The African American experience in Phoenix has been a long battle against racial injustice involving school, housing and business segregation.
With its year-round sunshine and iconic desert landscapes, Phoenix billed itself as the “winter playground of the Southwest” starting in the 1920s. Tourists were enticed by a bevy of lodging options, including elegant Downtown hotels, posh outlying resorts and folksy motor courts conveniently situated along the new highways heading through the city.
It was a thriving hospitality scene designed to serve a uniquely American vacation fantasy – unless, of course, the travelers were black.
“Restaurants wouldn’t serve you, and we had to sit in the balcony of theaters,” Calvin Goode, an African American who served a record 22 years on the Phoenix City Council, told PHOENIX in a 2011 interview. To find a place to eat or overnight accommodations, black visitors in Phoenix consulted The Negro Motorist Green Book, a nationwide travel guide penned by Harlem postal worker Harold Green. As depicted in the 2018 Oscar-winning film Green Book, the guide steered travelers of color to the handful of friendly businesses that catered to African Americans in an era when overt institutional racism was the norm.
In a city of approximately 420,000 people, circa 1957, that amounted to precisely three hotels, five guest houses and three restaurants.
Access to hotels and restaurants was but one thorn that prevented African Americans from scaling the Valley’s socioeconomic ladder through the civil rights era. As a relatively young city with no American identity pre-dating the Civil War, Phoenix doesn’t always present an obvious case study in racial discord – certainly, its sins are less voluminous and existential than those of the Jim Crow South. But the evidence is not hard to find, revealing a history fraught with acts of systemic injustice against African Americans that drove deep into its culture and economy, creating fault lines that survive to the present day.
Though their histories were often unexplored and bulldozed – literally, in the guise of early neighborhoods razed in the name of progress – black residents have contributed to the city since before it was incorporated in 1881. Phoenix’s first black resident was Mary Green, a domestic worker who came with her employers from Arkansas in 1868. Green’s arrival was the beginning of a slow migration of African Americans to the Valley of the Sun, predominantly from Texas, Oklahoma and Southern states. By 1910, the city had 328 black residents among its population of 11,314 – a small, insular community that formed social clubs like the Blue Blood Society and Afro-American Society, along with churches of many denominations.
According to historian Matthew Whitaker, Phoenix initially appealed to black migrants because it lacked the Jim Crow laws that legally separated races in the South. “African Americans were pushed by circumstances and pulled by hope, eventually finding their way to Phoenix, where they believed social, economic and political betterment awaited them,” Whitaker wrote in his thesis, In Search of Black Phoenicians: African American Culture and Community in Phoenix, Arizona, 1868-1940.
Unfortunately, Arizona – and Phoenix in particular – failed to capitalize on this initial glimmer of Western progressivism. Officials codified racial injustice before Arizona even became a state, most notably when the Territorial Legislature enabled school districts to segregate students in 1909. Phoenix was one of the few townships to seize on the opportunity, creating separate, underfunded facilities for non-whites. Elementary schools were opened for African Americans, while older black students were designated a basement classroom at Phoenix Union High School.
In 1926, Phoenix Union Colored High School opened at 415 E. Grant St. It was Arizona’s first and only black high school, and was renamed George Washington Carver High School in 1943. Goode, the former Phoenix City Councilman, enrolled and graduated from Carver after moving to Phoenix with his family from Prescott, where he attended integrated schools. Despite receiving his first taste of scholastic segregation at Carver, he recalls the school and its devoted staff without any discernible bitterness. “I later worked at Carver for five years as an accountant,” the public servant, now 94, says.
Most black residents lived in Central Phoenix, but only in areas that didn’t prohibit their presence. “Restrictive racial covenants organized Phoenix’s landscape along race lines, historically pushing people of color to live south of Washington Street,” says Rashad Shabazz, associate professor of justice and social inquiry at Arizona State University.
This residential segregation was formalized in 1925 when the Phoenix Real Estate Board barred realtors from introducing “…members of any race… detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.” This code prevented African Americans from purchasing homes in more desirable areas north of Downtown and resulted in covenants that allowed only white renters and owners.
Though unenforceable in the present day, the vestigial restrictions linger in the paperwork of older homes in chic historical neighborhoods like Willo and Encanto. “Some older houses in the city have ownership deeds to prevent ‘people of color’ from buying the property,” says Patrick Harvey, a Phoenix real estate agent.
As a result of the restrictions, prosperous black homeowners cultivated their own neighborhoods, with professionals living in the more affluent area from Washington Street to Buckeye Road and eastward from Central Avenue to 16th Street. This neighborhood included Eastlake Park, which became the center of the African American community. The park hosted the first Phoenix Juneteenth festival in 1921, a celebration of the June day in 1865 when slaves in Galveston, Texas, first learned of their emancipation. The festival’s highlight was a baseball game between the local semi-pro team, the Western Giants and the Fort Huachuca 10th Cavalry.
Poorer black Phoenicians lived in neighborhoods south and west of Downtown. Discrimination limited their job opportunities to low-paying service, domestic, farm and labor occupations. The real estate industry considered this area within the “red lines,” which signified a high risk for loans. Since the residents were denied mortgages by banks, substandard homes were often constructed from “tin cans, cardboard boxes and wooden crates picked up by the railroad tracks.” Many were “without electricity, most without plumbing and heat,” Father Emmett McLoughlin wrote in his autobiography, People’s Padre. Federal officials called the neighborhood “the worst slum area in the U.S.”
Meanwhile, the post-war U.S. migration to Western states was largely bypassing Phoenix in respect to black families. Between 1940 and 1970, the percentage of African American residents in Phoenix decreased from 6.5 to 4.8 percent, even as the percentage of black Americans grew nationally. However, Shabazz believes it was rail mapping, not the severity of red lining and restrictive covenants, that kept away African Americans from Phoenix. “Black people migrated based largely on train lines, which is why Chicago had such a large number of migrants. The train lines between Phoenix and the South were not as robust as New York, Chicago or LA. As a result, the percentage of the black population remained low.”
Wherever they moved, African Americans were likely to encounter de facto segregation, and Phoenix was no different. Robert Foster, an African American physician, experienced this while visiting Phoenix in 1953. Three motels courteously rejected his request for lodging for various reasons, according to Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. A fourth motel also refused Foster, and the owners told him the truth. “We don’t share the opinion of the people in this area. But if we take you in, the rest of the motel owners will ostracize us. We just can’t do it. I’m sorry.”
Business establishments were off-limits or had specific guidelines for African Americans. The Riverside Park Ballroom, an outdoor dance hall at Central Avenue and the Salt River, featured blues music on Thursday nights for black clientele. Woolworth’s sold merchandise to black customers, but did not serve them at its lunch counter.
A few white businessmen rebelled against this social code. In 1947, Phoenix attorney William P. Mahoney Jr. was refused reservations at posh restaurants because he was dining with black vocalist Dorothy Maynor, who later founded the Harlem School of the Arts. Mahoney finally called restaurateur Salvatore P.B. Cudia, who assured him that “no Ku Klux Klan son of a bitch is going to tell me who I can or cannot serve. Come on out [to Cudia’s restaurant],” according to Whitaker’s book, Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West.
Black entrepreneurs reacted to this economic exclusion by opening Phoenix businesses that catered to African Americans, many of them included in The Negro Motorist Green Book. The guide listed overnight accommodations in Phoenix that included Swindall Tourist Inn at 1021 E. Washington St., and two hotels Downtown on East Jefferson Street, the Raymond Hotel and the Rice Hotel. The latter hotel hosted such luminaries as jazz musicians Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong, and Major League Baseball’s first black player, Jackie Robinson.
The civil rights movement in Phoenix gained momentum after World War II and eventually ended the legal separation of African Americans. School segregation was the first barrier to fall, after being ruled illegal due to a local lawsuit in 1953. Phoenix schools were integrated the following year. George Washington Carver High School closed and is now an African American museum.
Phoenix businesses opened to African Americans with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, although victories had occurred in the preceding decade. When the Sky Chef restaurant at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport refused to serve local black bandleader Louis Jordan in 1952, city officials integrated the eatery since it was located in a municipal facility.
In 1953, baseball players Monte Irwin and Bill White became the first African Americans to stay at the Hotel Adams, but only after New York Giants manager Leo Durocher threatened to have the team leave the hotel during spring training in Phoenix.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed housing segregation in the U.S. Prominent black businessman Lincoln Ragsdale and his wife, Eleanor Dickey, however, had broken the Washington Street racial divide 15 years earlier. After realtors refused to show them a home in the North Encanto neighborhood in 1953, the couple had a white friend buy the property and then transfer it to them.
But the new civil rights legislation couldn’t roll back the racial geography that the previous decades had laid down. “The infrastructure that was put in place kept going; it couldn’t address the historical forms of discrimination,” Shabazz says. “Whites were able to get into the housing markets, accrued wealth and passed it on to future generations. That’s a welfare program, and it helped create the racial imbalance we see now.”
Shabazz says that while the impacts of segregation are economic, they’re also existential, as black and white people are bonded together. “Segregation profoundly damages people of color, but it also hinders white people’s ability to be empathetic and understanding.”
Phoenix Civil Rights Pioneers
William Crump was a successful businessman who owned the Crump Hay and Grain Company and was the only black delegate to the Territorial Convention in 1910. He was a school teacher in West Virginia before moving to Phoenix in 1897. Crump campaigned unsuccessfully against school segregation in 1910, declaring that black schools would be substandard, redundant and create long, dangerous commutes for students.
Dr. Winston Hackett became Phoenix’s first black physician in 1916, treating mostly African Americans. Five years later, he opened the 25-bed Booker T. Washington Memorial Hospital near Eastlake Park, which welcomed indigent patients and those seeking covert treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. In 1943, Hackett converted the hospital into the Winston Inn, which accommodated black servicemen during World War II.
Ayra Hackett, the wife of Dr. Hackett, founded The Arizona Gleam in 1929. The weekly newspaper was one of the few in the country owned by an African American woman. The Arizona Gleam brought attention to racial discrimination and segregation and highlighted Phoenix’s black community’s achievements. After she died in 1932, the newspaper continued publication for five more years.