When he came to Boise as a teenager in the 1970s, Chieshenam Westin happily believed he lived in a kind place in a welcoming time. He read about racial troubles in the South, of course, but his town was immune to that sort of thing.
Last month he saw the film “Green Book,” about a black pianist traveling in the South in 1962 with a tough white driver and bodyguard. The movie takes its name from the “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” which helped black travelers find places to eat and sleep. Westin wanted to find out about the real Green Book. He wanted to know what kind of welcome black travelers received in Idaho. He wanted to know what the Green Book could tell him about his state.
He called local and state libraries, the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, but couldn’t get his hands on a copy.
At about the same time, Phillip Thompson at the Idaho Black History Museum told him the museum had just received a donated copy of the 1947 Green Book. Westin went to the museum to see it. The book listed just three places for black travelers in Idaho: a private home on River Street in Boise and two sites in Pocatello — a church parsonage and a “tourist park.”
From his research, Westin also learned that several towns in Idaho were sundown towns that required blacks to be out of town before nightfall. Even places that didn’t formally enshrine racism in law were able to control where blacks lived, through property covenants that restricted ownership to certain neighborhoods. Those towns didn’t need sundown laws to keep out blacks, Westin concluded, “because you could not spend the night or eat anywhere anyway.”
Westin is white. A Boise artist, he is widely read and active in Idaho justice and human rights causes. As he researched more, he realized that the real story of his state and his town was not the story he thought he knew.
“I used to believe that Idaho was better than the South or the Midwest, that we were better people,” Westin says. “And I’ve been shocked when I found all this out. It was here. It was the same here as anywhere else in the United States. We weren’t immune from it.”
Westin’s soft voice echoes off the walls of the Idaho Black History Museum, which for decades was the old St. Paul Baptist Church in which Boise’s black community worshiped.
“Now I see that was so naïve.”
One of Westin’s revelations: That the tiny population of African-Americans in Idaho (920 people in 1920) got even smaller as the Ku Klux Klan asserted itself in Idaho. By 1940, Idaho had fewer than 600 black people. The black population didn’t reach 1,000 until World War II, when Mountain Home Air Force Base, Gowen Field and other (then still-segregated) military facilities brought African-Americans in larger numbers to Idaho, augmenting the population that had been centered in Pocatello with its many railroad jobs.
In the 2010 Census, 11,231 black people accounted for just seven-tenths of 1 percent of Idaho’s population.
“We had no population here. We were less than one-half of 1 percent, forever,” says Thompson, director of the Idaho Black History Museum.
That’s one reason why Idaho didn’t have more laws or generations-old institutions and traditions to keep blacks in their place.
“People don’t become threatened unless there is enough of you to make substantial change,” Thompson says. “It’s a nonissue when you’re not noticed.”
Still, Westin was heartsick when he realized he didn’t know such an important part of his state’s story.
“I did not know there was Ku Klux Klan here. There was Klan in Boise. There was Klan in Pocatello. There was Klan in North Idaho. And the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on a lawn in 1962, here in Boise.”
When he pauses, there’s a hush in the big echoing room of the church-turned-museum. “This is pretty upsetting, you know?”
Following unwritten rules
Segregation and discrimination were enforced in Idaho through well-understood but unwritten rules. Idaho didn’t need laws when the black population was so small, the rules so clear and the penalty was economic or physical banishment. Blacks knew where they couldn’t eat, where they couldn’t stay, where they couldn’t try on clothes. “Whites only” signs weren’t needed. If all else failed, blacks could be charged for vagrancy, a catch-all crime for anyone who didn’t look like they belonged.
“Everybody knew the rules of engagement, and they were extraordinarily powerful,” says Jill Gill, a professor of religious history at Boise State University who is studying the history of discrimination against black people in Idaho. “You don’t need to pass a law when those work so well.”
That went for where you lived. A few blacks lived near the employers in whose homes they served on Warm Springs Avenue or Harrison Boulevard, but most lived in the River Street area near the rail yard. Things were peaceful as long as black people played their roles, which could include laboring in Boise’s “underground economy,” Gill says, providing liquor and prostitutes under the winking eyes of the police and city fathers.
“In some sense, the white community wanted the black people they knew, because they provided a service, as long as they stayed in their place,” Gill says. “If they got out of their place, if there were strange black people who suddenly came in, they’d want to run them out.”
In the 1940s, River Street was not the busy thoroughfare it is today, with its riverside business parks, upscale restaurants and hip brewpubs. River Street was several short, unconnected segments near the rail yards. Its modest houses were home to Boise’s black, Basque and other ethic and immigrant communities.
“Black people had to live there. Poor whites, like the Basques, started out there,” Gill says. “But here’s the difference: Once a white person got a good job, once they had the money to get out, they could move out. Black people couldn’t … even if they could afford it.”
The Loves of River Street
The first Green Book was published in 1937; a listing for Pocatello appears in the 1941 edition.
That sole Boise listing in the 1947 book was for “Mrs. S. Love, 1164 River St.” She stayed until the 1957 edition. In 1949, the Open Door Mission at 1159 River St. and the California Hotel at 1110-1/2 Main Street were added. In 1948, the Union Pacific Greyhound depot was included as a place where black people could eat.
A review of Green Books posted by the New York Public Library shows Boise and Pocatello were the only Idaho cities listed until 1956, when a Coeur d’Alene listing appeared. Safe places in Idaho Falls, Twin Falls and Ashton were added in 1957. Lewiston, Caldwell and Montpelier appeared in 1962, and Blackfoot in 1963. Boise disappeared from the Green Book listings after 1960.
Today, the Love home at 1164 is long gone. The brief mentions of Mrs. Love on River Street pose more questions than answers. Thompson said his mother, Cherie Buckner-Webb, a Democratic state senator from Boise, might have some of those answers. When I reached Buckner-Webb, she connected me with her cousin, Jim Stevens, in San Jose.
Stevens was born in 1940 and grew up on Ash Street, just around the corner from Sadie and Will Love on River Street.
“I remember them well,” he says. “They were really nice people, super nice people.” He recalled Will Love’s big blue Buick. “Sometimes I rode to church in it, in the back seat, that big brown mohair seat.”
Sadie Love ran the Sunday School and other youth events at St. Paul, which was then on Broadway Avenue. Will Love worked at a sawmill. They had no children. They were exactly the kind of people who would take in strangers far from home looking for a friendly face. “She was really a woman who believed in what she was doing,” Stevens says. “A lot of altruism.”
Taking in travelers was not unusual for black families, including George Melvin Stevens and Florence Ellen Stevens, Jim Stevens’ parents.
“There was nothing,” he says. “You didn’t want to get caught out there at night. My father worked for the railroad, so sometimes he brought people home from there. They’d get stranded at the station.
“My mother put a lot of people up. … That was just the way I was raised. My family was very loving and caring. We took care of each other.”
‘How would this make you feel?’
As a child, Jim Stevens knew nothing about the Green Book. He suspects that some of the travelers who came seeking the Loves may have ended up at his family’s place: “I don’t know how they knew about us, but they always knew to find us.”
Traveling as we know it today, a routine or recreational activity, wasn’t that way then, Stevens says. “Black people … didn’t do much traveling. It was scary. There were just places you didn’t go.”
Stevens didn’t have to travel from Boise to experience racism. He knew not to stay out after dark, to hide if he saw passing police officers. Most cafes wouldn’t serve black people, and if he did get food at a restaurant, he got it to go. As the lone black child in his Park School classes, he didn’t have a partner for dance lessons. He was the only child without a valentine on Valentine’s Day. “How would this make you feel?” he asks.
Stevens joined the Army and left Boise in 1961. His travels took him to cities with larger black populations where he didn’t have to stand out and where he could patronize black businesses without risking the indignity of mistreatment.
He still visits Boise today and appreciates the friendly people who look a stranger in the eye and offer a hello. But the real story is that it wasn’t always that way, not for everybody.
“It’s a history of Idaho that, as a white man, I did not know,” Westin says. “I had no clue.”
“What happened,” Stevens says, “if you don’t know about it, can happen again.”
Bill Manny is a longtime Statesman writer and editor now working for Idaho Public Television’s “Idaho Experience” documentary series. Reach him at email@example.com.
Want to know more?
The history of River Street is explored at this website: http://www.riverstreethistory.com/about-the-river-street-digital-history-project/
The New York Public Library has a digital collection of most editions of the Green Book: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/collections/the-green-book#/?tab=about
Professor Jill Gill will present her research at a Fettuccine Forum at 6 p.m. March 14 at Boise City Hall titled “Idaho in Black and White: Race, Civil Rights and the Gem State’s Image.”