Friday, April 16, 2010
By Kevin Marsh
The recent news of outsiders distributing white-supremacist pamphlets in Pocatello arrives just as a group of local citizens prepares to unveil a long-awaited monument to honor diversity, tolerance, and family legacies in Pocatello’s Triangle neighborhood. The combination of these contradictory events prompts us to think about racial diversity and racism in Idaho history.
Many contemporary views of Idaho portray a homogenously white population that includes elements hostile to racial minorities. I recall hearing a radio call-in show last year on racist attacks in the wake of President Obama’s election, and one caller from an eastern state said, “I knew there were people like that in Idaho, but not other places.” The “Slice of America” celebration this Saturday will offer an antidote to these negative portrayals. There, the Lasting Legacy Landmark Committee will dedicate a monument to the community spirit, cooperation, and cultural and racial diversity of the working-class families who lived just east of the Union Pacific yards for most of the twentieth century.
Although there were many unique aspects about the Triangle neighborhood (the number of African-Americans, Greeks, and Italians was unmatched anywhere else in the state), its legacy does remind us of the complex and dynamic nature of Idaho’s long-term history. To historians, the region is most often characterized as a crossroads of the West, and race and culture are two social elements that have endlessly crossed paths in this land.
For many centuries, the region has been home to several distinct indigenous culture groups. The fur-trade era of the early 1800s created a polyglot society of numerous nationalities and races. Intermarriage between various groups created a mixed-blood society that mocked efforts to create boundaries defined by categories of race. Nationality (Blackfeet, Shoshone, Nez Perce, English, French, American) mattered more than race up to the middle of the nineteenth century.
The initial population rush into Idaho in the 1860s was drawn mainly by gold in the central mountains, and people came from all parts of the world. By 1870, over one-quarter of the inhabitants of Idaho Territory were Chinese. For several towns and counties, that population was a majority. Historians such as Liping Zhu have argued that many Chinese found opportunities and social justice more readily available in frontier Idaho than in other regions. People also came from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. Jesus Urquides made a name for himself as a muleteer, packing essential supplies into the mining regions.
Latinos came to Idaho in even larger numbers in the second decade of the twentieth century. Driven out by the chaos of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and lured northward by the economic boom of the western U.S., large-scale Mexican migration to Idaho stems from this era. The Union Pacific Railroad recruited workers from Mexico, and many families settled during that decade in Pocatello’s Triangle neighborhood. By 1929, these traqueros made up over one-half of all the track maintenance crews along the Oregon Short Line through southern Idaho.
The railroad also recruited workers from other countries and from the southern U.S., sparking a boom in the African-American population during the 1910s and 1920s, part of the Great Migration of southern blacks fleeing Jim Crow segregation for jobs in the industrial North. The Harris family came to Pocatello from Alabama during these years, the LaRues from Louisiana. These are among the hundreds of surnames chiseled into the base of the new monument.
In the Twenties, the African Methodist Episcopal Church built the Allen Chapel on Third Ave. It stood immediately across the street from the location of the new Lasting Legacy monument. By the 1940s there were four active African-American church congregations in the neighborhood. The Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, built in 1921, remains today.
As early as the 1890s, large numbers of Japanese arrived in Pocatello to work on the railroad. Like this spring, 1900 was a census year, and enumerators walked the streets of town recording names, occupations, and other information of each individual resident, fifty names per page. In the housing east of the rail yard, the census records show entire pages filled with only the names of young, single Japanese men who had moved to Pocatello in the previous decade, all of whom worked as laborers for the railroad.
Efforts to define Idaho as a dominantly white population are challenged by the remarkable diversity in its history. Yet racist intolerance is undoubtedly part of the historical record of this region, often in a way that shares national trends rather than suggests Idaho as unusual among the states.
If Idaho recorded in 1870 the highest percentage of Chinese-born residents any part of the country has ever had, the question of why that population had mainly dwindled by 1900 raises disturbing stories of anti-Chinese violence. From the Caribou Highlands to Hells Canyon murders and beatings of Chinese served to drive many out of the territory in the 1880s. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act blocked further immigration nationwide. By the early-twentieth century, as Japanese immigrants arrived in larger numbers, Idaho joined other western states in outlawing property ownership by Asians. Successful Asian farmers either leased land or filed ownership under the name of their children, who were U.S. citizens by birth.
In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was active in Idaho, as it was in much of the country during that decade. In Pocatello, the Klan organized marches into the Triangle neighborhood to intimidate the Catholic, Jewish, black, and immigrant families that predominated there. Families tell stories of men taking rifles to the rooftops along Third and Pocatello avenues to keep an eye on the marchers.
The Triangle itself was both a product of the diverse groups who made their home there and the discrimination of the broader society that would not allow many of those families to own homes elsewhere in the city. Yet as that community commemorates its history, stories of tolerance and perseverance predominate.
When you visit the Lasting Legacy monument, take a moment to read the family names inscribed at the base. They represent generations of contributions to Pocatello. But they also demonstrate that a mythological past of racial purity put forth by bigoted fliers never existed. Not here. Not in our town.
(This article originally appeared online at: http://www.pocatelloshops.com/new_blogs/community/?p=4584)