African Americans in the Columbia River Basin - Historical Overview

Pioneers and Homesteaders
Building Communities
Race and Social Space
Lesson Plans for Teachers
Learning Module


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.

Pioneers and Homesteaders

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.

Building Communities

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 accommodations.

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 residential integration.
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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