Civil rights anywhere has impact here
Active in the NAACP and in local civil rights marches, Jerrelene Williamson, 83, felt akin to civil rights marchers led by Martin Luther King Jr. and today supports protests across the country related to police shooting unarmed African American young men.
|Jerrelene Williamson tells how Martin Luther King Jr has influenced her life|
“We were not in the marches with Martin Luther King Jr., but our hearts, minds and souls were there,” she said. “We knew that as things became better elsewhere, they would be better for everyone.”
So she considers the March on Washington and the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma part of her heritage.
“What happened there was and still is important here,” she said. “There will always be something, so we need to be alert.”
Jerrelene likens what is happening between police and black young men across the country to what is happening in Spokane where, she said, black young men are stopped too frequently.
“Whatever happens to someone of my race, happens to all of us, because it affects all of us,” said Jerrelene, who has seen many benefits from the civil rights movement in improved opportunities in her life, her children’s lives and the lives of other African Americans in Spokane.
Jerrelene, who now focuses on her five children, 14 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren, has created a legacy for them by recording the history of African Americans in Spokane.
She has been part of that history, growing up in the caring community of African American churches and organizations that assured welcome and companionship while many doors were shut to African Americans.
Jerrelene grew up attending the state’s oldest African American church, Calvary Baptist Church in Spokane, founded 125 years ago. In her teen years when she was attending Rogers High School, however, she began attending Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which had a large youth group with many young men.
There she met her husband, Sam, who came to Spokane from Cleveland in 1948 to work with his uncle’s floor refinishing business. They were married after she graduated in 1950 and were together 63 years until his death in 2013.
They lived in Spokane, except for three years in California. Sam was maintenance manager at Playfair Race Track and had a business cleaning homes, washing windows and doing janitorial services. In 1972, they moved to the home where she now lives in Spokane Valley.
Eventually, they returned to attend Calvary while their five children were growing.
In 1965, after their youngest went to school, Jerrelene began working as a grocery checker at Safeway—the first African American grocery store checker in Spokane. She continued working 27 years until retiring in 1991.
As a checker, she enjoyed meeting and talking with people. She always tried to be kind. One woman she met at a doll show told her that her grandmother always liked going through her line because she “smiled and was nice.”
One day, however, a woman, who had waited in line, turned her head to snub Jerrelene just when it was her turn. Then she went to another line.
“I made up my mind to smile, be kind and do my work,” she said.
“It’s foolish for people to have rejected African Americans,” she said. “It’s different now. I have many white friends. I’m glad my children did not experience the foolish ways blacks were portrayed in entertainment, films and on TV. Many TV black programs now portray us in a good light.”
For the 1989 state centennial, Jerrelene helped form the Spokane Northwest Black Pioneers, which did research and collected photos for a “Centennial Tribute to Northwest Black Pioneers.” It was sponsored statewide by The Bon Marche, which displayed the exhibit and served soul food in its restaurants. Some of the captions of the photos were written by Nancy Compau, researcher in the Northwest Room of the Spokane Public Library.
The exhibit included a window display of Jerrelene’s collection of African American dolls.
The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture has many of the original photos, and she has copies.
In 2010, her book, African Americans in Spokane, was published in conjunction with Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America. Her daughter, Jennifer Roseman, formerly with the Spokesman-Review and now with the Sisters of Providence communications, helped her produce the book.
The book compiles photos that were the Spokane part of the statewide black pioneers exhibit with captions by Jerrelene.
The introduction says the book’s stories are about Spokane African Americans’ families, lifestyles, discrimination, churches, business, employment, triumphs and defeats—their everyday life persevering in a city that did not always welcome them.
The photo book includes stories of many of Spokane’s famous African American citizens.
She most likes the story of Jim Chase, who came to Spokane on a freight train and wound up being elected mayor in 1981.
Her interest in history and her ancestors was aroused by Alex Haley’s 1976 book and TV series, “Roots,” in which he traced his ancestry to Africa.
“When I found my family’s story back to 1880, I was excited,” she said.
She found an 1880 census record in Staunton, Va., for her great grandfather, Henry Breckenridge, 32, his wife, Lucy, 25, and their three-year-old son, John. Henry and Lucy had both been born (1851 and 1857) into slavery.
In 1889, Henry came by train to Roslyn, Wash., recruited as many other blacks anxious to work. Brought to break a strike by coal miners, they were greeted with gun shots. Soon the strike ended and black and white miners worked side-by-side in the mines.
Lucy, Henry’s sister, Mary, and son John, then 11, had followed on the next train, as did many other families. They moved to Spokane in 1899.
There were 376 blacks in Spokane in 1900, according to Joseph Franklin’s book, All Through the Night. After the mines began to close in the 1920s, many more moved to Spokane.
Unlike Roslyn, where there were black-owned businesses and stores they could frequent, there were fewer opportunities in Spokane, where black men worked as laborers, porters, janitors, barbers or in road construction. Women worked as domestics, cooks, hotel maids or nannies.
When Jerrelene’s father, Abner, was in his 20s, he was a Pullman porter. In Chicago, he met and married her mother, Hester. Returning to Spokane, they moved into his mother’s home. Abner worked as a maintenance man/janitor in hotels. Her mother worked when their nine children were older.
“Growing up we lived on the North side of the city in a house at 407 E. Broad St. My grandmother, Alice Breckenridge Hill, left the house to my father. Most black families lived on the Southeast side around the two black churches, Calvary Baptist, and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal, which started shortly after Calvary.
Jerrelene’s book tells of the early pastors and how these churches were the “lifeblood of their people.”
“There was always something going on at church—plays, dinners, ice cream socials, contests, picnics and ball games. We didn’t go elsewhere. We were refused service in restaurants and places of entertainment,” she said.
“People of all races came when we served chicken dinners to raise funds. Everyone pitched in. It was a lot of work,” she said.
“We could go to Fern’s Ice Cream Parlor without incident, so it was packed after church,” said Jerrelene.
Because an African American man had sued the Pantages Theater and won in 1919, when they tried to make him sit in the balcony, her generation was able to go to all the theaters without incident.
Many Spokane restaurants, hotels and businesses at the time had signs that said, “No Colored Patronage Solicited.” They discriminated not only against Spokane residents but also against celebrities like the Harlem Globetrotters, Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong and Marian Anderson.
Jerrelene remembers how excited she was when Sam took her out to eat at a Chinese restaurant.
“There were restrictions, and we didn’t go where we weren’t welcome,” she said, “but I always loved living in Spokane.”
There were also opportunities for African Americans in black social clubs, where young people went for tea parties and were taught the social graces of dining. There were also dances.
“The African American community cared for each other’s children. They taught us the right things to do in the church, community and home. If they saw someone’s child on the street misbehaving, they would say, ‘Your mother would not want you to do that.’ The child would quit the behavior. Children respected their elders,” Jerrelene said
“The caring community is what I value most,” she said.
Church is still a center of African American community, but not like it was, she observed.
Until newcomers connected with the churches, many were at first surprised walking around and seeing no other African Americans on the streets.
“People came from all over the U.S., liked Spokane and settled,” she said. “Some met their wives at the black USO.”
Kaiser and Boeing were big employers drawing many African-Americans to the Northwest for jobs after the war.
“We did not associate with the white community, other than at school or work. Schools were not segregated, but most black children went to Lincoln and Edison, and then to Lewis & Clark High School,” she said.
Her three older children went to Ferris and her two younger children went to Lewis and Clark.
“People have changed over the years,” Jerrelene observed.
When she went to Rogers, other students ignored her at first.
Then the choir director realized she had a good voice, and invited her to sing at a convocation.
“Before then, when I would walk the halls at Rogers, it was as if I was not there. When I sang ‘The Old Lamplighter,’ the audience erupted with applause and cheers,” she said. “After that, I walked down the hall and people said, ‘I liked your singing.’ It blew me away. At 16, it made me feel wonderful. I will never forget that feeling of elation. I wanted to be a singer on stage.”
Jerrelene sang and was soloist for many years in the choirs at Calvary and Bethel. After retiring from Safeway, she began visiting nursing homes with accompanist Vivian Wallace. She had a ministry of singing to the seniors for about 10 years. Her repertoire included songs from the war years, spirituals and other old time favorites.
“My children were not ignored at school, nor did they experience the name-calling I experienced when I walked down the street and heard, ‘There goes an N’,” said Jerrelene.
Having experienced discrimination, Jerrelene feels a kinship to Native Americans, Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans and others who suffered the same or worse discrimination.