History of African-Americans in Tempe

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Author Jarred Smith has written a book about the history of African-Americans in Tempe. We’ll talk to Smith about his book, which will be available for free.

Ted Simons: A new book on the history of African-Americans in Tempe will be offered to the public tonight at a forum at the Tempe History Museum. Jared Smith is the author of the book and a curator at the museum. Thank you so much for joining us on "Arizona Horizon."

Jared Smith: Thank you for having me, Ted.

Ted Simons: OK. A book on African-Americans in Tempe. Why that subject, why not Phoenix, Scottsdale, Prescott, Tucson? Tempe.

Jared Smith: Tempe is a city that takes a great deal of pride in its diversity today. And we have, over the years, those stories were not always well told. You now have the Mexican-American population of Tempe, who over the years have largely redressed the problems of not getting -- That the story wasn't told. And of course they have been here from the very beginning of Tempe. After the story of African-Americans had not yet gotten out there. And it was people in the community who saw a gentleman named Edward Smith who saw and realized that it was time for that to be redressed, which led to the formation of the African-American Advisory Committee at the museum, and then eventually led to this book project.

Ted Simons: The experience any different in Tempe than other local cities?

Jared Smith: You know, there's a lot of crossover, because the African-American community, a lot of it in this region gravitated towards Phoenix. There were small communities in Mesa, Chandler, and I know other parts of the Valley, but a lot of the focus was in Phoenix, so the Tempe community was so small, you almost wouldn't call it a community before the post-World War II period, but there were people there from the s beyond at least.

Ted Simons: The city was not always welcoming to the African-Americans. There was a Klan presence, and Tempe was considered a "sundown town." Explain that, please.

Jared Smith: OK. It's one of those things that basically the idea that African-Americans were, they could work here, but they were not welcome to be here after dark. Which is at times is oddball because you do have some people who are living here nonetheless, very small numbers and often in the rural districts. But there was no law on the books, this was a kind of social code, and everybody knew it. And the only time there was very briefly a law on the books, it was directed towards Native Americans. After the city was incorporated, they quickly took it off the books.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, what -- World War II, what drove the change? Arizona State University, the Teachers' College, what happened there?

Jared Smith: A lot of it, ASU is a big wedge into this. From just after World War I you start to have African-Americans attending ASU, and they have to go because they're going to be teachers for some of these various segregated schools around the state. And so that's one of the key wedges. Eventually the education system, the school system becomes another wedge in the early 50's when Tempe integrates in 1952. As far as the African-American students are concerned.

Ted Simons: And pre-Brown vs. Board of Education.

Jared Smith: That's right. It's just preceding that.

Ted Simons: Let's look at some of the photographs here. It's interesting that Buffalo soldiers in the Salt River valley, Tempe included, this photograph here, we're talking turn of the century. This is among the earliest settlers.

Jared Smith: Absolutely. Absolutely. And you know, these -- We only know of one gentleman who's probably a Buffalo soldier, he's settled in Tempe, his name is Theodore Thomas. He probably came with the 10th cavalry during the expeditions against Geronimo, but after that time period a lot of these veterans would settle especially in the Phoenix area, and you would also get some of these guys retiring after the Spanish-American War, so you had a good-sized presence, maybe pretty small in Tempe, but good sized presence overall of Buffalo Soldiers.

Ted Simons: The first African-Americans we think born in Tempe were those two young kids, the first far left and --

Jared Smith: And the far right. That's Archie on the left, Archie Lewis, his mother is Ada Green-Lewis. Their grandmother is the first acknowledged permanent African-American settler to this area. That's Mary Green. Archie was born in the mid-1890s, and his sister Susie would follow soon after. They were both born in Tempe. The first known African-American children born there.

Ted Simons: And lived where now, obviously everything kind of happened downtown.

Jared Smith: Not real clear. You still had quite a few people living in what's -- What would have been the rural districts at that time. There were a few people in town, Theodore and Maggie Thomas right after about the turn of the century and after and settled in the downtown maple area of Tempe.

Ted Simons: We have a photograph of the Crimson Rims baseball team, and we see an African-American athlete there on the side. Again, turn of the century here, athletics probably another factor in integration eventually. Correct?

Jared Smith: You know, absolutely. Even though a lot of the teams tend to be segregated in those days, but you still as this photograph is perfect evidence of, you have a lot of crossover. In the territorial period you'll see more crossover when have you an African-American player on the Tempe Crimson Rims, seated next to him is E.P. Carr, founder of Carr's Mortuary. You have white players, Hispanic players on the team. Baseball was one of those common sports everybody played, it was extremely popular and I think it did eventually help.

Ted Simons: Dr. Martin Luther King speaking at Goodwin Stadium, the old football stadium near College and Apache, the north side of Apache, I think there's a parking garage there now, but again, spoke here in, what, ‘64?

Jared Smith: That's right. June of '64. Robert Spendler, archivist for ASU, pointed out, think of how hot it was that night. These guys are sitting there in their suits, probably can't wait to get back into some air conditioning. Sitting to give a speech in front of 8,000 very hot but enthusiastic people.

Ted Simons: And President Obama obviously has been to Tempe as well, before and after being president if I recall. I think he was here, back when he was a senator.

Jared Smith: That's right. So you have -- A lot of people equate the two visits in a lot of ways.

Ted Simons: And finally we have Curley Culp, just inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, homecoming king, 1967

Jared Smith: 1967. That's right. And for people at that time are still struggling to buy homes in Tempe. If you're African-American you're still having a hard time. This is a big deal. Here we have black homecoming king and a white homecoming queen. And it's pretty remarkable for a town that had some of the challenges had over the years. And it's -- Maybe in part the star power and how well liked Curley Culp was on the ASU campus. It doesn't hurt, and certainly good sign of the times.

Ted Simons: So much of this seems so long ago. And yet Tempe really, first African-American city council member is on the council now. And he's a young guy, he's Corey Woods.

Jared Smith: That's right.

Ted Simons: Looking back, seeing what's happening now, what do you want folks to take from this book?

Jared Smith: Well, I hope if nothing else there is a story there. Often the first thing people think is an African-American history of Tempe, there's history everywhere, of course. And part of it is seeking it out. Luckily for the -- Especially the post-World War II period, we have a lot of oral histories, community members who sat down and really helped make this project, really breathed life into it. It also took some digging into archives and records before that. But you know, you hope people start to think about the complexity of these things, and you know, to learn from it, if they disagree with something, go out, go out, write articles, write books, or if you agree, however it is, we need more to this story, because there are a lot of unanswered questions still.

Ted Simons: Jared, Thank you so much for joining us.

Jared Smith: Thank you so much for having me, Ted.

Jarred Smith:Author;

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