Updated January 6, 2015
Segregated shelter for "Negro cotton pickers" during the Great Depression.
Thanks to Joe Arpaio and the Legislature of Russell Pearce, Phoenix has gained a global reputation as the Birmingham, Ala., of the new century. I wish I could tell you that things were better in the past. Alas, racist and exclusionary roots run deep in my hometown.
Phoenix was settled by many Southerners and ex-Confederates, and it kept that Southern sensibility well into the 1960s. The white Chicagoans who started coming in the 1930s brought their own prejudices that for decades tore that city apart.
Into the early 1950s many places in Phoenix were legally segregated, including schools. Phoenix Union Colored High School, later George Washington Carver High, opened in 1926. Dunbar, Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass elementary schools were built for younger "colored" children. (Douglass is now home of New Times).
Deed covenants restricted many neighborhoods to "whites only." Minorities couldn't buy houses north of Van Buren well into the 1940s. Many stores and restaurants would not serve blacks, Mexicans, Japanese and Indians. Swimming pools were segregated, too. Arizona had an anti-miscegenation law on the books from 1865 to 1962.
To be fair, there was no "colored waiting room" at Union Station and Encanto Park golf course accepted minority players in the 1940s. No lynching based on race is on record. Chinese-American children went to white public schools. But the race and class lines were not hard to find. Phoenix always saw itself as an Anglo city (and the demographics back this up), unlike old Tucson, with its proud Spanish and Mexican traditions.
Yet consider: For decades the distance between the mansions of "Millionaires Row" and "the slums" were often only a few blocks.
The Salt River Valley, of course, had once been part of Mexico. Prior to Columbus, it was the site of the most advanced irrigation-based civilization in the Americas before being abandoned by the Hohokam. By the time the cavalry forced peace on the Apaches and white families such as mine began arriving in the latter part of the 19th century, Hispanics and Pimas were living in the Valley, too.
The nature of the town was embodied in one of its founders, Jack Swilling. He had a Mexican wife, Trinidad Escalante, as well as an adopted Apache son, Guillermo.
In other words, Phoenix was never Des Moines in the desert.
An African Episcopal Methodist Church was established in 1887 (Mary Green, a domestic servant to former Confederate officer Columbus Grey, was the first recorded black resident in 1868). Frank Shirley, a barber who arrived in 1887, operated his shop downtown for years next to white businesses. Shirley was a mentor to John E. Lewis who went on to establish the Lewis Apartments, a hotel catering to black travelers. Dr. Winston Hackett, the town's first black physician, arrived in 1916.
With large-scale cotton farming beginning around World War I, large numbers of African-Americans migrated to Phoenix. Farm interests had already been recruiting, promising good wages and better conditions than in the South (e.g. in 1910, Dwight Heard and Adolphus Bartlett hired the Colored American Realty Co. to attract black ranch and agricultural workers from Oklahoma and Texas). By the 1920s, Phoenix was also a major point on the railroads, bringing Pullman porters who were among the foundations of the old black middle class.
From 1918 to 1931, the town had the the Phoenix Tribune, its first black newspaper. It was followed a year later by the weekly Arizona Gleam, one of the few in the nation with a black female publisher, Ayra Hackett. In a promotional article in 1919, the Tribune wrote:
Phoenix is the best city in the U.S.A.... The most friendly relations exist between the Caucasians and the Colored people. Now and then an antagonistic individual bobs up, but the good overwhelms the bad until you scarcely realize any evil has been done.... If you know all the real joy of living in a land that abounds with figs, olives, peaches, apples, grapes, honey and all the good things that were promised to the children of Israel they obeyed God, you must come to Arizona.
The Phoenix Indian School opened in 1891. At least a few hundred members of different tribes lived within the city limits in the first decades of the 20th century. Some sold handcrafts to passengers at Union Station. Yet American Indians were not allowed to vote in Arizona until the 1940s.
Mexican-Americans were the largest minority of young Phoenix, mostly working in the fields or the Produce District downtown. Analysis by Keith Blakeman indicates that they made up 21 percent of the town's population in 1910, far more than previously thought. Many were attracted by the prospect of owning their own homes or farms. Others fled the Mexican revolution.
St. Mary's Catholic Church segregated its services, leading Mexican-American leaders to build the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church (right) in 1928, among the many separate institutions Hispanics would establish. Disreputable Anglos swindled Mexicans (and Japanese) on land deals near the South Mountains.
Hispanics were segregated into barrios, in and outside the city limits. Among them: Golden Gate (Sacred Heart Church still stands there, fenced in, after the neighborhood was leveled for Sky Harbor), Campito, Cuatro Milpas, La Sonorita, Harmon Park, El Campito, Central Park, Green Valley, San Francisco and Grant Park. Gold Alley, just west of Chinatown, was a middle-class Mexican-American neighborhood. Author Stella Pope Duarte has written eloquently about the old barrios, many of which held together well into the 1980s.
Hispanic and black neighborhoods sometimes blended together (Grant Park is an example), and some Chinese and poorer Anglos lived there, too. Many minorities lived in rural settings as did Anglos.
Chinese immigrants helped build the railroads. Entrepreneurs came, fleeing discrimination in California. They established laundries, restaurants, green grocers and other shops. They were first confined to a small Chinatown (actually the second one in the town, moved a few blocks after Anglo resistance and threats) centered in the area around today's downtown baseball stadium.
In the mid-1890s, some Anglo business leaders tried to buy buildings there and force the Chinese out. They were only temporarily successful. Chinese businesses were popular, for example Sing Yee's American Kitchen on Central north of the tracks, opened in 1900. Chinese also ran several groceries outside Chinatown. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1938.
Japanese came from California in the early 20th century and farmed around Phoenix. They proved especially successful on the land near the South Mountains along Baseline Road and in introducing new cash crops.
Here's where the city broke down in the 1920 Census with a total population of more than 29,000: Anglos 87 percent, Mexicans 8 percent, blacks 4 percent and Chinese less than 1 percent.
Although heavily Anglo, Phoenix was a multi-racial society. Multi-ethnic, too: Greeks, for example, ran many restaurants and other businesses. Russian immigrants were recuited to work in the sugar-beet fields outside Glendale. Jewish merchants were among the backbone of the central business district. Najeeb Basha moved from Lebanon, eventually arriving in the Valley in 1910 where his family would build a grocery empire.
But exclusion from many jobs, segregation, lack of investment in minority neighborhoods and poor education funding carried enormous consequences. So did hostility from many Anglos and, at best, disinterest by City Hall. South Phoenix was not annexed into the city until 1960. Phoenix was a place that had a "wrong side of the tracks," in this case the Southern Pacific. Although its population was diverse (and in south Phoenix heavily rural), many casually called it "Niggertown."
A survey during the Depression found the largely African-American slum around 7th Avenue and Buckeye to be one of the worst in the nation — this in a city of only 65,000. Plumbing and paved streets were virtually nonexistent. Here was where the Roman Catholic priest Father Emmett McLoughlin became a legendary advocate for the poor. He was instrumental in getting the Matthew Henson Homes project, which for decades was safe and attractive, before the crime and social breakdown of the 1970s took hold. Art Hamilton, the future Democratic leader of the Arizona House of Representatives, was among those who grew up in Henson Homes.
The Arizona Alien Land Law of 1921 was aimed at preventing the Japanese from owning property. They found ways around the law and continued their success, the Japanese population in the county hitting 879 in 1930.
Envious whites organized attacks on the Japanese in 1934. The sheriff served injunctions — against the Japanese farmers and white farmers who helped them. As with SB 1070, the attacks against Japanese in Arizona became an international source of condemnation.
Yet it's important to see these citizens as more than exploited victims. Each group formed its own associations and places of worship. Cordial relations with Anglos were not uncommon. Many owned property, built and ran businesses and created proud and thriving neighborhoods.
They were also sometimes professionals. For example, an embalmer, blacksmith, printer, shoemaker, barbers and beauticians are listed in the 1915 Phoenix Colored Directory. There were also teachers, dentists, doctors and ministers. In the 1920s, Marshall Shelton, an African-American realtor, developed the Portland Tract and Acre City subdivisions. The Phoenix Police had hired black and Hispanic officers since 1919. American Indians also served with distinction as police officers.
Most white hotels turned away black guests in the first half of the 20th century. As a result, black businessmen filled the void with their own hotels and boarding houses. One of the most celebrated was the Rice Hotel, founded by contractor and real-estate agent Hughie Rice. It hosted such jazz legends as Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton, as well as baseball great Jackie Robinson.
As the city grew in World War II and saw an influx of soldiers, there's at least one instance of a riot involving black and white soldiers in 1942. This apparently included random shooting into black homes by the authorities. The episode could be a rich vein for the enterprising historian.
Also in 1942, Japanese-Americans were removed in as part of the shameful internment carried out by the Roosevelt administration — U.S. 60 (Van Buren and Grand) marked the line between those sent to concentration camps, and those allowed to stay. Although Japanese farmers continued to work the land north of the line — their movements restricted — those with farms around the South Mountains were interned.
Change began slowly after the war, as city leaders sought to project a progressive image to attract business and the Civil Rights Movement gathered force. Chinese-Americans moved rapidly into the mainstream. Before chain convenience stores, they owned scores of groceries all over the city. In 1943, Walter Ong had founded the Retail Grocers Association of Arizona, which came to have both Anglo and Chinese members. In 1956, he was named Phoenix Man of the Year. Wing F. Ong (above left) was elected to the state Legislature in 1946, a national first. The city's tiny Chinatown disappeared as Chinese were free to move anywhere. A member of the large Tang clan bought land north of my great-aunt's acreage in the late 1940s and by the time I came along he had subdivided most of it to become handsome Arcadia-sized ranch houses on lots with citrus trees.
Japanese returned from the camps (some had been allowed back as early as 1943), and, with the Alien Land Law declared unconstitutional, were able to own land in their own names. Those from south of U.S. 60 sometimes found their houses vandalized, but immediately begand rebuilding. The relatively small Japanese community would again become one of the most innovative and productive elements of Salt River Valley agriculture. The Japanese flower gardens along Baseline became a beloved treasure until it was turned into crapola sprawl in the 1990s.
Phoenix ended de jure school segregation ahead of the Brown decision in 1954; the move was led by Barry Goldwater, who had also opened his family stores (and employment) to minorities. Phoenix also slowly moved to desegregate restaurants, accommodations and public housing — at least on paper. The 1950s also saw the first African-Americans elected to the state Legislature: Hayzel Daniels and Carl Sims. Daniels, from Tucson, was the first black to graduate from the University of Arizona School of Law and be admitted to the state bar. Sims, a one-time Maricopa County deputy, was a strong voice for school integration. Lincoln Ragsdale (above right), former Tuskegee airman, funeral director, businessman and civil rights leader, reputedly the richest African-American in the city, broke the color barrier in 1953 by moving to the WASP-y Encanto area (facing much hostility) — later the family would move to Scottsdale.
Adam Diaz was the first Hispanic elected to city council in the 1950s, followed by Morrison Warren, an African-American, in 1965. By the early 1960s, Thomas Tang was a city councilman an vice mayor. Valdemar Cordova was named a Superior Court judge in 1965 on his way to the federal bench. I had black, Mexican-American, Chinese and American Indian classmates at Kenilworth, and when our Scout troop would meet at the Luke-Greenway American Legion Post, it wasn't unusual to see a Mexican-American vet along with the Anglos at the bar. In 1974, Raul Castro was elected governor.
But beneath these successes, de-facto segregation often continued. Poor minorities were stuck with the worst schools, poor health care, neglected neighborhoods and lack of opportunity. Hostility didn't end at class. When Hamilton was took his seat in the state House of Representatives in 1973, "the speaker of the House, Stan Akers, looked straight at him, leaned to his microphone, and started whistling Dixie over the House sound system," according to New Times.
Immigrant farmworkers were treated horribly, including on the citrus ranch operated by Bob Goldwater's company. Cesar Chavez was seen by the Anglos as little more than a communist. And Phoenix's old Southern sensibility, levened with Midwestern racism, morphed into the John Birch Society mentality that created today's Kookocracy. Members of the GOP, including future Chief Justice William Rehnquist, worked at vote suppression in south Phoenix in the 1960s as part of the party's Operation Eagle Eye.
When our senior minister at Central United Methodist Church, the late Kermit Long, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in south Phoenix, this bastion of establishment churches was the target of white protesters. No wonder that in 1960s Phoenix, as historian Philip Vandermeer writes, "schools remained functionally segregated...(and)...access to public accommodations remained a major problem." Few minorities were hired for higher-end or professional-track jobs.
Nor did Phoenix escape the riots of the decade. On July 25-26, 1967, riots occurred in the inner ciy, including around Eastlake Park. At least one sniper incident happened. The Johnson administration's Kerner Commission called it "a major disturbance." Calm was restored thanks to the Rev. George Brooks; Mayor Milt Graham held a community meeting at Eastlake Park. The Pulliam Press downplayed the event. (Interestingly, during the 1960s Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad maintianed a home in Paradise Valley).
Phoenix's Mexican-Americans organized a chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in 1941. Chicano politics became a force in the 1960s and 1970s, including activism at ASU led by Alfredo Gutierrez. He joined with Joe Eddie Lopez and others to form Chicanos Por La Causa. Rosendo Gutierrez (no relation) was a major force in Mexican-American politics in the 1960s and 1970s, winning a City Council seat but losing the mayoral election of 1977 to Margaret Hance. Alfredo went on to become Democratic leader of the state Senate.
Minority neighborhoods suffered especially from concentrated poverty, lack of infrastructure and the city allowing polluting industries to locate nearby. The Maricopa Freeway had been slammed through historic barrios in the 1960s. Soon others, including Golden Gate, were wiped away to make room for Sky Harbor expansion and other city projects.
Much more was to change, especially from the huge waves of Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants that began in the 1980s. Combined with the Sky Harbor land grab, these hundreds of thousands of new migrants were highly destabilizing to the historic Mexican-American community. The historic black community dispersed and dwindled.
White flight, and class flight, accelerated with the vast new sprawl oases that opened up with the freeway system. Maryvale became "Scaryvale." A city that only yesterday seemed so new, and touted its "classless" Western society, was filled with a poor underclass stuck in linear slums. By the 2000s, Phoenix also had the nation's largest population of urban American Indians, most living on the margins. But the reservations bordering the city became potent with gambling revenue and water rights.
Unlike Los Angeles, Phoenix never developed real minority political power. Firebrand student activist Alfredo Gutierrez became part of the establishment. Latino organizations dependent on City Hall partnerships can't be adversaries of the Anglo power elite. The old black leadership died off. Amazingly, Phoenix went for years without a single Hispanic city councilman.
Phoenix was a city with a commanding Anglo majority for most of its history. But that is changing. As of 2010, Phoenix was nearly 41 percent Hispanic and growing poorer, while surrounded by large, newer and more affluent Anglo suburbs.
But Phoenix as the "Mexican Detroit" won't help property values in north Scottsdale. With the persistent "sweeps" by the sheriff and anti-Hispanic rhetoric and laws, Arizona does itself no good. The talented "brown people" of the world, the ones with lots of income, will think twice before choosing to come there. Intolerance and political extremism are bad for business.
Meanwhile, the challenges for a city with a huge number of low-skilled, first generation immigrants are growing substantially in a deindustrialized America, much less one in a state with abysmal public schools, especially for poor minorities. Employment centers have shifted out of the city proper and far from minority neighborhoods while public transportation is inadequate.
With hostile Anglo power in the suburbs and the Legislature, Phoenix struggles to leverage this human capital into the advanced economy, to everybody's advantage. There's too much screaming going on. "What part of illegal don't you understand!" This from Anglos who have profited from a cheap and frightened workforce to build this valley of crapola. What part of global competitiveness, much less the Golden Rule, don't these haters understand?
Interestingly, it was they who were afraid when an estimate 100,000 Hispanics and others marched in Phoenix in 2006 to protest lack of progress in providing a path to citizenship for illegals. But it did not turn into a political movement.
The city of Phoenix has come a long way from its Southern, segregationist roots. It named a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in the 1980s when Gov. Evan Mecham was resisting it. A Hispanic city manager was in office in the 2000s. The city itself is among the most progressive and inclusive places in the state.
But county and state policies are a serious headwind. For example, SB 1070, the Jim Crow anti-immigrant law, caused huge damage to the convention business. Investment from Mexico prefers friendlier states such as California and Texas(!). San Antonio has made big progress in attracting Mexican and Latin American capital, while Phoenix is unfairly lumped in with the rest of Arizona as the land of intolerance.
Not much will change as long as Hispanic voter turnout is so low. Here history is turned on its head from the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. There's no need for an Operation Eagle Eye or other measures by the GOP. The Hispanics are self-suppresssing their votes.
Think Phoenix has no history? Read the entire Phoenix 101 series here.