Saturday, June 12, 2010

Saturday Morning in Downtown Mesa: Matthew C. Whitaker on “The African American Experience in Arizona” at the Mesa Public Library

On an unseasonably cool June morning for the East Valley in June - today's high was expected to be around only 90 degrees - we drove to the main Mesa Public Library in beautiful downtown Mesa to attend what proved to be a fascinating and informative lecture on Arizona African American history by author and ASU history professor Matthew C. Whitaker.

It was part of Mesa library's celebration of Juneteenth.

Downstairs was a small exhibit, "Hallelujah: the Churches of Washington Park," which examines Mesa's first African American neighborhood and explores how its history was anchored in the neighborhood's five churches - such as Mt. Calvary Baptist -

along with some church-lady hats and other material, curated by Bruce Nelson, who worked on the entire Juneteenth program and who introduced Matthew Whitaker.

Dr. Whitaker is author of Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West, African American Icons of Sports: Triumph, Courage, and Excellence and Hurricane Katrina: America’s Unnatural Disaster, which he co-edited and documents the consequences of apathy, racism, sexism and classism.

He is the winner of the 2006 Maricopa County Arizona NAACP Educational Leadership Award, the ASU Patricia Gurin Scholar-Activist Award, the Dan Shilling Public Scholar Award by the Arizona Humanities Council, and the Best Article of the Year Award by Journal of the West.

Dr. Whitaker had just come from a meeting at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, where he is president of the board of directors. The Phoenix-based institution is the largest African-American museum and cultural center in Arizona.

The speaker began by talking about his own background as a Phoenix native whose family on both sides goes back in the Valley since the 1930s and 1940s, and as he told the small crowd (maybe 20 people), people of African descent have been in Arizona since 1539 when the slave Estevanico was part of the Spanish exploration and opening up of the Sonoran Desert to non-natives.

He went on to discuss the movement of African Americans into what became Arizona from the colonial years to the big influx during the decades surrounding the Civil War, including the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Huachuca,

which nearly a century later during World War II housed tens of thousands of black male and female military and medical personnel, making it the third largest community in Arizona after Phoenix and Tucson.

Dr. Whitaker discussed the lives of early pioneers such as Benjamin McLendon, a slave who fled from Georgia, made his way west in 1862 - an amazing feat - who became prosperous from raising cattle and being a member of the party that discovered the gold-mining district in the southern Bradshaw Mountains. He enjoyed a freedom unknown to blacks east of the Mississippi.

Another pioneer Dr. Whitaker spotlighted was Mary Green, a domestic, who in 1868 was the first African American to take up residence in the Valley of the Sun, and who later opened a wares stand, selling various sundries, and whose granddaughter Helen Mason founded Arizona's now-venerable Black Theatre Troupe. As he pointed out in an early article on black Phoenicians, they "were not simply passive, insignificant residents of the Phoenix area. African-Americans in Phoenix displayed agency and resilience [as] struggling participants in a capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchial system."

Examples from elsewhere in the state Dr. Whitaker discussed were Elizabeth Hudson Smith, owner/operator of the Vernetta Hotel in Wickenburg from 1905 to 1935, who made her fortune in gold, cattle, and other forms entrepreneurship; and the prominent Dees cattle ranching family out of Yuma, still an important supplier of beef.

Dr. Whitaker then turned to the subject of black churches in Arizona, the subject of the exhibit downstairs, and their crucial role in the community as the only place African Americans really were in total control; thus they took on functions that were economic and political as well as spiritual, and of course were vital during the struggle for civil rights. Among Phoenix churches discussed were Tanner AME Church,

which dates back to the 19th century, and First Institutional Baptist Church, which also has an incredibly rich history.

Dr. Whitaker's lecture then went over the civil rights movement in Arizona and Phoenix in particular, probably mentioning only the highlights of a subject he's probably the leading expert in - among them the work of Lincoln Ragsdale, who with his wife Eleanor, was probably the Southwest's leading advocate for equality;

and Phillips v. Phoenix Union High Schools, the 1953 case that desegregated Phoenix schools a year before Brown v. Board of Education.

There was a lot more, including fascinating answers by Dr. Whitaker to the questions of an enthusiastic audience (one couple had driven up all the way from Tucson), but we've only touched the surface here and if you're interested in more, as we are, you should check out Race Work and Dr. Whitaker's forthcoming book from the University of Oklahoma Press, Facing the Rising Sun: A History of African Americans in Arizona. We plan to, but for today, we're grateful to Dr. Whitaker and to the Mesa Public Library for today's lecture.

A second presentation in Mesa's Juneteenth commemoration will take place at the Washington Park Community Center on June 26. Dr. Edward Dawson of the Communication/Arts Department at South Mountain Community College will speak about the importance of African American churches in the community at the Washington Activity Center located at 44 E. Fifth St in Mesa.

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