the "forty-niners" in California. The town has
a number of modern office buildings, many beautiful homes, miles
of clean, well-paved streets, and aggressive and progressive
business men who well exemplify Tulsa’s motto of "The
City with a Personality."
So much for the setting. What are the causes
of the race riot that occurred in such a place? First, the Negro
in Oklahoma has shared in the sudden prosperity that has come
to many of his white brothers, and there are some colored men
there who are wealthy. This fact has caused a bitter resentment
on the part of the lower order of whites, who feel that these
colored men, members of an "inferior race," are exceedingly
presump¬tuous in achieving greater economic prosperity than…members
of a divinely ordered superior race. There are at least three
colored persons in Oklahoma who are worth a million dollars
each; J. W. Thompson of Clear¬view is worth $500,000; there
are a number of men and women worth $100,000; and many whose
possessions are valued at $25,000 and $50,000 each. This was
particularly true of Tulsa, where there were two colored men
worth $150,000 each; two worth $100,000; three $50,000; and
four who were assessed at $25,000. In one case where a colored
man owned and operated a printing plant with $25,000 worth of
printing machinery in it, the leader of the mob that set fire
to and destroyed the plant was a linotype operator employed
for years by the colored owner at $48 per week. The white man
was killed while attack¬ing the plant. Oklahoma is largely
populated by pioneers from other States. Some of the white pioneers
are former residents of Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas,
and other States more typically southern than Oklahoma. These
have brought with them their anti-Negro prejudices, Lethargic
and unprogressive by nature, it sorely irks them to see Negroes
making greater progress than they themselves are achieving.
One of the charges made against the colored
men in Tulsa is that they were "radical." Questioning
the whites more closely regarding the nature of this radicalism,
I found it means that Negroes were uncompromisingly de¬nouncing
"Jim-Crow" cars, lynching" peonage;) in short,
were asking that the Federal constitutional guaranties, of "life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" be given regard¬less
of color. The Negroes of Tulsa and other Okla¬homa cities
are pioneers; men and women who have dared, men, and women who
have had the initiative and the courage to pull up stakes in
other less-favored States and face hardship in a newer one for
the sake of greater even¬tual progress. That type is less
ready to submit to insult. Those of the whites who seek to maintain
the white group control naturally do not relish seeing Negroes
emancipating themselves from the old system…
So much for the general causes. What was the
spark that set off the blaze? On Monday; May 30, a white girl
by the name of Sarah Page, operating an elevator in the Drexel
Building, stated that Dick Rowland, a nineteen-year-old colored
boy, had attempted criminally to assault, her. Her second story
was that the boy had seized her arm as he entered the elevator.
She screamed. He ran. It was found afterwards that the boy had
stepped by accident on her foot. It seems never to have occurred
to the Citizens of Tulsa that any sane person attempting crimi¬nally
to assault a woman would have picked any place in the in the
world rather than an open elevator in a public building with
scores of people within calling distance. The story of the alleged
assault was published, Tuesday afternoon by the Tulsa Tribune,
one of the two local newspapers. At four o’clock Commissioner
of Police J. M. Adkison reported to Sheriff McCullough that
there was talk of lynching Rowland that night. Chief of Police
John A. Gustafson, Captain Wilkerson of the Police Department,
Edwin F. Barnett, managing editor of the Tulsa Tribune, and
numerous other citizens all stated that there was talk Tuesday
of lynching the boy.
In the meantime the news of the threatened
lynching reached the colored settlement where Tulsa’s
15,000 colored citizens lived. Remembering how a white man,
[Roy Belton] had been lynched after being taken from the same
jail where the colored boy was now confined, they feared that
Rowland was in danger. A group of colored men telephoned the
sheriff and proffered their services in protecting the jail
from attack. The sheriff told them that they would be called
upon if needed. About nine o’clock that night a crowd
of white men gathered around the jail, numbering about 400,
according to Sheriff McCullough. At 9:15 the report reached
"Little Africa" that the mob had stormed the jail.
A crowd of twenty-five armed Negroes set out immediately, but
on reaching the jail found the report untrue. The sheriff talked
with them, assured them that the boy would not be harmed, and
urged them to return to their homes. They left, later returning,
75 strong. The sheriff persuaded them to leave. As they complied,
a white man at¬tempted to disarm one of the colored men.
A shot was fired, and then--in the wards of the sheriff--"all
hell broke loose." There was a fusillade of shots, from
both sides and twelve men fell dead—two of them colored,
ten white. The fighting continued until midnight when the colored
men, greatly outnumbered, were forced back to their section
of the town.
Around five o’clock Wednesday morning,
the mob, now numbering more than 10,000, made a mass attack
on Little Africa. Machine guns were brought into use; eight
aeroplanes were employed to spy on the movements of the Negroes
and according to some were used in bombing the colored section...
The colored men and women fought gamely in defense of their
homes; but the odds were too great. According to the statements
of onlookers, men in uniform, either home guards or ex-service
men or both, carried cans of oil into Little Africa and, after
looting the homes, set fire to them. Many are the stories of
horror told to me, not by colored people, but by white residents.
One was that of an aged colored couple saying their evening
prayers before retiring in their little home on Greenwood Avenue.
A mob broke into the house, shot both of the old people in the
backs of their heads, blowing their brains out and spattering
them over the bed, pillaged the home, and then set fire to it.
Another was that of the death of Dr. A. C.
Jackson, a colored physician. Dr. Jackson was worth $100,000;
had been described by the Mayo brothers "the most able
Negro surgeon in America"; was respected by white and colored
people alike, and was in every sense a good citizen. A mob attacked
Dr. Jackson’s home. He fought in defense of it, his wife
and children and himself. An officer of the home guards who
knew Dr. Jackson came up at that time and assured him that if
he would surrender he would be protected. This Dr. Jackson did.
The officer sent him under guard to Convention Hall, where colored
people were being placed for protection. En route to the hall,
dis¬armed, Dr. Jackson was shot and killed in cold blood.
The officer who had assured Dr. Jackson of protection stated
to me, "Dr. Jackson was an able, clean-cut man. He did
only what any red-blooded man would have done under similar
circumstances in defending his home. Dr. Jackson was mur¬dered
by white ruffians.
It is highly doubtful if the exact number
of casualties will ever be known. The figures originally given
in the press estimate the number at 100. The number buried by
local undertakers and given out by city officials is ten white
and twenty-one colored. For obvious reasons these offi¬cials
wish to keep the number published as low as possible, but the
figures obtained in Tulsa are far higher. Fifty whites and between
150 and 200 Negroes is much nearer the actual number of deaths.
Ten whites were killed dur¬ing the first hour of fighting
on Tuesday night. Six white men drove into the colored section
in a car on Wednesday morning and never came out. Thirteen whites
were killed between 5:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. O. T.
John¬son, commandant, of the Tulsa Citadel of the Salvation
Army, stated that on Wednesday and Thursday the Salvation Army
fed thirty-seven Negroes employed as grave diggers and twenty,
on Friday and Saturday. During the first two days these men
dug 120 graves in each of which a dead Negro was buried. No
coffins were used. The bodies were dumped into the holes and
covered over with dirt. Added to the number accounted far were
numbers of others--men, women, and children--who were incinerated
in the burning houses in the Negro settlement. One story was
told me by an eye-witness of five colored men trapped in a burning
house. Four burned to death. A fifth attempted to flee, was
shot to death as he emerged from the burning structure, and
his body was thrown back into the flames. There was an unconfirmed
rumor afloat in Tulsa of two truck loads of dead Negroes being
dumped into the Arkansas River, but that story could not be
What is America going to do after such a horrible
carnage—one that for sheer brutality and murderous anarchy
cannot be surpassed, by any of the crimes now being charged
to the Bolsheviki in Russia? How much longer will America allow,
these pogroms to continue unchecked? There is a lesson in the
Tulsa affair for every American who fatuously believes that
Negroes will always be the meek and submissive creatures that
circumstances have forced them to be during the past three hundred
years. Dick Rowland was only an ordinary bootblack with no standing
in the community. But when his life was threatened by a mob
of whites, every one of the 15,000 Negroes of Tulsa, rich, and
poor, educated and illiterate, was willing to die to protect
Dick Rowland. Perhaps America is waiting for a nationwide Tulsa
to wake her. Who knows?
Source: Walter F. White, “The Eruption
of Tulsa,” The Nation 112 (29 June 1921), pp. 909-910.
THE UNIA ON THE WEST COAST
In the following passage UNIA historian Emory
Tolbert describes the rapid rise of UNIA chapters along the
West Coast. He argues that the need to establish connections
with the larger African American communities may have prompted
the creation of UNIA chapters in the smaller cities and town
of the region earlier than in the area's largest metropolis,
UNIA Division 156 of Los Angeles was part
of a general spread of Garveyism between 1920 and 1921. According
to UNIA parent body records recently uncovered in New York City,
by 1926 there were sixteen divisions and chapters of the UNIA
in California. Besides one division and one chapter in Los Angeles,
there were divisions in San Francisco, Oakland, and San Diego.
Eventually divisions were organized in Watts, Wasco, San Jose,
Pixley, Fresno, Bakersfield, Calipatria, and Allensworth. Duarte
and Victorville were also in the listing of California divisions,
as was Sawtelle. The Riverside and San Bernardino divisions
were not listed, possibly because they were defunct. It is more
likely, however, that the records found were incomplete.
This spread of Garveyism in California occurred
rapidly, but relatively late in the movement's history. By July
1921 Hugh Gordon, invoking his brother's name and drawing upon
his own notoriety as a Forum [local black civil rights organization]
president in Los Angeles and a well-known former resident of
Riverside, established UNIA divisions in both Riverside and
San Bernardino. Recruitment was the order of the day; mass meetings
were held to outline UNIA programs with hopes of generating
a larger membership. A year later UNIA branches had been organized
in Watts, Duarte, Monrovia, and in the black colony at Victorville.
Northern California's Bay Area, reflecting the awareness of
its black community of long standing, had witnessed two growing
UNIA branches in Oakland and San Francisco months before Garveyism
was organized in Los Angeles, making Los Angeles the last of
the state's major population centers to form a Garvey unit.
Seattle, Washington had both a division and a chapter of the
UNIA, with Tacoma, Washington, having another division. There
was a Portland, Oregon division, as well as five divisions in
Arizona. The small divisions and chapters of the UNIA were sometimes
products of UNIA [schisms] in larger cities, some of them stemming
from urban Garveyites' activities among their rural cousins.
As stated before, however, there were many occasions in which
outlying UNIA divisions in California were formed before those
in major population centers. The structure of the UNIA allowed
unlimited growth since only seven people were required to form
a division. Besides, the growth-conscious parent body dispatched
charters to even the smallest groups of blacks who expressed
an interest in organizing.
* * *
One of the better examples of black activism
in southern California outside Los Angeles was the UNIA division
in San Diego. Unlike San Francisco, whose black population was
only slightly smaller than that of Los Angeles in 1920, San
Diego's blacks numbered less than five thousand. Yet, Division
153 of the UNIA, which was the number given San Diego's unit,
was founded a full year before the Los Angeles division. In
October of 1921 the San Diego Division celebrated its second
anniversary with a fifteen-car procession from the black community
in southeast San Diego to Balboa Park. In the procession were
a float, carloads of Black Cross nurses, and the general membership
of the organization. Car owners who were members of the local
UNIA division provided automobiles for the parade. And while
it seems clear that the San Diego division never rivaled the
Los Angeles division in size during the movement's peak years
on the West Coast, the Garvey group in that city relied on local
black talent to organize and promote African redemption without
a heavy influx of activists from the Los Angeles area....
Source: Emory Tolbert, The UNIA and Black
Los Angeles: Ideology and Community in the American Garvey Movement
(Los Angeles, 1980), pp. 57-58, 53.
MARCUS GARVEY: A SEATTLE WOMAN REMEMBERS
In September 1976 Juanita Warfield Porter
was interviewed as part of an oral history project sponsored
by the state of Washington. Mrs. Proctor, a Seattle native who
at that time was 64 years old, discussed among other subjects
her parents as members of the UNIA in that city. Mrs. Proctor
was 10 years old when Marcus Garvey visited Seattle in 1922.
In the passage below she describes that visit and the activities
of the Seattle division.
On Sunday morning after Sunday School at First
AME Church we Warfield children walked down 14th Avenue to the
UNIA Hall where they'd have meetings for the kids.....Sometimes
we kids wouldn't want to stay. 'Course, we'd have to stay until
my parents came to the meeting. After they came my mother and
the other ladies used to fix a big dinner for us kids and then
they'd have their meeting. I can remember the large dining room,
they had this long table.
My mother was one of the Black Cross Nurses.
There were about 50 to 100 women that belonged to the Black
Cross Nurses. They practiced first aid and stuff like that.
They used to march in the parades, like the Memorial Day Parade,
and Fourth of July Parade. And they'd dress in their beautiful
white uniforms with the black cross on the forehead, and on
the arm a red, black and green sash. And my dad, and the men
wore the red, black and green sash across their chest.
INTERVIEWER: Where your mother and father
officers in the UNIA?
Well no, they were more of working members,
you know, mostly they were very faithful members, because they
went every Sunday and they would practice marching. They had
march sessions, you know, on Wednesday evenings. I remember
sometimes they would take us kids to them and they would practice
their march. And then on Fridays they had choir rehearsal. See,
they even had choirs too.
I remember Marcus Garvey coming here. We met
[him] at the Union Station, and all the Black Cross Nurses and
the men were all there [in uniform] to greet him. And I was
the little girl that they gave the flowers to give to him. I
though he was going to be a big tall man. He looked big in the
pictures, and when I went to give him the flowers he was almost
as short as I was.
He spoke at the Washington Hall on 14th and
Fir. As for his speech, you know, with kids, when we're kids
we don't pay any attention to what they were talking about.
They were trying to teach us about Africa, that we should know
more about Africa. I remember that, and they were working to...
free.... Liberia. And I remember my mother and father talking
about Marcus Garvey was getting this ship up to send black people
back to Africa, the ones that wanted to go.
Source: Juanita Warfield Proctor Interview,
September 22, 1975. Transcript at the Manuscripts and Archives
Division, University of Washington Library, Seattle, Washington.
A BLACK WESTERN LITERARY TRADITION
The following vignette is excerpted from James
W. Byrd's description of black western writers.
Black pioneers have had plenty to write about
but, like westerners in general, they did not have the leisure
or the training to do so during the early years of settlement...
As early as the end of the last century a significant black
novelist emerged from the West. He was Sutton E. Griggs, a Texan
who was very much a product of his time... His novels have about
them, despite their Victorian tone, their melodrama, and their
repetition, a curiously contemporary sense. For example, black
is beautiful; the hero of Unfettered (1902) is described this
way: "As to color he was black, but even those prejudiced
to color forgot that prejudice when they gazed upon this ebony-like
Apollo... He was a loyal Texan who, in Imperium in Imperio (1899),
demanded that the state be ceded to blacks. The novel begins
when a Negro organization gathers in Waco to urge that blacks
revolt openly to achieve the state's surrender so it can be
used as a refuge for blacks...
Born in the Lone Star State and educated at
Bishop College, Griggs wrote the first political novels by an
Afro-American. While revealing miscegenation, oppression, and
Jim Crowism, the novels point out the need for an agency to
protect the interests of Negroes. Because they promote the philosophy
that produced the NAACP and certain government agencies of today,
and because of their artistic deficiencies [his volumes] are
of more interest to sociologists than to literary critics...
Griggs is rightly considered the most neglected
Negro writer of the period between the Spanish-American War
and World War I. Second place goes to Oscar Micheaux of South
Dakota... He was handicapped by not being in the South (where
the black population was) or the East (where the publishers
were). The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913), Micheaux's
first autobiographical novel, reveals the experience of a Negro
hero in the white world of the South Dakota frontier. His second
novel, The Forged Note: A Romance of the Darker Races (1915),
continues a "trail blazing" autobiographical account
of the Negro "pioneer" who leaves his farmlands to
sell his novel in the South. The Homesteader (1917) is the last
work of this period...
Finally, one western black man born in the
nineteenth century lived long enough to see his work recognized
nationally. In 1933 J. Mason Brewer began publishing poetry
(Negrito) and folklore... He told editor J. Frank Dobie "how
unrepresentative the loudly-heralded Negro literature out of
Harlem" was, "how fake both in psychology and language."
He meant that it was false to the southwestern black, but black
writers in the West did not have the publishing opportunities
of the Harlem Renaissance group. Brewer's black folklore...did
not reach a national audience until reprinted in The Book of
Negro Folklore (1958), edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps,
both of whom had moved from the West to Harlem...
Langston Hughes, the dean of black American
letters, was born in Joplin, Missouri, and reared in Lawrence
and Topeka, Kansas... A westerner would feel most at home with
his first novel... Not Without Laughter (1930) is a semi-autobiographical
novel about a young man's early years in a small Kansas town...
Hughes published so much that he asked Arna Bontemps to be co-editor
of The Book of Negro Folklore and The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1970,
but Bontemps attained other fame alone. Not until he published
Black Thunder (1936) and Drums at Dusk (1939) was there a first
rate historical novel by and about Afro-Americans... As a child
Bontemps moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles and grew up on
the outskirts of Watts, a move reflected in his latest work,
The Old South (1973)...
Ralph Ellison...has produced the best black
novel yet to appear in American literature, though it is his
only one. Invisible Man (1952) won the National Book Award when
published, and thirteen years later a poll of over two hundred
authors, critics, and editors selected it as "the most
distinguished work published in the last twenty five years."
Ellison was born in Oklahoma City in 1914, and Oklahoma is the
setting of three of his best short stories...
Before Ellison, several black writers left
the West to gain fame in the East. The major satirist of the
Harlem Renaissance, Wallace Thurman was born in Salt Lake City.
The Blacker the Berry (1929), a study of intraracial prejudice,
has a blue-eyed heroine who grew up in Boise, Idaho. Like the
author she soon heads for Harlem. New York is a favorite setting
for black novels, but a few use the West. One set mainly in
the state of Washington is well known for being...a novel by
a Negro about whites. William Attaway's Let Me Breathe Thunder
(1939), a compelling novel in the tradition of John Steinbeck,
tells the experiences of two white vagabonds who encounter a
little Chicano boy in their wanderings around New Mexico, and
he becomes the moving force of the story... A disastrous encounter
with a woman sends the protagonists running. The trip from Yakima
in a freezing boxcar over the Montana Rockies causes an infection
in the boy's hand to grow worse and he dies. The saddened vagrants
head for Kansas, leaving his body in a boxcar...
California alone could produce a volume on
black contemporary writers...such as Ernest J. Gaines and Ishmael
Reed. Gaines, born on a Louisiana plantation in 1933, has spent
his adult years in California, where he gained wide attention
with superb short stories...and three novels including The Autobiography
of Miss Jane Pittman (1971). The television version of the latter
sent readers to his earlier novels Catherine Carmier (1964)
and Of Love and Dust (1967), which some critics found the best
black novel of the decade.
The most sensational of the contemporary California
writers is Ishmael Reed. His reputation is based on two novels,
The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967) and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down
(1969), and a book of poetry, Catechism of D Neo-American Hoodoo
Church (1970). In the much anthologized poem "I am a Cowboy
in the Boat of Ra," and in his second novel, Reed satirizes
the Old West's "man's" heroism. The novel is set in
the western town of Yellow Back Radio and features a black cowboy
hero, the Loup Garow Kid, in a fantastic satire of the "frontier"
myth. Reed's absurd humor is directed at blacks and whites;
to him there are no heroes in the Old West or the Ghetto.
Several of Reed's contemporaries in California
are promising writers but the West is seldom their chosen locale...
One clear exception to the rule, however, is Shirley Anne Williams...[who]
has retained a strong sense of place, her place, the rural San
Joaquin Valley... "Wherever I go, I always seem to find
my way back to the Valley," a reality amply demonstrated
by her poetry.
William's "ethnic" verse...demonstrates
the continuity of black communities in the Old West with those
in the rest of the country. There exists no western slavery
or antislavery literary tradition, since those were not slave
states, but in the early writings, and some of those today,
the authors are consistently aware of where black settlers came
from, besides Africa... This essay has emphasized the past,
with little room for such present-day authors as playwright
Ed Bullins and poet Wanda Coleman, but black writers in the
West must recall the motto of J. Mason Brewer: If we do not
respect the past, the future will not respect us." The
"we" refers to the young black writers of today who
will realize that a new and longer essay is needed to include
all of those who now contribute to the rich cultural heritage
of blacks in the West.
Source: James W. Byrd, "Afro-American
Writers in the West," in J. Golden Taylor, ed., A Literary
History of the American West (Fort Worth, 1987), pp. 1139-1146.
WALLACE THURMAN IN THE WEST
Wallace Thurman is usually placed among the
great writers of the Harlem Renaissance. His novel, The Blacker
the Berry (1929) is considered by many critics one of the most
important works to come out of this period of literary ferment.
Yet few people know of Thurman's Western roots. The vignette
below by his biographer, Dorothy Jean Palmer McIver, traces
[Wallace] Thurman's nine-year hegira in Harlem
was preceded by a middle-class, provincial existence which began
with his birth in Salt Lake City, Utah, on August 16, 1902,
where his parents and grandparents, western pioneers, had settled.
Apparently, his parents' marriage ended early, for he described
in a 1929 letter his poignant first meeting with his father.
The family's gypsy-like existence resulted
in Thurman's attending school in a succession of western cities,
while at the same time, he seemed to be continually combatting
illness. By the time he entered primary school in 1908, the
family had moved to Boise, Idaho, but within two months he became
seriously ill and spent the next two years a pampered invalid.
After another stay in Salt Lake City, the family moved to Chicago
in 1910, and Thurman again enrolled in the public schools, but
his elementary school days ended in Omaha, Nebraska, where the
family had moved in 1914. It was also in Omaha that he spent
his freshman year in high school. When the family again returned
to Salt Lake City, Thurman was sent to Pasadena to spend the
winter of 1917-18 because, as he reported, "persistent
heart attacks" made a lower altitude necessary. This prescription
obviously was ineffective, for Thurman fell victim to the flu
epidemic of 1918. Once again, he returned to Salt Lake City
where he not only managed to complete high school, but he also
spent two years as a pre-medical student at the University of
Utah. Once again, his formal education was interrupted by illness,
this time by a nervous breakdown which Thurman once intimated
was a possible family trait. To recuperate, he spent the summer
in Omaha and returned to Salt Lake City via a hobo trip.
Thurman's frequent and debilitating bouts
with illness may have contributed to his early interest in writing.
Since his long periods of recuperation precluded his participation
in normal boyhood physical activity, he compensated by reading
widely such authors as Harold Bell Wright, Zane Grey, and Marie
During the next three-year period (1922-25),
Thurman reached the decision to dedicate his life to writing.
He was now living in Los Angeles where he worked as a postal
clerk while simultaneously, for two years, studying at the University
of Southern California. [Thurman] calls this his "poetry
writing period." Although from all accounts his poetry
output was prodigious, Thurman saw it as "tortured and
verbose," and concluded that poetry was not his forte,
thus largely abandoning the art. Today, only a small handful
of his poems remain, and his reputation as a literary artist
rests with his fiction, essays, and drama.
Through coincidence, Thurman and Arna Bontemps,
another Harlem Renaissance literary artist, worked for several
months as night clerks at the same post office without ever
meeting. They were finally introduced by mutual friends...
Though Thurman initially enrolled as a pre-medical
student at the University of Southern California, it was here
that he developed an interest in becoming a professional writer.
Finally losing the resolve to earn a degree, Thurman enrolled
only in those courses which he believed would be useful in his
career as a writer... It was in Los Angeles that Thurman experienced
his first and most successful venture as a literary magazine
editor, serving six months as publisher and editor of his own
magazine, The Outlet. This publication grew out of Thurman's
unsuccessful efforts to establish a west coast based "New
Negro" movement. In addition to his work with The Outlet,
Thurman also wrote a column entitled "Inklings" for
a black Los Angeles newspaper. Abandoning his efforts to establish
a "New Negro" movement in Los Angeles, Thurman traveled
to Harlem, arriving on Labor Day, 1925, the date, as he told
a friend, on which he began "to live."
Source: Dorothy Jean Palmer McIver, "Stepchild
in Harlem: The Literary Career of Wallace Thurman," PhD.
dissertation, University of Alabama, 1983), pp. 26-30.
LANGSTON HUGHES IN KANSAS
Langston Hughes is known primarily as one
of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance and one of
the most prolific African American writers of the 20th Century.
Yet much of his life, and in particular, his affection for literature,
was shaped by his childhood years in Lawrence, Kansas. In this
excerpt from his autobiography we see a glimpse of that life.
In the 1870s the Langstons came out to Kansas
where my mother was born on a farm near Lawrence. My grandfather
[Charles Langston] never made much money. But he went into politics,
looking for a bigger freedom than the Emancipation Proclamation
had provided. He let his farm and his grocery store in Lawrence
run along, and didn't much care about making money. When he
died, none of the family had any money. But he left some fine
speeches behind him.
His brother, John Mercer Langston, left a
book of speeches, too and an autobiography, From a Virginia
Plantation to the National Capital. But he was much better than
Charles at making money so he left a big house as well, and
I guess some stocks and bonds. When I was small, we had cousins
in Washington, who lived a lot better than we did in Kansas.
But my grandmother never wrote them for anything. John Mercer
Langston had been a Congressman from Virginia, and later United
States Minister to Haiti, and Dean of the first Law School at
Howard University. He had held many high positions--very high
positions for a Negro in his day, or any day in this rather
difficult country. And his descendants are still in society.
We were never very much "in society"
in Kansas, because we were always broke, and the families of
the Negro doctors and lawyers lived much better than we did.
One of the first things I remember is my grandmother worrying
about the mortgage on our house. It was always very hard for
her to raise the money to pay the interest. And when my grandmother
died, the house went right straight to the mortgage man, quickly.
I was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, but
I grew up mostly in Lawrence, Kansas. My grandmother raised
me until I was twelve years old. Sometimes I was with my mother,
but not often. My father and mother were separated. And my mother,
who worked, always traveled about a great deal, looking for
a better job. When I first started to school, I was with my
mother a while in Topeka. (And later, for a summer in Colorado,
and another in Kansas City.) She was a stenographer for a colored
lawyer in Topeka, named Mr. Guy. She rented a room near his
office, downtown. So I went to a "white" school in
the downtown district.
At first, they did not want to admit me to
the school, because there were no other colored families living
in that neighborhood. They wanted to send me to the colored
school, blocks away down across the railroad tracks. But my
mother, who was always ready to do battle for the rights of
a free people, went directly to the school board, and finally
got me into the Harrison Street School--where all the teachers
were nice to me, except one who sometimes used to make remarks
about my being colored. And after such remarks, occasionally
the kids would grab stones and tin cans out of the alley and
chase me home.
But there was one little white boy who would
always take up for me. Sometimes others of my classmates would,
as well. So I learned early not to hate all white people. And
ever since, it has seemed to me that most people are generally
good, in every race and in every country where I have been.
The room my mother lived in Topeka was not
in a house. It was in a building, upstairs over a plumbing shop.
The other rooms on that floor facing a long hall were occupied
by a white architect and a colored painter. The architect was
a very old man, and very kind. The colored painter was young,
and used to paint marvelous lions and tigers and jungle scenes.
I don't know here he saw such things in Topeka, but he used
to paint them. Years later, I saw him paint them on the walls
of cheap barrooms in Chicago and New York. I don't know where
he is now....
When I was about five or six years old, my
father and mother decided to get back together. They had separated
shortly after I was born, because my father wanted to go away
to another country, where a colored man could get ahead and
make money quicker, and my mother did not want to go. My father
went to Cuba, and then to Mexico, where there wasn't any color
line, or any Jim Crow. He finally sent for us, so we went there,
But no sooner had my mother, my grandmother,
and I got to Mexico City than there was a big earthquake, and
people ran out from their houses into the Alameda, and the big
National Opera House they were building sank down into the ground,
and tarantulas came out of the walls--and my mother said she
wanted to go back home at once to Kansas, where people spoke
English or something she could understand and there were no
earthquakes. So we went. And that was the last I saw of my father
until I was seventeen.
When I was in the second grade, my grandmother
took me to Lawrence to raise me... Then it was that books began
to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books
and the wonderful world in books--where if people suffered,
they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as
we did in Kansas... Our mortgage never got paid off--for my
grandmother was not like the other colored women of Lawrence.
She didn't take in washing or go out to cook, for she had never
worked for anyone. But she tried to make a living by renting
rooms to college students from Kansas University; or by renting
out half her house to a family; or sometimes she would move
out entirely and go to live with a friend, while she rented
the whole little house for ten or twelve dollars a month, to
make a payment on the mortgage. But we were never quite sure
the white mortgage man was not going to take the house. And
sometimes, on that account, we would have very little to eat,
saving to pay the interest...
[My grandmother] was a proud woman--gentle,
but Indian and proud. I remember once she took me to Osawatomie,
where she was honored by President Roosevelt--Teddy--and sat
on the platform with him while he made a speech; for she was
then the last surviving widow of John Brown's raid.
I was twelve when she died. I went to live
with a friend of my grandmother's named Auntie Reed. Auntie
Reed and her husband had a little house a block from the Kaw
River, near the railroad station. They had chickens and cows.
Uncle Reed dug ditches and laid sewer pipes for the city, and
Auntie Reed sold milk and eggs to her neighbors. For me, there
have never been any better people in the world. I loved them
In the spring I use to collect maple seeds
and sell them to the seed store. I delivered papers for a while
and sold the Saturday Evening Post. For a few weeks I also sold
the Appeal to Reason for an old gentleman with a white beard,
who said his paper was trying to make a better world. But the
editor of the local daily told me to stop selling the Appeal
to Reason, because it was a radical sheet and would get colored
folks in trouble. Besides, he said I couldn't carry his papers
and that one, too. So I gave up the Appeal to Reason. On Saturdays
I went to football games at the University of Kansas... And
I felt bad if Nebraska or Missouri beat Kansas, as they usually
When I was in the seventh grade, I got my
first regular job, cleaning up the lobby and toilets of an old
hotel near the school I attended. I kept the mirrors and spittoons
shined and the halls scrubbed. I was paid fifty cents a week,
with which I went to see Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin and
Theda Bara on the screen...until the theater put up a sign:
NO COLORED ADMITTED....
In Topeka, as a small child, my mother took
me with her to the little vine-covered library on the ground
of the Capitol. There I first fell in love with librarians,
and I have been in love with them ever since--those very nice
women who help you find wonderful books! The silence inside
the library, the big chairs, and long tables, and the fact that
the library was always there and didn't seem to have a mortgage
on it, or any sort of insecurity about it--all of that made
me love it. And right then, even before I was six, books began
to happen to me, so that after a while, there came a time when
I believed in books more than in people--which, of course, was
wrong. That was why, when I went to Africa, I threw all the
books into the sea.
Source: Langston Hughes, The Big Sea: An Autobiography
of Langston Hughes, (New York, 1940), pp. 12-18, 21-22, 26.
LANGSTON HUGHES CONFRONTS SEGREGATION
The following account describes how Langston
Hughes as a seventh grade student in Lawrence, Kansas, successfully
challenged an attempt to segregate his class.
There in Ida Lyons's English class, [Langston]
Hughes was involved in a bitter racial incident which he mentioned
only briefly in later years. One day, Miss Lyons decided to
move all the Negro children in her class to a separate row.
Langston vehemently protested her decision. She summoned Principal
Charles Merwin to discipline Hughes, who then got into a fist
fight with the man. As John Taylor recounted the story:
We got in a little jam at school in the seventh
grade. Our teacher of English, she moved all the colored boys
and girls in one row--not alphabetically, but just moved us
all over in one row of seats. My seat was right behind Langston
and we both felt it very keenly, about what was being done.
So he printed an awful lot of cards. "Jim Crow Row."
He passed them out and we put 'em on our desks. Never said anything
to her, just put 'em on our desks, kind of like a little calendar.
She walked down the line, and she looked, and she looked, and
she looked. She didn't know who did it.
[Langston] gave me a handful of 'em and I
threw them 'em out the window so that they would blow all over
the schoolyard advertising what was being done, and let people
know what we were undergoing. She said to him... "Well,
it may be true, but I wouldn't advertise it." He said,
"I'll advertise it all I please, I know its true."
It caused quite a bit of commotion. She sent
for the principal. And course, they pointed Langston out. The
principal came up and they really got into a fight...right there
in the classroom. We were sent home to our parents.
Ida Lyons recalled that Hughes went out onto
the school playground yelling, "Miss Lyons's got a Jim
Crow Row." She remarked, "Of course, that stirred
all the nigger pupils up and they went home and told their mothers
about it." Yet as a result of Langston's adamant protest,
the "Jim Crow Row" was soon abolished and the black
children were allowed to return to their original seats. Reflecting
on the episode, John Taylor stated:
One thing Langston Hughes fought. He fought
segregation, and he could really get rough. But he was quiet,
very quiet, and very unassuming. He always had a pleasant smile.
He could resent things and then still smile over it. I couldn't
keep it in, but he did. He did his job, but he did it in a non-violent
way, but very stern. He wouldn't budge an inch until he got
what he wanted.
Source: Mark Scott, "Langston Hughes
of Kansas," Kansas History 3:1 (Spring 1980):18-19.
CENTRAL AVENUE: THE "PULSE" OF BLACK LOS ANGELES
In the account below historian Lonnie Bunch,
III, describes Central Avenue, the center of black life in Los
Angeles between World Wars I and II.
Central Avenue was in its heyday as the center
of both the black business and residential communities. By 1920
the black population of Los Angeles had doubled from the 1910
level to 15,579. Unlike earlier migrations...black neighborhoods
were unable to accommodate the influx. "Keep the neighborhood
white" drives...eventually led to the overpopulation of
the Central Avenue community by forcing all new arrivals into
the area. Any discussion of the 1920s should begin with "The
Avenue." The story of Central Avenue with its elegant neighborhoods,
jazz clubs, business districts and trolley cars full of black
faces has grown to mythic proportions. Some remember the "Avenue"
as a miniature Harlem where musicians and literati gauged the
community's pulse by day and transformed that energy into rhyme
and music by night. Others recall with pride the offices of
the black physicians and dentists, the storefronts of black
businesses, and the fabled Dunbar Hotel. Many, however, have
memories only of overcrowded homes and apartments, the underside
of the Avenue...
By 1910 Central Avenue was the main thoroughfare
of black Los Angeles, with the nucleus at 9th and Central, later
moving south to 12th and Central. Soon "The Avenue"
became an eclectic mix of stately homes representing the cream
of black society, rentals and apartments that housed the new
southern migrants, and the business and professional offices
of the black middle class. In essence, poverty and prosperity
existed side by side on Central Avenue.
The black businesses in the Central Avenue
corridor were a continuing source of pride for black Angelenos.
As one walked from 12th Street a myriad of businesses appeared...the
offices of the California Eagle, the Lincoln Theater, the Kentucky
Club, Blodgett Motors (with advertisements claiming "you
can't go wrong with an Essex"), the Elks Auditorium...and
the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company were just a few
of the many enterprises that graced the street. Just off the
avenue was the 28th Street YMCA, the site of political meetings,
social gatherings, as well as the leading organization working
with Negro youth in the city. Nearby...between Hooper and Central
Avenues, the Dunbar Hospital...ministered to the needs of the
community until World War II. Liberty Savings and Loan [was]
located near 25th and Central from its inception in 1924 until
it ceased operation in 1961... The Hudson-Liddell Building at
41st and Central..was designed by Paul Williams... Williams,
the preeminent black architect, had already designed...the 28th
Street YMCA, the Hollywood YMCA and the Second Baptist Church.
But the jewel of Central Avenue was the Hotel
Somerville, later renamed the Dunbar Hotel. One of the most
important landmarks in Los Angeles, it was more than just a
resort for weary travelers of color. The lobby, restaurant and
conference room became the central meeting place of black Angelenos,
hosting a wide range of social and community events. It was
truly the symbol of black achievement in the city. The hotel
was the creation of John Somerville, a dentist in Los Angeles...
Somerville and his wife, Vada were both graduates of the School
of Dentistry of the University of Southern California and active
participants in the affairs of the black community for over
Central Avenue was also home to a musical
and literary movement that followed the patterns of the Harlem
Renaissance, though on a much smaller scale... Literati from
Langston Hughes to native son Arna Bontemps periodically spent
time in the ever enlarging artist colony. Poetry readings by
local and nationally known writers became standard Sunday fare
at the 28th Street YMCA...
The plethora of musical establishments, jazz
dens and nightclubs...made Central Avenue the entertainment
center of the city... Nightclubs such as the Kentucky Club,
the Club Alabam, the Savoy at 55th and Central...the Apex at
4015 Central...all provided opportunity for black musicians
to develop a following... Central Avenue was the home to many
dreams...the hub of black life.
Source: Lonnie Bunch, III, Black Angelenos:
The African American in Los Angeles, 1850-1950 (Los Angeles,
1989), pp. 29-34.
BLACK HOLLYWOOD IN THE 1920s
Few Americans realize that African American
actors have been a minor presence in Hollywood movies since
the beginning of the industry in the 1890s. Fewer still know
that their image on the big screen deteriorated in the second
decade of the 20th Century into demeaning roles as servants
or "natives," setting a pattern which would last until
the 1960s. In the following vignette film historian Thomas Cripps
describes the 1920s.
From the earliest days race was steeped into
every corner of [Hollywood] life, from the "nigger"
in the scenario marginal notes written for the sound version
of The Birth of a Nation to the simplistic "how-to-write-for-the
movies" books that taught young fans the racial code. Some
merely warned their readers to "stay away from censorable
themes," while other defined the traits of racial stereotypes.
One of the earliest lessons in comedy writing appeared in 1913
and featured a "shiftless, worthless, fat negro" whose
eventual good fortune bring him quantities of chicken, pork
chops, melons, and "other things dear to a darky's heart..."
The absence of black opinion, except for an occasional writer
such as Wallace Thurman in the early 1930s, allowed whites a
smug confidence in the accuracy of their views.... Along with
incidental racism, and in part the cause of it, Hollywood nurtured
a Southern mystique. Many blacks and whites had drifted from
the South to California and found work in the studios, and their
beliefs colored life in the movie colony.
Between the wars there was little overt interracial
hostility--nothing to bring racial prejudice to a conscious
level. Liberals were punctilious toward the feelings of minorities;
there were even acts of personal sacrifice and courage, but
they effected no general changes. Ronald Reagan's father, for
example, forbade his children to see The Birth of a Nation and
slept in his car rather than stay in anti-Semitic hotels. Fred
Astaire proudly boasted of appearing on the same vaudeville
card with Bill Robinson... More revealing of racial postures
was the point at which art and life became one: the publicity
campaign for MGM's Trader Horn in 1929. The small company on
location in Africa had been beset by misfortune, the rumored
death of an actress, and disappointing footage, so that for
retakes and promotional uses they brought Mutia Omooloo, a young
African who had given a sensitive performance in the movie,
back to California. From his arrival onward his every wish was
treated as a savage eccentricity. Segregated on the studio lot,
he was made to seem fey because of his Islamic kosher demands,
his sightseeing and wandering on Central Avenue, and shopping
in five-and-tens. Feminine companions for him became the assignment
of a studio toady who doubled as a pimp. Misunderstandings up
and down the avenue resulted in bickering and violence, ending
in a wild chase through Culver City; a confrontation with Irving
Thalberg, the head of production; hospitalization and eventual
escape; down to the very night of the premiere at Grauman's
Chinese Theater, complete with Africans in loincloths in the
lobby. There, even his balking at the segregation of the women
he escorted was taken as no more than African orneriness. At
no time was he taken seriously. The studio research department
even forgot the names of the tribes, eventually labeling them
"Gibboneys" and "Joconeys" after Cedric
Gibbons and J.J. Cohn, two studio executives.
Blacks observing Hollywood from deep down
in the (Los Angeles) basin knew the social structure of the
movie colony was unfair and corrupt, and yet the ills of the
Afro-American could not be traced directly to it... Furthermore,
divisive elements within the ghetto contributed to the persistence
of the racial system. Oppression encouraged by the growth of
a stratified black society, which divided black attention away
from protest against discriminatory practices. Central Avenue
north of Watts in the 1920s throbbed with life: dense, varied,
sought after by white habitues of "hot-colored" clubs...
It seemed the servants of the stars came alive only in the jazzy
sessions of Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City. Simultaneously
the growing...ghetto included the families of the Beaverses,
the McDaniels, and the Dandridges--the future black stars...
Black papers reported the gossip of Twelfth and Central as though
it were Hollywood and Vine, and generally supported the aspirations
of the few Negroes in the studios. More automobiles, crowded
street corners, new young stars such as Carolynne Snowden at
the Cotton Club, Stepin Fetchit flaunting his wealth, feeding
the love-hate blacks felt for him, angry complaints that Hollywood
distorted black identity in such movies as Cecil B. DeMille's
The Ten Commandments--all contributed to the tempo of the black
Yet beneath the vibrant activity and black
camaraderie there was a vague uneasiness. Movie roles were only
resumptions of old Southern roles. Blacks were still dependent
upon whites for jobs, status, and security. To do a sixty-eight
weeks at the Cotton Club, win a featured role in Old Kentucky...attend
cast parties, have a dressing room on the MGM lot, a roadster
and a maid, and best of all, a five year contract was still,
at bottom, to be beholden to powerful white men and to be replaceable
by any one of the sleek young "foxes" in the chorus
line. That was Carolynne Snowden's story but it could have been
the life of any black actress in Hollywood.
Success meant puffed press releases to disguise
the wide spaces between jobs. It meant a hard journey from Omaha
for Julia Hudlin, who saw an old Lincoln movie and quit her
job as a social worker for a try at Hollywood. After six years
of struggle she became a personal maid to the movie star Leatrice
Joy, and later "secretary" to Dolores Del Rio... Other
women, like Anita Thompson, a young black New Yorker who shocked
her social set by taking a fling at show business, chose to
stop short and leave Los Angeles before falling into the slough
of servant life. Mildred Washington survived as a "Creole
Cutie" in Sebastian's between roles in Uncle Toms' Cabin
and In Old Kentucky. Even good performances brought few new
roles, and many clung to their menial jobs or to ghetto hustling...
Even at their best, black careers ended with no more than a
friendly obituary praising a long succession of "mammy"
Rather than make the rounds of the casting
offices and agents, Negroes clustered in a little cadre along
Central Avenue from the Dunbar Hotel...northward toward the
Lincoln Theater and toward Hollywood. Studio scouts scanned
the avenue looking for likely specimens and invited the most
physical types to "cattle calls"--mass invitations
to try out for spots in the coveys of natives in jungle movies.
Between [acting] jobs they supported themselves through regular
jobs with City of Los Angeles agencies such as the highway or
the water department. Like longshoremen at the morning shapeup,
they hung on the corners at the Dunbar and Smith's drugstore,
to see and to be seen. Only Stepin Fetchit and a few other contract
players retained agents.
Because casting directors preferred types
rather than talent, success was measured in the number of hours,
days, or weeks rather than in the quality of roles. Therefore
the black actor counted himself luck to pick up his $3.50 per
day as an extra, and aspired to no more than that. Indeed, a
speaking part could easily lead only to another "cattle
call" rather than an interview for a substantive role...
Not that whites were not sometimes defeated by the system; rather,
blacks never won... Segregation saw to that...
[Moreover] Stepin Fetchit and the lesser players
together, consciously or not, acted both as a conservative force
and as a palliative for black rage. Their foolish public roles
and conspicuous consumption made them appear richer and more
powerful than they really were, so black adored them even when
they may have winced at the flunkeys' roles that paid the bills.
Fetchit cruised Central Avenue in his big car with "Fox
Contract Player" lettered on its side, claiming as his
title "The King of Central Avenue." Because of his
professional needs, Fetchit never revealed any inner dignity
to whites for fear of undermining his public image. Only with
black friends did he reveal the pleasure derived from his season
ticket to the Hollywood Bowl symphony series. To a white reporter
he hewed to type, insisting, "If you put anything Ah says
in the papah, it might be wise to kind of transpose it into
my dialeck." Except for Spencer Williams, who wrote stereotyped
scenarios of Octavus Roy Cohen stories at Christy Studios, there
was no black voice inside the studios to deny the universal
nature of Fetchit's type.
Source: Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black:
The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942 (New York, 1977), pp.
PAUL WILLIAMS: A LOS ANGELES ARCHITECT
In the following vignette writer Jennifer
Reese highlights the remarkable career of architect Paul Williams
who designed over 3,000 homes and buildings in the Los Angeles
area between the 1920s and the 1960s.
"Today I sketched the preliminary plans
for a large country house which will be erected in one of the
most beautiful residential districts in the world....Sometimes
I have dreamed of living there. I could afford such a home.
But this evening...I returned to my own small, inexpensive home...in
a comparatively undesirable section of Los Angeles. Dreams cannot
alter facts; I know...I must always live in that locality, or
in another like it, because... I am a Negro."
So wrote Paul Williams in a 1937 American
Magazine article. Anyone who wanted to see on of the homes Williams
dreamed of living in could have just bought a ticket to that
year's hit comedy film, Topper. In the movie, Cary Grant and
Constance Bennett--as two very glamorous ghosts--come back to
haunt a stodgy banker who lives in an enormous Tudor mansion
with terraces and fountains, grand wooden doors, and lush gardens.
The grounds are ravishing; the house is opulent.
Topper's house was, of course, a Paul Williams
house. Williams had designed the 16-room Pasadena home in 1929
for Jack Atkin, a British immigrant who'd made his fortune racing
thoroughbreds. At the time Williams wrote his American Magazine
essay, actor Tyrone Power was living in a Williams house; so
was Barbara Stanwyck. More prestigious commissions were in the
works. Over the next four decades Williams would become known
as the "architect to the stars," creating homes for
Anthony Quinn, Danny Thomas, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. He designed
Frank Sinatra's swank 1950s bachelor pad and a Palm Springs
getaway for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez...
It's more than a little ironic that one of
the men responsible for designing the L.A. of popular imagination--a
sumptuous playground where the elite frolic--was black. But
to mention on the glitzy projects would do an injustice to Williams's
long and varied career. The native Angeleno and lifelong Republican
built churches, mortuaries, banks, offices, and civic centers
in black neighborhoods... His buildings are found in every corner
of Los Angeles, and they're scattered throughout the rest of
the world, from Columbia to Liberia to San Francisco. It would
have been an extraordinary career for any architect. For a black
architect born in 1894 (Williams died in 1980), it was almost
unbelievable. His will to succeed seems to have been innate.
Orphaned at age 4 and raised by foster parents, Williams excelled
in drawing, and in high school decided to become an architect.
He got no encouragement. But he didn't require much. "If
I allow the fact that I am a Negro to checkmate my will to do,
now, I will inevitably form the habit of being defeated."
In his teens and early twenties, he worked
for several architecture firms and enrolled in engineering school
at the University of Southern California (though he never graduated).
In 1919 he won a major residential architectural competition.
The judges commended the simplicity and "good taste"
of his designs, noting they were free of "useless ornaments
or expensive fads." Those early clean, careful designs
won him a job with the prestigious John C. Austin architecture
firm where he stayed for three years. Then in 1922, at age 28,
Williams opened his own practice...
Williams produced some 3,000 buildings but
there isn't necessarily a distinctive Williams stamp... If he
settled on one idiom, it was a graceful and streamlined historicism,
most apparent in his upscale homes and public buildings. At
midcentury, Paul Williams was the last word in elegant traditionalism.
And the Hollywood crowd loved it... "The effect of his
work was rarely imposing or ostentatious: It was historicism
reduced to its essence.. "He refined his clients' aspirations,"
says Merry Ovnick, a professor of cultural history at California
State University, Northridge. "He was their tutor in good
taste. If he'd done exactly what they told him to, they would
have ended up with tacky buildings. Williams prevented kitsch."
Source: Jennifer Reese, "Paul Williams:
An Architect," Via 120:5 (September-October 1999):52-55.
KENNY WASHINGTON AT UCLA, 1937
Many people recall Woody Strode as one of
the first African Americans to obtain major dramatic roles in
Hollywood feature films of the 1950s and 1960s. However, like
other actors of the day, or later, his career had its roots
in both college and professional football. In the late 1930s
Strode played on football at UCLA and where he was teammate
to a young junior college transfer, Jackie Robinson (who choose
the Bruins over the University of Oregon despite an overzealous
UO booster's gift of a new car). However the most famous Bruins
teammate at the time was Strode's friend, Kenny Washington,
the first black quarterback in UCLA history and one of only
a half dozen African American to have ever played in that position
at a major university. The account below is Strode's recollection
of Washington's greatest game, the 1937 USC-UCLA meeting at
Our biggest game of the 1937 season was our
finale against USC. The first USC-UCLA game was played in 1929;
UCLA lost 76-0. The next year we lost 52-0. Bill Ackerman decided
it wasn't healthy for us to play them. They were just too good.
The schools decided not to play again until UCLA had a chance
to build up the program.
UCLA didn't play USC again until Kenny and
I got there. So we never had beaten USC; we just ate their leftovers.
And I swear the people at those two schools hated each other.
"Goddamn USC, those rich sons of bitches!" I can imagine
the betting that went down, it was like a war.
We always met at the Wilshire Country Club
before the game: Willis O. Hunter, the director of athletics
at USC, all the officials from UCLA, the president of the student
body, the coaches, yell leaders, song girls, dean of students,
and anybody else connected with the game. They'd go over anything
that might lead to a problem. See, things would happen. Like
we stole Tire Biter once; that was their dog. Or one time somebody
from the USC band was walking by and someone from our school
poured a whole bucket of blue paint on his uniform. Well, I
had to buy that kid a new uniform. So they had this big meeting
to try and keep everything on an even keel.
My biggest concern going into that first game
against USC was whether or not Kenny could play. At eighteen
years of age, in his first year of major college football, Kenny
handled the ball 90 percent of the time and then backed me up
behind the line on defense. He'd play sixty minutes of a sixty-minute
ballgame. Kenny got so beat up he'd spend his weekends at the
Hollywood Hospital getting glucose dripped into his arm. We
were all jealous, "Look at that Kenny Washington lying
up there with all those pretty nurses."
USC hit pretty hard, and if you're hurt internally,
it's just going to be that much harder on you. Of course the
press didn't know Kenny was injured; they went ahead and promoted
the game based on his ability to play. Maxwell Stiles wrote
this for the Los Angeles Examiner:
If one man can lick a football team, Kenny
Washington looks like the man to do it. But if you are going
to stick to the theory that a TEAM should beat a MAN, they you
have to take Howard Jones' Trojans.
We played on a cool, crisp December 4th at
2:00 p.m. and 80,000 fans showed up... I was coming in through
the players' entrance, ready to play in the biggest game of
my life. I don't know how we thought we could beat USC; they'd
rotate three tackles on me so I was always trying to block a
fresh guy. But we were tough because we played from our hearts.
I was so keyed up I must have bounced off three lockers and
four doors trying to find the tunnel to the field.
We were down 13-0 in the third quarter when
[Coach] Spaulding pulled Kenny out of the game. He was taking
a terrible beating. As soon as Don Ferguson came in to replace
him, USC scored again... It was the fourth quarter when the
wheels started falling off the Trojan's horse... We recovered
[a fumble] on their 44-yard line. That's when Spaulding put
Kenny back in the game.
The ball was snapped to Kenny and he faded
back. Our right halfback, Hal Hirshon, took off around my end.
I stayed in to block... Hal caught the ball and scored; 19-7
USC. In those days the team scored upon had the option to kick
off or receive. USC figured the pass to Hal Hirshon was just
a lucky break for us. They figured they'd kick off, pin us down
on our end of the field and run the clock out, after all, they
'd been stopping us all day. They figured wrong.
They kicked off, and we took over on our own
28-yard line. We got into our huddle and Hal said, "Kenny,
I can beat their safety!" Kenny said, "Okay, run as
fast as you can, as far as you can and I'll hit you."
Hal went deep. A couple of Trojans leaked
through but Kenny shucked them off. He ran to his right and
set to throw on the 15-yard line. Hal and [the safety] raced
stride for stride until they crossed mid-field. Then [the safety]
started pulling up. He must have thought, "Screw it. Nobody
can throw this far!"
Hal kept running, flat-out towards the goal.
Kenny cranked it up and unloaded. Hal caught it on their 20
yard-line and took it for the score; 19-13 USC... Well, no one
ever, even in the pros, had thrown a pass as far as Kenny Washington
did that day. That was the longest officially documented pass
in the history of American football: 72 yards all together,
53 yards in the air from the line of scrimmage. But Kenny received
the snap 10 yards behind the line, and he backpedaled and sidestepped
until he was boxed into a corner on the 15. Well, from our own
15 to the other guys' 23, that's 65 yards in the air, not counting
the diagonal. Nobody had ever seen throwing like that.
This time USC decide they would let us kick
off. They knew if Kenny got the ball back he might throw it
the entire length of the field. They received the kick, but
we were so fired up they couldn't move the ball. They punted
and we took over around midfield; there were three minutes left
on the clock.
Kenny ran and passed us down to their 14-yard
line. On third down we tried to trick them. This time Hal Hirshon
got the ball and tried a pass to Kenny in the end zone. But
Hal was completely exhausted from running downfield time after
time. Hal threw the ball way short and as Kenny turned back
for it he slipped and fell flat on his face.
It was fourth down and 13 to go on their 14-yard
line. The final seconds were ticking off the clock. A touchdown
meant a sure tie with a chance to win on the conversion. Kenny
received the snap and faded back. I ran a hook pattern to the
1-yard line; I was wide open. Kenny passed and as I turned,
I saw the ball coming at me like a bullet. And like a bullet
it went right through me.
We could have won if I held on to that pass.
I didn't miss many. But when Kenny threw the ball, he threw
it hard. He didn't throw many interceptions; if I couldn't get
it nobody could. I've often thought about that pass; I don't
know how I missed it. I guess it just wasn't meant to be.
Source: Woody Strode, Goal Dust: An Autobiography
(New York, 1990), pp. 66-70.
A PROTEST IN DENVER, 1932
The following description of an unsuccessful
attempt by black Denverites to integrate a bathing beach in
south Denver suggests that racial attitudes in the West now
bore little distinction from the rest of the nation.
On an August afternoon in 1932, Denver's African
Americans tried to change things. Aided, the newspapers said,
by Communists, 150 blacks, intent on integrating Washington
Park's bathing beach, gathered at Smith Lake in south Denver,
an overwhelmingly white section of the city. Parks Manager Walter
Lowry urged them to leave: You never before tried to used this
beach." Safety Manager Carl Milliken warned, "if you
go into the lake you will be acting at your own peril."
The blacks responded, "We're citizens, have your cops protect
Then they went swimming. Whites quickly left
the water, armed themselves with sticks and stones, and advanced
on the newcomers who fled toward the trucks that had brought
them. When two trucks would not start, the blacks were pursued
and beaten as nearly a thousand onlookers watched. The police
arrested 17 people--10 African American and 7 whites who had
encouraged the blacks to assert their rights.
The Denver Post drew a moral from the riot--"The
Communist menace in this country is underestimated by many people"--and
warned that "agitators can foment riots and cause other
disturbances resulting in human injury and property damage."
African Americans also learned from the confrontation. They
had not been violent. The worse the News could charge them with
was hurling a "vile epithet." Yet they were arrested
while their attackers went free. Still in the shadow of its
Klan days of the 1920s, Denver was not ready to guarantee liberty
and justice for all.
Eight years later Hattie McDaniel, who spent
some of her early years in Denver, won an Academy Award for
her 1939 role in the film, Gone With the Wind, becoming the
first black to be so recognized. Her stereotype "mammy"
character pleased Denverites who took pride in her Oscar, but,
as the Washington Park riot had demonstrated, African Americans
were expected to stay in their places and play assigned roles.
When, in 1941, blacks asked to be hire to help build the Denver
Ordnance Plant, Paul Shriver, director of Colorado's Work Progress
Administration, told them that "Negroes and Mexicans have
one chance out of a thousand [to be employed]." Jerome
Biffle learned a similar lesson about prejudice in the mid-1940s
when he was told that he and other African Americans at East
High [School] could belong only to the Letterman's Club. He
made the most of his talent by winning the 1952 Olympic gold
medal in the broad jump; that gained him fame at home but did
not assure him total acceptance, for in 1952, as in 1932, Denver
like other U.S. cities, suffered from racism.
Source: Stephen J. Leonard and Thomas J. Noel,
Denver: Mining Camp to Metropolis (Niwot, Colorado, 1990), pp.