Idaho’s black pioneers made the news

John West with legislators he served with in 1901.
John West with legislators he served with in 1901. Provided by Arthur Hart

Tracing the history of Boise’s black pioneers through the pages of the Idaho Statesman, we find that news items of the decade of the 1870s are especially revealing of white attitudes toward this small racial minority, in a frontier town with other minorities from Europe and Asia, notably Irish, German and Chinese.

On Jan. 2, 1872, the paper reported, “Colored Marriage. In Boise City, at the residence of the bride, on the evening of Dec. 28, 1871, by His Excellency, Governor Bennett, Mr. Eugene Murray and Mrs. Sarah Moody, (both colored) of this city.”

In June 1872, Clitus Barbour, Richard Z. Johnson and Ed Nugent, three highly regarded Idaho lawyers, secured the acquittal of Bob Thomas, a black man, accused in the killing of Solomon Paling, another black man. Neither of these men had been recorded in the 1870 census.

The Idaho World of Idaho City noted on Nov. 14, 1872, “William Benson, familiarly known as ‘Fremont,’ a faithful colored boy who has lived in Idaho for eight or nine years past, pulled up stakes and left for Pioche, Nev., a few days ago. He has been honest, faithful and prompt in every capacity in which he has served while here.” The census had missed him, too, making us wonder how many others it had missed.

In February 1876, William Boone, who worked as gardener and stable hand for banker C.W. Moore, and Eugene Murray, Sarah Moody’s husband, made the news when they got into a fistfight. Boone was in the news again after a black man named Henry Walker was found hiding out in Moore’s stable. He had stolen whiskey and wine from Manuel Fontez, a pioneer from Mexico, and gone to his friend Boone for shelter. Police found him there and took him into custody.

Most of the news items about blacks in the Statesman in the 1870s were positive, as this from Feb. 15, 1877: “Henry Whittacre, the colored cook, showed himself a master of the culinary art, by the delicious things he got up for the ball supper last week. Whittacre has no superior in his line.”

The 1870 census recorded two other black cooks in Boise: James Nall, 36, and Simon White, 50, who worked at the Overland Hotel.

An item we found particularly charming was this from the Statesman of Dec. 1, 1881: “Susan Jane — The church going people were attracted and very much amused on Sunday evening last while nearing the Methodist church by the singing and music of a dusky couple who were marching along very deliberately, holding each others’ hand, in a swinging manner to keep time with the tune which the curly haired savant sang — ‘Good By Susan Jane’ — and his dusky dulcinea playing the same tune on a mouth organ. If there is any heaven in this world for poor sinful mortals, it was conceded that this dusky couple were about entering the front door.”

When John West died in Boise in October 1903, the Statesman called him “the dean of colored pioneers in Idaho.” West was proud of having been born a free American citizen and expressed that pride by carrying the American flag at the head of every Fourth of July parade for many years.

He also worked for the Idaho Legislature. As the 1901 session drew to a close, Rep. Mounce of Nez Perce County offered this resolution, seconded by Rep. French of Latah County: “Whereas the House Porter John West has faithfully discharged the duties pertaining to said office during the present session of the Idaho Legislature, without compensation, therefore be it resolved that the House allow the said John West the sum of sixty ($60) dollars for said services, the sum to be paid in the same manner as the clerks of this house.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.