Racial Conspiracy Theories, Family structure

Community Leaders Discuss Arizona’s Erasure Of Black History

In an episode of Arizona Central's Valley 101 podcast, Pastor Warren Stewart, Chanel Powe, Anthony Pratcher II, and Jessica Salow discussed Arizona's erasure of Black history during a roundtable discussion.

Arizona community leaders allege that there has been a concerted effort to erase Black history and the contributions of Black Arizonians from the stories commonly told about the state. In 2022, Arizona State University Assistant Professor Meskerem Glegziabher published an essay explaining that history was primarily erased and forgotten.

According to Glegziabher’s essay, “Black people, African American and immigrant alike, are labeled as outsiders and largely excluded from narratives about the past, present and future of Arizona.”

In an interview conducted by Arizona State University, she discussed the erasure of Black historical sites in Arizona’s metropolitan cities. “Here in the Valley, more than half of the 175 historic properties identified by the city of Phoenix’s 2004 African American Historic Property Survey have been torn down.

Among the most notable are the Rice Hotel downtown and the former Booker T. Washington Hospital. The former was one of the only downtown accommodations that would serve African Americans and is listed in the 1940 “Negro Motorist Green Book.”

Glegziabher continued, “It was torn down along with several other businesses to build Chase Field. The latter was opened in 1921 by the city’s first Black physician, Dr. Wilson Hackett, and was the first hospital to serve African Americans in the city. That location is now an empty lot. While the demolition of these two properties may have been unrelated, their absence from the city’s geography serves the more extensive sanitation of the state’s history that excludes itself from national narratives of Jim Crow and racial segregation, which are often erroneously mapped onto a North-South binary.

According to Arizona Central, other community leaders in Arizona have picked up the conversation that Glegziabher brought to light. In an episode of the outlet’s Valley 101 podcast, Pastor Warren Stewart, a Phoenix pastor who was instrumental in making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday, Chanel Powe, an education, political, and equity consultant who moved to Arizona from Detroit, Anthony Pratcher II, an Arizona native and historian who teaches ethnic studies at Northern Arizona University, and Jessica Salow, an assistant archivist of Black collections at the ASU Library, discussed the issue in a roundtable discussion. 

According to Stewart, “I would like to say two things. Number one, there’s a wealth of African-American history in this state before it even became a state. So, the history of Black people, people are going to stand in Arizona, and it’s a gold mine to be mined. But the other piece is I would suggest that because of systemic racism, white historians believe that white is the standard. So, therefore, Black, Brown, Red, or any other type of history doesn’t take priority because white history is the standard. I’m writing a piece right now, and the question I raise is, you may not be a white supremacist, but you are a white “standardist.” That’s the word I coined because you believe that white sets the standard, and that in itself is racist. So that gets to me, to the core of the problem of why this wealth of African-American history [is erased.]”

Powe, similar to Glegziabher, discussed the erasure of Black historical landmarks in her remarks. 

“So the erasure of our history and contributions that African-Americans made to Arizona has been systemically oppressed by predominantly white and white thinking leaders that have no place or have no real gumption to really want to share and carry it out. I had no idea about Malinda Curtis. We just talked about that. The 70-foot-tall mural, the largest mural in downtown Phoenix, of a Black woman who lived here. I want to say maybe it was like the late 1800s or early 1900s, but because I took it upon myself to study the history of the Adams Hotel, there has always been a hotel on that corner.”

Powe continued, “I had an opportunity to learn that Malinda Curtis used to live in an alley a few years ago before it was demolished by the City of Phoenix. Her old hotel, [a] brick hotel, used to be right there in that alley. This woman was a pillar of her community. People came to her, and she helped others find places to stay.”

“But the only reason I learned about that was because of the tribute of the mural. It’s extremely difficult to find any information on Malinda, and I’m certain that it is more difficult for Black families who were born and raised generationally here in the state of Arizona.”

Pratcher II pointed to the erasure of figures like Richard E. Harris, one of the first Black historians and the first Black reporter hired by the Arizona Republic. “So I think of Richard Harris. Richard E. Harris is one of the first Black historians, right? But really, he’s the first Black reporter hired by The Republic. And he comes from a long legacy of Negro press, so he knows what he’s doing in this sort of sense. But his book, “The First 100 Years,” is really the touchstone for understanding Black Arizonan history. And it’s because he understands, as a journalist, what it means to be grounded in the community in that kind of way.”

Pratcher continued, “Like there has to be a relationship between the institutions and the communities that they’re a part of. I would argue that, as I was saying earlier, about the issue with land, right? It’s our institutions and our professional positions. I mean, when we think of the amount of state legislators we have, we have fewer now than we did in 1952.”

Salow pointed to the erasure of ASU’s first Black male graduate, Benton James. 

“We have had Black graduates at ASU who have come through those doors for the last 100 years. We just celebrated in 2020 for the 100th anniversary of the first male Black graduate, Benton James, who graduated in 1924. He was a part of the Teachers College. He graduated from ASU, but nobody knows his history. It has been incredibly difficult for us to find anything about Benton James, not only in our ASU institutional repository but just in general about his movements.”

Salow continued, We’ve been lucky enough to find some things now, with the help of people in our state who are very dedicated to bringing to light the Black history of our state. But why is this history not here? Why are we, as institutions, not taking the time to just go into our own institutional archives and start really connecting the dots when it comes to Black history? As I said, I am doing the work to ensure that all of our Black graduates are Black alumni at ASU, has a story, has a place to tell their story of their time at ASU.”

Stewart closed the discussion on a hopeful note, saying that the other participants in the conversation left him feeling optimistic about the future of Arizona. “My two sisters here, my brother here. I’m almost 73 years of age, so I’m passing the baton. But even I accepted this invitation because I have hope. The very fact that you want to talk about this subject. And I’m here with my two talented, gifted sisters and brothers. Here they are. My hope. They are the future to bring change. And so I acknowledge the reality of the racist system. But I see, when I hear and see my brother and my two sisters here, I have hope.”