Researching African Americans in Spokane

By Patricia Bayonne-Johnson

Researching African Americans in Spokane has just gotten a little easier with the recent publication of two books:  Images of America – African Americans in Spokane by Jerrelene Williamson and Northwest Black Pioneers, A Tributeby Ralph Hayes and Joseph Franklin. Prior to these publications, the primary source of information on African Americans in Spokane has been All Through the Night: The History of Spokane Black Americans 1860 – 1940 by Joseph Franklin.

Images of America African Americans in Spokane is a collection of photographs from the Spokane Northwest Black Pioneers, the MAC and pioneer photographer, Wallace “Wally” Hagin. It was published in 2010 by Jerrelene Williamson, who is the president and founding member of the Spokane Northwest Black Pioneers.  Her father was born in Spokane in 1899 and she has lived here since she was two years old. She grew up in Spokane before the civil rights era, during a time in which African Americans experienced discrimination in every aspect of their lives. Mrs. Williamson has made it her mission to tell the stories of the black settlers who came to Spokane seeking a better way of life and who triumphed against all odds in a city where they were not welcomed.

In 1888, black men from the southern states were recruited to break a white miners’ strike, a fact that they discovered after their arrival. The men were met with a lot of violence, but after much bloodshed the strike was settled and all the men, black and white, returned to the mines. The book begins with the migration of blacks to Spokane after the mines were closed in 1899. The author relates the story of their lives and struggles in the Lilac City, and more.

Other topics covered are the Colored military, black churches, social clubs and organizations and businesses. In Chapter 10, The Notables, Mrs. Williamson includes more recent distinguished African Americans; namely, James  Chase, Spokane’s first African American mayor and his wife, Eleanor Barrow Chase, a descendant of one of the oldest black families in Spokane; Carl Maxey, a civil rights lawyer; Wallace “Wally” Hagin, musician, photographer and Washington’s first African American licensed commercial pilot; and Francis Nichols Scott, Spokane’s first African American woman attorney.

Northwest Black Pioneers, A Tribute is the history of black pioneers in the Pacific Northwest beginning with the territorial days.  Black pioneers of Spokane, Seattle, Tacoma, Tri-Cities and Yakima are featured in the book as well as pioneers from the Oregon Territory.  Do you know that a slave by the name of York accompanied Lewis and Clark in their exploration of the Northwest? Do you know that George Bush, a free man, formed a community that was at first called “Bush Prairie” and later became Thurston County? Do you know that George Washington, a former slave from Virginia, is the founder of Centralia?  All this and more is found in this publication.

Northwest Black Pioneers, A Tribute is published as a booklet; thus, it contains no table of contents or index.  Sponsored by Macy’s, it has been distributed to over 100,000 schools and other institutions. I purchased a copy at the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) in Seattle while attending the 8th Annual West Coast African American Genealogy Summit in October 2008.

All Through the Night: The History of Spokane Black Americans 1860 – 1940 by Joseph Franklin is highly recommended for researching African Americans in Spokane. First published in 1989, it is currently available for purchase only at used booksellers, such as Amazon or Alibris. The Seattle Public Library has a copy that it displayed at the aforementioned African American Genealogy Summit. 

Joseph Franklin, a native of the Northwest, specializes in the African American Experience in the Northwest. As a historian, Franklin has taught or lectured in many Pacific Northwest Colleges and Universities. In his book, Mr. Franklin covers the black pioneers who arrived in Spokane before the influx of the black miners from Roslyn.  Of the three books, All Through the Night is the most scholarly and the most comprehensive in scope.  It includes interviews with people who were living in Spokane in the early 1900s.

Malbert Montgomery Cooper, one of the people interviewed and quoted in the book about his life in Spokane, is the man I chose for my “cold case genealogy” research project. After I found his interview in All Through the Night, I decided to research Malbert Cooper because of his unusual given name.  Mr. Cooper was a member of the 25th Infantry at Fort George Wright.  Upon visiting the gravesite of Sergeant Cooper at Spokane Memorial Gardens in Cheney, I discovered that he has no headstone.  I am working with Mr. Chuck Elmore of Veterans Affairs in Spokane to locate Malbert Cooper’s discharge papers, so he can qualify for a government-issued headstone. Incidentally, Malbert Cooper is featured in all three of the books I have referenced.

All Through the Night also helped me research the man assigned to me for the first Walking with Ancestors. Rudolph Bowman Scott, an early black pioneer, came to Spokane in 1883 and was involved in farming, real estate and mining; and, he established a fire and life insurance company that paid all claims arising out of the 1889 fire in Spokane. Scott was a Spokane County delegate to the convention convened to organize the state of Washington in 1889; he was a friend of Chief Joseph; and, he was appointed U.S. Chinese Inspector in Spokane.

Did you know there was a Chinatown in Spokane?

As a recent newcomer to Spokane, I have found these three publications invaluable in getting to know the people who came here before me and the contributions they made in the development of the Pacific Northwest.

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