African Americans in the Columbia River Basin -
Pioneers and Homesteaders
Race and Social Space
Lesson Plans for Teachers
As a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805-1806, William
Clark’s servant York was one of the first African Americans
to set foot in the Pacific Northwest. African Americans have continued
to come to the region ever since. Before the mid-nineteenth century,
they came as fur trappers, pioneers,
and homesteaders. After 1860 they came in search of homesteads and
work opportunities in mining and with the railroad companies. They
were enterprising single men, women, and families who persisted
in the face of numerous social obstacles to form the communities
that today dot the states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.
Early in the migration and settlement process African
Americans encountered prejudice that often inhibited their efforts
to establish roots. This intolerance, at times blatant but often
subtle, provided a powerful impulse for blacks to build their own
community institutions, such as churches, fraternal and political
organizations, and mutual aid societies. Discrimination often shaped
their residential patterns, their occupational choices, and limited
their opportunities for social advancement. White racial bias against
blacks varied depending on the history of particular communities
and the size of the black population in a given community. The defining
feature of African American communities in the region, however,
was their persistence in creating their own institutions in the
face of many obstacles. African Americans sought to establish and
maintain friendly relations with whites, and many whites cast aside
social and racial markers to help blacks build their institutions.
Today the numerous vibrant black communities throughout the Columbia
River Basin bear witness to the historical persistence and resiliency
of African Americans.
Opportunities for economic advancement attracted African Americans
to Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Trapper John Hinds came to Idaho
to help establish the Waiilatpu mission. He died in 1836. George
Bush, a free black from Philadelphia, settled in the Oregon territory
north of the Columbia River in the mid 1840s in an area known as
Bush Prairie where he became a successful farmer. The discovery
of gold and silver in Idaho in the early 1860s attracted adventurous
pioneers such as George Washington Blackman, who became a successful
miner in the Hailey area. Blackman Peak in the Sawtooth National
Recreation area bears his name.
George Winslow came to Yamhill, Oregon from California with trapper
Ewing Young in 1834. Francis, who was from New Jersey, became a
successful businessman in Portland in the 1850s and was one of the
wealthiest African Americans in Oregon, and perhaps in the Pacific
Northwest. He ran a boarding house in 1852, and the 1860 census
recorded that he owned real estate valued at $16,000 and personal
property valued at $20,000.
African Americans began to settle in Spokane in the 1870s. The
1880 census listed six blacks in Spokane County, and recorded Oregon,
eastern Canada, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio as their
place of origin. Rudolph Scott migrated to the Pacific
Northwest around 1880 and settled in Spokane in 1883. Leading a
prominent life in local affairs, he founded an insurance company,
was a member of the Republican Party, and served as Vice President
of the John Logan Colored Republican Club.
||Many early African American settlers were
single men, but families began to settle in the region by the late
19th century. Eugene
Settle recalls in an oral history interview that he migrated with
his parents and siblings from Oklahoma to Moscow, Idaho, in 1898,
because his father wanted to homestead. Clara
Terrell’s grandfather homesteaded in Salt Lake City, as
part of Hiram Walker’s Mormon group. Her parents met there and
married. Her father moved his family to Idaho because “as a
young fellow, he heard of cows here in Boise.” They lived in
Idaho Falls before settling on a farm in Rigby. In Oregon, Reuben
Shipley and Mary Jane Holmes, of Benton County, were prominent farmers.
Former slaves Shipley and Holmes married in 1857 and purchased 101
acres. Finding success as farmers they purchased additional acreage
in 1865 and 1866.
The desire to escape traditions of segregation and discrimination
in southern, eastern and some mid-western states motivated African
Americans to migrate to the Columbia River Basin. Many believed
that the racial atmosphere in the Pacific Northwest was much more
tolerant, although the history of the region renders that perception
questionable. Obstacles imposed by racial prejudice and racist practices
provided a powerful impulse for African Americans to build their
own community institutions.
||African American pioneers immediately began
to organize their own churches. In Portland, several black artisans
and unskilled laborers founded one of the first black churches in
1862, a small multi-denominational congregation called the “People’s
Church.” In Spokane the Calvary Baptist Church was organized
in 1890, with the Rev. Peter B. Barrows listed as one of its founders.
That same year the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal was also organized,
with the Rev. A.C. Augustus as one of its founders. In Pocatello,
Idaho the first African American churches, the Colored Baptist Church
and African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), were founded in 1908.
Rev. Walter Dranon was the first pastor of the Methodist Episcopal
Church, and the Rev. Charles B. Clements became the first pastor of
the Colored Baptist Church. In the 1920s Boise black churches included
St. Paul Baptist and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal.
As the first institutions in emerging African American
communities in the Columbia River Basin, African American churches
served as fulcrums of leadership formation and social activism and
worked to protect the community’s social welfare. Churches
often helped catalyze black community fraternal and civic organizations,
for it was in church-sponsored activities that black leaders emerged.
For example, in Spokane the first generation of African American
community leaders sprang from the Calvary Baptist and Bethel African
Methodist Episcopal churches. In 1890 the Spokane chapter of the
Afro American League formed within six months of the founding of
the two churches. E.H. Holmes, a member of Bethel African Methodist
Episcopal Church, became the founding Vice President of the Spokane
chapter of the Afro American League. Rev. Peter Barrows, of the
Calvary Baptist Church, with others established the John A. Logan
Club, a political organization.
Race and Social Space
In Oregon race relations between African Americans and whites hardened
during the political organization of the Oregon Territory in the
late 1840s. Members of the Territorial Legislature introduced laws
that attempted to exclude blacks from the benefits of full citizenship
rights. These efforts were unsuccessful. However, anti-black attitudes
surfaced again during the Constitutional Convention of 1857. In
this session anti-black delegates managed to secure passage of ballot
measures that prohibited further immigration of blacks and mulattoes
to Oregon, although efforts to make Oregon a slave state failed.
The voters approved overwhelmingly measures that both outlawed slavery
and prohibited blacks and mulattoes from residing in Oregon. Laws
that discriminated against African Americans remained in place through
the late 19th and early 20th centuries, despite passage of the Fourteenth
and Fifteenth amendments to the U. S. Constitution. This, however,
did not daunt black leaders and organizations in their struggle
to end discrimination in housing, employment, education and public
|African Americans experienced racial discrimination
in employment and in public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels
and other public places. In Spokane in the 1890s blacks arriving by
train as recruits to work for the Great Northern Railroad were met
by white workers who kept them from disembarking. Some blacks challenged
discriminatory treatment. In 1919 S.S. Moore sued the Pantages Theater,
a vaudeville and movie house in Spokane, after he was forced to sit
in the balcony. The jury awarded Moore $200 in damages, arguing that
“even” black men had the right to sit anywhere they chose.
In Boise in the decades before World War II blacks were not served
at the Bus Depot restaurant. Discrimination against blacks continued
after the war in Boise and elsewhere.
African Americans in Pocatello in the early 1950s were not served
in some local hotels
or restaurants. When the famous group The Ink Spots performed
at the Moore Inn, the bartender refused to serve them. Yet Pocatello
and Spokane did not segregate blacks in the public schools.
||African Americans also encountered discrimination in
housing. In Portland during World War II, a housing shortage developed
under the pressure of the dramatic influx of migrants attracted by
the labor demands of the defense industry. Over 20,000 black migrants
arrived there to take advantage of job opportunities and competed
with white workers for available housing. Throughout this period local
newspapers regularly reported the resistance of local business and
political leaders to providing equal housing opportunities for blacks.
As a result, most blacks were forced to live in the Albina district
of North Portland and at Vanport, a hastily erected housing complex
built by the Kaiser shipbuilding company to house its burgeoning workforce.
Newspaper accounts also recorded the persistent efforts of black leaders
and social activists, and their white supporters, to accomplish housing
desegregation. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s successfully
broke down much of the city's resistance to black
|In some cases individual employers and landlords resisted
integration, but in other instances, discrimination flowed from labor
organizations or public institutions. The Portland Housing Authority
maintained a recalcitrant posture throughout the 1940s and beyond
that effectively segregated the few black families that successfully
navigated the application process and got an apartment. The Housing
Authority of Portland Board of Directors consistently refused to to
apply for federal funds in order to construct affordable public housing
for African Americans.
||The Portland branch of the Brotherhood
of Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders, and Helpers, Local 72, also discriminated
against blacks. The union systematically denied membership or full
membership rights to black workers in the defense industries in Portland
during World War II. Local 72, and its avowed racist leader, subordinated
black defense workers by keeping them out of the best paying jobs,
or by preventing them from securing defense industry positions. Black
activists and defense workers waged a long struggle to break
down the barriers to job advancement for African American workers.
They succeeded eventually, but victory came at a high emotional, psychological,
and material cost for black defense workers.
Racial discrimination still exists in Columbia River Basin
communities. Improvements in employment, housing, and social acceptance
reflect the legacy of the historical
resiliency of African Americans and their struggle for civil rights.
- Mario Compean
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