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Historian recounts Spokane’s unique role in civil rights

Dwayne Mack at GU
Dwayne Mack signs book after presentation at Gonzaga.

Dwayne Mack recently gave an overview from his book about Black Spokane and civil rights in the region, sharing little-known history he uncovered while working on his dissertation at Washington State University (WSU).

Dwayne, who grew up in Brooklyn, appreciates how mentors helped shape him as a young historian in his five years at WSU.

“I celebrate the resilience of the small black community in the Inland Northwest,” he said, speaking at Gonzaga at the invitation of its History Department.

“The book presents some milestones, primarily from the post war period to the death of Spokane’s first African mayor, James Chase in the late 1980s,” he said. 

Black Spokane reflects faith, courage and perseverance of African Americans,” he said.  “The struggle continues today.”

He hopes his book helps black Spokane today learn of the plight of black Americans through another lens.

“I’m connected to black Spokane for life, and I hope to extend the story into the 2000s,” he said, encouraging others to follow and write about the many stories here.

“Here blacks and whites were allies, challenging the community about right and wrong, mobilizing people in coalitions, not bickering or engaging in sexism,” Dwayne said.

A primary source was Spokane historian of African American residents Jerrelene Williamson, whose family was among black pioneers who settled in the area in the 1880s.  She founded Spokane Northwest Black Pioneers.

Another source was Spokesman-Review reporter and historian Jim Kershner, who wrote Telling Carl Maxey’s Story: Understanding the Fighter in the Ring and the Courtroom.

Dwayne’s focus begins in the 1950s and goes through the 1980s.

After World War II, African Americans fled the South, seeking permanent homes and opportunities in the Northwest.

In 1981, Spokane elected James Chase in an era when other U.S. cities had black mayors, but Spokane was the only white city with a black mayor.  Dwayne’s book follows through to his death.

As background, he told of early pioneers Emmett Hercules Holmes and Peter Barrow, who encouraged a wave of black migration into the early 1900s, starting churches and businesses.  Peter, an apple orchardist, hired many African-Americans and founded the first African American church, Calvary Baptist.  He was the grandfather of Mayor Chase’s wife, Eleanor.

In 1900, Dwayne said there were 360 black people in a community of 65,000.  Spokane’s NAACP formed in 1919 to promote racial equality and promote civil rights.  Black migration slowed in the Depression and resumed after World War II. 

“They knew of Spokane because they were based here in the service,” Dwayne said.

In the 1950s, there were about 1,300 African Americans in a population of 160,000, as Geiger Field brought black soldiers.

“Given experiences of Jim Crow on and off the base, Spokane’s NAACP leadership acted with the same intensity as in other areas, mediating between black soldiers and the white community,” he said.

“As black upward mobility began to challenge white supremacy, the NAACP and others worked together to oppose racial segregation by redlining, a mortgage lending practice that denied loans to African Americans in some neighborhoods.  That meant most African Americans lived in East Central Spokane,” he said. “Black professors couldn’t live where they wanted.  Bricks were thrown through the windows of those who defied the redlining.”

The Spokane Council on Race Relations brought the Air Force, African-Americans and white people together, working for civil rights during the Cold War.

Rosa Malone ran a USO for African Americans, who were excluded in area bases and the community.  They could not stay in most hotels, so they stayed in homes of black people.

The white community did not embrace black soldiers, but considered them troublemakers,” Dwayne said.  “Blacks lived in segregated barracks.  When singer Paul Robeson came, he had to use the hotel’s freight elevator.  Louis Armstrong came to play in the Armory, but left Spokane in a huff, denied a hotel room.

“Much of such discrimination was not talked about,” he said.

African Americans began to challenge racism.  Attorney Carl Maxey adopted a civil rights strategy.  With his help, the black community and NAACP turned to the legal system to expose discrimination in housing and the hospitality industry, Dwayne said.

“In the struggle for racial equality, was not the racial terrorism of the South, but Spokane was the hub of complex civil rights activities, a new approach to the narrative,” he said.

In the Inland Northwest, blacks and white activists contributed to civil rights and connected with the national movement, but Spokane’s story was a departure.

“A remarkable group of committed black leaders challenged racism,” said Dwayne.

By 1965, there were 2,600 African Americans in the area.  They relied on legal challenges to attack discrimination in housing and public accommodations. 

Gonzaga University students rallied when a barber refused to cut the hair of a Liberian student.  An interracial group came together in a nonviolent protest and forced the barber to close.

“Justice prevailed through the collaboration of the campus and black community in October 1963,” Dwayne said.

The faith community also supported racial equality.

“Spokane was part of the national civil rights canvas, despite assumptions that little was happening,” Dwayne said.  “Spokane has had a long civil rights movement and avoided a premature closure with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.”

As Community Action Councils managed and distributed funds for anti-poverty programs, there was a demand to include blacks.

In other areas, blacks entered politics. 

“Jesse Jackson’s unsuccessful campaign for President galvanized activism in the 1980s,” Dwayne said.  “He mobilized the Rainbow Coalition, bringing together blacks and whites.”

Carl Maxey made a bid for the Senate in the 1970s.  Lydia Sims was the first African American woman to head the city’s affirmative action office.

A highlight for Dwayne was the election of James Chase, first to City Council and then as mayor in 1981. 

He came to Spokane as a hobo, hopping the rails to find work with the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Self-taught and a self-made entrepreneur, he owned an auto body shop and became a civic leader.  His wife, Eleanor, a singer, graduated from Whitworth and was on EWU’s board of trustees. 

In 1981, Spokane broke a significant color barrier by electing its first African American mayor, a visible achievement of the civil rights movement in Washington State and the Inland Empire.

“As mayor, he kept his cool in the face of racial slurs,” Dwayne said.  “He understood that he led all of Spokane, not just African Americans.”

Dwayne is the Carter Woodson chair in African American history and associate professor of history at Berea College in Berea, Ky. His book on Black Spokane: The Civil Rights Struggle in the Inland Northwest, was published this year.

For information, call 859-575-0965 or email dwayne_mack@berea.edu.




Copyright © January 2015- The Fig Tree