A Lesser Known Piece Of 'The Great Migration': Phoenix And McNary, Arizona
History buffs likely have heard of “The Great Migration” of African Americans from the Jim Crow South into the Northeast and Midwest between 1916 and 1970.
But many aren’t aware that migration also included Arizona and the West.
“Phoenix is the best city in the U.S.A. ... The most friendly relations exist between the Caucasians and the Colored people.”
That’s an excerpt from a 1919 promotional article published by the Phoenix Tribune, Arizona’s first African American newspaper, founded the year prior by Arthur Randolph Smith.
While segregation did exist in Phoenix at the time, it wasn’t at a level African Americans experienced in the Jim Crow South, according to Jon Talton, former Arizona Republic columnist who currently works for the Seattle Times and also writes a historical blog under the moniker Rogue Columnist.
“You didn’t have this deep Southern racial supremacy and bias in place. For instance, there wasn’t a Black waiting room at Union Station,” he said and, according to him, the lack of overt racial bias prevailed in Phoenix until almost the 1960s.
Farming and the railroad industry brought a lot of African Americans to the region. Phoenix gained a main line in 1926 when the Southern Pacific rerouted almost all of its passenger trains through the city. A year prior, A. Philip Randolph founded the first predominantly African American labor union.
“Starting in 1925, you had the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as well as just well-paid African Americans who were sleeping car porters. This helped seed the Black middle class in Phoenix,” said Talton who wrote in his column “Mary Green, a domestic servant to former Confederate officer Columbus Grey, was the first recorded black resident in the state in 1868.”
Green was the grandmother of Helen K. Mason who founded Black Theatre Troupe in Phoenix.
A new anthology project called “Indiscernibles” is part of an attempt to tell a richer story of African Americans who migrated to Arizona.
“There are so many heinous episodes of lynching, violence and oppression. Many people in the 1930s were recruited to come to Arizona from three states that had horrific histories of that,” said Clottee Hammons, creative director for Emancipation Arts LLC in Phoenix and the project’s brainchild.
Those three states were Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Hammons said, “Black people in Arizona have never been thought of as migrants nor refugees and therefore haven’t been given the respect afforded to others who adapted to life in the state and the U.S. Oklahoma is the site of Freedmen. There were not just Native Americans on the Trail of Tears. They took their slaves with them and we have some of those descendants here in Arizona.”
“Indiscernibles” arose out of Hammons’ previous art exhibition and is a collection of personal essays by African Americans currently living in Arizona that answers two central questions: How did you come to Arizona and why do you stay?
"Black people in Arizona have never been thought of as migrants nor refugees and therefore haven’t been given the respect afforded to others who adapted to life in the state and the U.S. Oklahoma is the site of Freedmen. There were not just Native Americans on the Trail of Tears. They took their slaves with them and we have some of those descendants here in Arizona."
— Clottee Hammons, Emancipation Arts LLC
Small towns also played a role in attracting African Americans to the state. The small northeastern Arizona community of McNary, previously known as Cooley, was one of them.
Christopher Harter, deputy director of Amistad Research Center in New Orleans and my former colleague said, “That name change began in 1924 when a lumber company in McNary, Louisiana, moved its entire operations to Arizona.”
Harter also described how the lumber company, co-owned by W.M. Cady and James G. McNary, ran out of resources in Louisiana and therefore moved West. “McNary was basically a company town. It was a lumber town. So, that included moving the primarily African American population of McNary, Louisiana, to what became known as McNary, Arizona.”
He said at the time of the move in 1924, the population of the Louisiana town was estimated to be about 3,000 people. The mill and about 500 workers were moved on a 21-coach train in stages.
Historical photos provided by the Forest History Society paint a picture of a segregated town.
Barber was a civil rights activist and anthropologist who collected various clippings about McNary, Arizona and corresponded with those who wrote about the town’s history and its ethnography. He donated his research files on McNary to the Amistad Research Center.
Barber also worked as a librarian for the Tucson Public library and died in Tucson at age 74 on May 3, 1999.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been updated to add A. Philip Randolph's full name.
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