Idaho History: 1903 was a dramatic and eventful year for Boise’s black community

Boise’s little G.A.R. Hall was a favorite meeting place for the black community.
Boise’s little G.A.R. Hall was a favorite meeting place for the black community. Provided by Arthur Hart

“Will Build Church” read the headline on a small item on page seven in the Idaho Statesman on the morning of May 3, 1903. “Afro-American League No. 1 of Boise will shortly purchase a lot on which to build a church. They realized a neat sum by serving dinner at the mission on April 30 and this amount will be added to the purchase fund. The church will be the first of its kind in the state.”

When Roman Catholic Archbishop Ireland expressed his views on racism in a 1903 speech in Washington, D.C., he was quoted at length in the Statesman: “The stars and stripes have no meaning whatsoever unless it means the brotherhood of man. The idea of a distinction being made in civil and political matters because of race or language or color is un-American. A man is a man and that is all the American constitution requires or that it should require if it is truly a constitution expressive of liberty.” A committee of black leaders called on the bishop to thank him for his words of support.

Three weeks later, banner headlines in the Idaho Statesman of May 25, 1903, read, “Infuriated Mob at Nampa Makes Attempt to Lynch Two Boise Negroes — Force Way into Jail Crying for Vengeance.” What had started as a fistfight after a baseball game between Boise and Nampa teams soon became a riot. Nampa police officer John R. Grogan tried to stop the fight and to push the spectators back, but James Quarles and Henry Williams, two black baseball fans from Boise, resisted, and when Grogan pulled his pistol and fired a shot in the air, thinking it would break up the crowd, Quarles — knocked down, kicked, beaten and fearing for his life — pulled his own pistol and shot Grogan in the shoulder.

Quarles and Williams were arrested by other policemen and put into the Nampa jail for protection from the lynch mob that had gathered. The mob broke into the jail and would have taken the prisoners had not Nampa Mayor F.H. Sutherland arrived with reinforcements. When Idaho Gov. John T. Morrison heard of the attempted lynching, he hurriedly organized a posse, ordered a special train and headed for Nampa with a crowd of men that included Boise attorney William E. Borah and Ada County Sheriff James D. Agnew Jr. Quarles and Williams were moved from Nampa to the Canyon County jail in Caldwell for their further protection and then to Boise on the governor’s train.

Morrison told the Statesman, “Such lawless proceedings must be nipped at once. The state of Idaho is no longer in the American backwoods, and lynchings are not the best evidence of civilization. An example must be made of the leaders in the affair and that quickly.” Mayor Moses Alexander contributed this notice to further calm things down: “:Notice is hereby given that on Thursday, May 28, no firecrackers, fireworks, bombs and explosives of any kind will be allowed to be fired within the corporate limits of Boise City. Anyone violating this order will be dealt with according to the ordinances of Boise.”

In October that year, the Rev. C.J. Smith, a colored preacher from Chattanooga, Tenn., lectured in the G.A.R. Hall on “the origin of the colored race, tracing it back to Cain’s wife in the land of nod.” The hall, home of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War Union veterans organization, still stands on State Street across from the Capitol. The Woman’s Athenian Club, an organization of Boise black women, met in the G.A.R. Hall where they passed a resolution condemning the continued lynching of blacks in the South, then estimated to be more than 3,000 men and more than 80 women.

On Sept. 23, 1907, Boise’s black community celebrated Emancipation Day with a program at G.A.R. Hall that included the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.

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