Throughout the 20th century, news items about Boise’s two black churches appeared regularly in the Idaho Statesman, including their annual celebrations of Emancipation Day, marking President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation freeing the slaves. (Great Britain had abolished slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833.)
In September 1914, St. Paul’s Baptist Church gave an “old fashioned Southern barbecue” on grounds near the Natatorium on Warm Springs Avenue. That same month, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church announced an official visit from the Rev. C.N. Douglas, D.D., of Helena, Mont.
In May 1926, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church produced the musical drama “Inspiration,” about black soldiers in the World War in 1917-1918. The Statesman reported warmly, “Colored Folk Present Drama of Achievement,” and commented, “Their full rich voices blended beautifully in the musical numbers, and there was evidence of feeling and sincerity in their plea for recognition of their race’s contribution to America’s greatness.” In October that year the highly praised black chorus performed in the Nampa High School auditorium. Ticket prices ranged from 50 cents to $1.
The black waiters at the Idanha Hotel restaurant, who had successfully organized a ball and musical entertainment in September 1907, were all dismissed from their jobs in June 1908 and replaced by white waitresses. The change was explained to the Statesman by hotel Manager C.H. Grout as one “made at the solicitation of the traveling public whom he at all times desires to please, and the hungry traveler who steps into the attractive café will now be served by deft-handed maidens in pretty uniforms of black and white.” The story goes on to describe the replacement of wall coverings, curtains and furniture in the restaurant and public rooms nearby.
In 1908 there was a “colored people’s club” on Eighth Street north of Front Street, and in 1912 a “black man’s club” on South Ninth Street that was raided by the police on Oct. 2. They found seven men playing cards. The Statesman reported: “Although there was no money on the table, the officers say they had reason to believe that gambling had been taking place. The police say that complaints have been received relative to the conduct at the club where the colored men are said to have had a jubilee and feast almost every night for about a month,” keeping the neighbors awake. Four of the men were taken to the police station, “and when they agreed to close the joint were discharged.”
Two “soldier trains” visited Idaho in July 1895, and the Statesman reported, “the trains, comprising six coaches, one sleeper and 26 freight cars arrived in Pocatello this morning at 6:30, and after the men ate breakfast, left for Market Lake, arriving there at 9:30. The soldiers are colored, except the officers.” We are reminded that the U.S. military was still segregated in 1917, when America entered World War I, by a story in the Statesman reporting that the Boise recruiting station had received an order for overseers of black laborers. “White applicants especially qualified for handling colored men, preferably men with previous service, to be appointed non-commissioned officers.” Not until July 26, 1948, were the armed forces desegregated by President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981.
Black musical comedy, featuring big stars of the day like Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds, performed “Struttin’ Along” at the Pinney Theatre in June 1923, as part of a tour of the Western states. Their ad in the Statesman said, “Not a Minstrel Show” and featured a “Creole Beauty Chorus” and a cast of 75 in “the World’s Fastest Dancing Show.”
In September 1927, the Mount Olivet Jubilee Singers of Portland appeared at First Christian Church at 9th and Franklin streets with a program of “Negro Spirituals and Plantation Melodies.” The Rev. C.E. Burgess spoke on an age-old theme: “The Christian Approach to the Race Problem.”
We have only scratched the surface of Idaho’s rich black history and will return to it at a later date. Next week: Some pioneer hotels and their owners and managers.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.