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Black Spokane : the civil rights struggle in…
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Black Spokane : the civil rights struggle in the inland northwest

by Dwayne Mack

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Black Spokane tells the story of the history of African Americans in Spokane. There is not much information about this community, perhaps because this is such a small population in such a majority white city. This book endeavors to fill the gap in telling the history of this group who has always been part of Spokane.

Both black and white pioneers were among the first settlers to Spokane in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1896, the first African American to hold public office in Spokane County was elected. The first African American church, Calvary Baptist Church, was established in 1890, and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1901. Soon other churches for the black community followed. These churches helped new residents get used to Spokane, often advising them in how to behave and what businesses to avoid due to discrimination. To aid the churches in social service functions, other organizations were formed by African Americans, such as the Inland Empire Number Three Masonic Lodge in 1903, the Order of the Eastern Star in 1925, the local branch of the Washington State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1917, and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1919.

During the Second Great Migration, Spokane’s black population nearly doubled. Many blacks new to the area were military personnel; however military officials did not always provide to blacks accommodations on par with white military personnel. There were also a few African American entrepreneurs at this time, mostly serving both black and while customers. Often blacks became business owners in part to provide services to their fellow blacks because of the rampant discrimination found in white-owned businesses.

In the 1940s, black Spokane residents began to mobilize to improve race relations in the city. The Spokane Committee on Race Relations (SCRR) and other organizations were formed as an interracial group to respond to problems plaguing black Spokanites. They held workshops and clinics with the ultimate goal of ending discrimination. Although other cities’ race relations were more volatile, Spokane still experienced many of the same Jim Crow restrictions on property ownership.

After World War II, a few incidents involving military personnel taxed the city’s race relations. Black soldiers often caught the ire of law enforcement, but a lack of city and federal support curtailed the efforts of the SCRR and the NAACP to protect their civil rights. In addition, there was some in-fighting within these organizations that limited their impact overall.

By the end of the 1950s, after a slow start, the civil rights movement in Spokane gained momentum. Legal maneuvers were used to effect change in employment, housing, and services for African Americans. Throughout the 1950s, many civil rights victories were had with the help of outspoken proponents such as Carl Maxey, Eugene H. Breckenridge, Hazel Scott, and James M. Sims to name a few.

Discrimination in 1960s Spokane was less overt than in the South, but it was still nefarious. While no longer told to leave lunch counters or department stores, blacks were still given inferior service. Employment discrimination encouraged many African Americans to move to larger cities after finishing their education. Housing discrimination also continued to ostracize black residents. Complaints were brought to the Washington State Board Against Discrimination (WSBAD), and the board often sided with the complainants although it had limited ability to effect great change. Migration of blacks out of Spokane increased due to the quagmire of underemployment and low-income housing. An absence of young civil rights leaders emerged.

James Chase was elected to city council in 1975, the second African American to do so. Lydia Sims was elected as president of the Spokane NAACP, becoming the first African American female president in 1976. After five years on city council, Chase became the first African American mayor of Spokane in 1981. The 1980s saw the black population in Spokane fail to grow and the Asian and Latino populations out-paced the black population. Although blacks were still under-represented in many fields of employment, the civil rights movement continued to wane throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Moving to Spokane in 2008 from the Detroit area, the lack of diversity took some time for me to get used to. Learning more about the history of blacks and civil rights struggles in Spokane has brought me closer to understanding the city. Spending time in a city that is majority African American versus majority white has been a learning experience. I am thankful this book was written so that I can better relate to my surroundings and give much need credit to the blacks of Spokane who worked so hard to improve the conditions of a city that, although wonderful, has a long way to go.
  Carlie | Jan 27, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0806144890, Hardcover)

In 1981, decades before mainstream America elected Barack Obama, James Chase became the first African American mayor of Spokane, Washington, with the overwhelming support of a majority-white electorate. Chase’s win failed to capture the attention of historians—as had the century-long evolution of the black community in Spokane. In Black Spokane: The Civil Rights Struggle in the Inland Northwest, Dwayne A. Mack corrects this oversight—and recovers a crucial chapter in the history of race relations and civil rights in America.

As early as the 1880s, Spokane was a destination for black settlers escaping the racial oppression in the South—settlers who over the following decades built an infrastructure of churches, businesses, and social organizations to serve the black community. Drawing on oral histories, interviews, newspapers, and a rich array of other primary sources, Mack sets the stage for the years following World War II in the Inland Northwest, when an influx of black veterans would bring about a new era of racial issues. His book traces the earliest challenges faced by the NAACP and a small but sympathetic white population as Spokane became a significant part of the national civil rights struggle. International superstars such as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and Hazel Scott figure in this story, along with charismatic local preachers, entrepreneurs, and lawyers who stepped forward as civic leaders. 

These individuals’ contributions, and the black community’s encounters with racism, offer a view of the complexity of race relations in a city and a region not recognized historically as centers of racial strife. But in matters of race—from the first migration of black settlers to Spokane, through the politics of the Cold War and the civil rights movement, to the successes of the 1970s and ’80s—Mack shows that Spokane has a story to tell, one that this book at long last incorporates into the larger history of twentieth-century America.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:05 -0400)

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