Community leaders discuss erasure of black history in Arizona
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Community leaders discuss erasure of black history in Arizona

Arizona community leaders say there has been a concerted effort to erase Black history and the contributions of Black Arizonans from commonly told narratives about the state. In 2022, Meskerem Glegziabher, an assistant professor at Arizona State University, published an essay arguing that the history has been largely erased and forgotten.

According to Glegziabher’s essay, “Black people, whether African-American or immigrant, are seen as outsiders and largely excluded from narratives about Arizona’s past, present, and future.”

In an interview with Arizona State University, she discussed the disappearance of black historic 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 Properties Survey have been demolished.

Among the most notable are the Rice Hotel downtown and the former Booker T. Washington Hospital. The former was one of the only downtown establishments that catered to African Americans and is listed in the 1940 Negro Motorist Green Book.

Glegziabher continued: “It was demolished 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 a vacant lot. While the demolition of these two properties may be unrelated, their absence from the city’s geography serves the broader sanitization 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 Central ArizonaOther community leaders in Arizona have picked up on the debate that Glegziabher highlighted. On an episode of the outlet’s Valley 101 podcast, the Rev. Warren Stewart, a Phoenix pastor who was instrumental in establishing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a state holiday; Chanel Powe, an education, policy 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, assistant archivist for Black collections at ASU Library, discussed the issue in a panel discussion.

Stewart said, “I want to say two things. One, there’s a wealth of African-American history in this state before it was even a state. So, Black history, people are going to stand in Arizona, and that’s a goldmine to be mined. But the other point is, I would say, because of systemic racism, white historians believe that white is the norm. Therefore, Black history, brown history, red history, or any other kind of history is not prioritized because white history is the norm. I’m writing a piece right now, and the question I’m asking is, you may not be a white supremacist, but you are a white ‘standardist.’ That’s the word I made up because you think white sets the norm, and that’s inherently racist. So that gets to me, to the heart of the problem of why this wealth of African-American history (is erased).”

Powe, like Glegziabher, addressed the erasure of black historical monuments in his remarks.

“The erasure of our history and the contributions of African Americans to Arizona has been systematically suppressed by white and white leaders who don’t have the space or the courage to really want to share it and implement it. I had no idea about Malinda Curtis. We just talked about it. The 70-foot mural, the largest mural in downtown Phoenix, of a black woman who lived here. I would say it was maybe late 1800s or early 1900s, but as I took it upon myself to study the history of the Adams Hotel, there has always been a hotel on that corner.”

“I had the opportunity to learn that Malinda Curtis lived in an alley a few years ago before it was torn down by the city of Phoenix. Her old hotel, a brick hotel, was right there in that alley. This woman was a pillar of her community. People would come to her and she would help others find a place to stay,” Powe continued.

“But the only reason I found out about this is because of the tribute that the mural paid to her. It’s extremely difficult to find information about Malinda, and I’m sure it’s even harder for black families who were born and raised here in the state of Arizona.”

Pratcher II highlighted the erasure of figures like Richard E. Harris, one of the first black historians and the first black journalist hired by the Arizona Republic. “So I think of Richard Harris. Richard

E. Harris is one of the first black historians, right? But he’s actually the first black journalist hired by The Republic. And he comes from a long tradition of black journalism, so he knows what he’s doing in that sense. But his book, “The First 100 Years,” is really the touchstone for understanding Arizona black history. And that’s because he understands, as a journalist, what it means to be embedded in the community in that way.

Pratcher continued: “There has to be a relationship between institutions and the communities that they are a part of. I would say that, as I was saying earlier, on the land issue, it’s our institutions and our professional positions that are at stake. I mean, when you think about the number of legislators that we have, we have fewer today than we did in 1952.”

Salow highlighted the erasure of ASU’s first black graduate, Benton James.

“We’ve had Black graduates at ASU come through these doors for the last 100 years. We just celebrated in 2020 the 100th anniversary of the first Black graduate, Benton James, who graduated in 1924. He was a member of Teachers College. He graduated from ASU, but no one knows his story. It’s been incredibly difficult for us to find anything about Benton James, not only in our institutional repository at ASU, but just in general about his travels.”

Salow continued: “We’ve been fortunate to find some things now, with the help of people in our state who

“We are very committed to highlighting the Black history of our state. But why is that history not here? Why don’t we, as institutions, take the time to go into our own institutional archives and start to really connect the dots when it comes to Black history? Like I said, I’m doing the work to make sure that all of our Black graduates are Black alumni of ASU, have a story, have a place to tell the story of their time at ASU.”

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