Black History Month

Eleanor Barrow Chase

Eleanor Barrow Chase, first Black woman to serve on Eastern Washington University’s Board of Trustees

It seems Eleanor Barrow Chase was born to blaze a trail. Her grandfather moved to Spokane around 1890 and helped establish Calvary Baptist Church, Spokane’s first Black church. Her father started his own printing company and newspaper. And Chase herself became the first woman of color elected to Eastern Washington University’s Board of Trustees, where she served from 1979 to 1992.

Born in Spokane in 1918, Chase stood out academically and musically from a young age. She graduated with honors from Lewis and Clark High School, and from Whitworth College, where she studied music and was known for her operatic voice.

In addition to her work as an EWU trustee, Chase served on the Board of Trustees at Whitworth and participated in many community organizations, along with her husband, Jim Chase, who became Spokane’s first Black mayor in 1981.

Eleanor Barrow Chase championed civil rights and advocated for children in her career as a social worker for the Washington State Department of Public Assistance, and as a case worker and probation officer for Spokane Juvenile Court. Her contributions were so significant that Eleanor Chase House, a work release program for women in Spokane, was named in her honor, and she received an honorary master’s degree in social work from EWU.

Carl Maxey (J.D)

Carl Maxey became the first Black lawyer, and only Black professional worker in Spokane, in 1951. He spent his 46 year legal tenure fighting racial discrimination, and was instrumental in desegregating Spokane’s pools, restaurants, barber shops, and clubs. Maxey also used his law degree to sue Spokane’s professional industries, enabling Black residents to become professional teachers, lawyers, and nurses.

Orphaned at a young age, Carl Maxey was unanimously kicked out of Spokane Children’s Home at age twelve, along with another boy, because he was Black. With nowhere to go, he was forced to temporarily move into the juvenile detention center. Reverend Cornelius Byrne took both boys to live on an Indian reservation in Idaho. In 1942 an eighteen year old Maxey served as an Army medic, after being rejected from the all-white U.S. Army Air Corps, in World War II. Upon returning to Spokane as a veteran in uniform in 1946, Maxey was immediately refused service on the basis of his skin color. It was then he decided to become a lawyer, eventually attending Gonzaga Law School on a boxing scholarship. Maxey earned Gonzaga its first NCAA championship, passed the bar exam in 1951, and immediately convinced Spokane School District to hire the qualified Eugene Breckenridge as Spokane’s first Black teacher in 14 years.

Only two Spokane restaurants, owned by Black families, allowed Black patrons before Maxey successfully sued for desegregation. Carl Maxey sued the Washington Association of Realtors multiple times,  to combat the redlining that segregated Black home-buyers into the neighborhood now known as East Central. He desegregated Spokane’s clubs, arguing in court that when they applied for the public right to sell liquor, they needed to allow all the public, regardless of race, entrance. When he opened a law firm with three other partners in 1960, 20% of its case-load was pro bono equity cases.

In 1963 President John F Kennedy Jr. asked Carl Maxey to serve as chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Maxey was then reappointed by Presidents Lyndon B Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Maxey also served as a state co-chairman of Reverend Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign.

In 1980, Carl Maxey opened Maxey Law Office, with his two lawyer sons, on the principles of integrity, equality, and justice. “I speak up when I feel that things ought to be spoken about.”

Frances Scott

Frances Scott was Spokane’s first Black woman lawyer. She spent her life educating high schoolers and advancing civil rights. She was President of the Spokane Education Association, the first appointed Black woman commissioner to the Civil Service Commission, active in the local NAACP, and President of the Board of the Washington State University Board of Regents.

In 1958 Frances Scott became the 4th Black teacher in Spokane, teaching English, German, sociology, and African-American history at Rogers High School. After twenty years, Scott was still the only Black teacher at Rogers, and one of only eighteen in the school district. Of the 1,680 high schoolers she taught, only eighteen were Black students in 1978.

While Spokane was a lot more progressive than when Scott was a child and her mother, a trained nurse, was denied a nursing job, change was not advancing fast enough for her. “I want to be able to instruct, as well as represent, minority people in their dealings with the law.” In 1978 Frances Scott graduated from Gonzaga University School of Law and became Spokane’s first Black woman lawyer, and only the eighteenth in Washington state. Scott took mostly civil rights and pro bono cases, all while continuing to teach.

In 1979 Frances Scott became the first Black woman commissioner in history when appointed to the Civil Service Commission. She became president of the Spokane Education Association, a teachers union where she served 1981-1983. In 1982, Scott spoke about the revival of groups such as the KKK, “We must exercise some degree of militancy … against slumlords, against Klansmen, against people who want no minorities in their neighborhoods, against racist textbooks and against politicians who thrive on bigotry.” Scott was appointed to the Washington State University Board of Regents in 1985, serving as President of the Board at the end of her seven year term.

In 2000, Scott spoke at Spokane’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. unity march, “We have made progress, but we have not reached the end of the journey. Dr. King’s dream is not a reality yet. But as long as we are moving in the direction of the dream, we will succeed. I will not let the dream die.”

Gail Caldwell Bonner

In March 1963, at the height of the national civil rights movement, Gail Caldwell Bonner made local history when her classmates at Maryhill High School elected her to represent their school in Spokane’s Lilac Festival, making her the festival’s first Black princess.

Bonner was one of just four Black students at the all-girls Catholic school. Though Spokane was far removed from the violent protests in the Deep South, racism still affected peoples’ mindsets. “A princess of any kind would have to be white with pink cheeks, blond hair and pretty,” Bonner told The Spokesman-Review in a 2013 interview. “So it never crossed my mind it would be a possibility for me.”

That unlikely possibility became a reality for Bonner. And while her fellow princesses treated her with respect, not everyone was thrilled to see a Black girl on the Lilac Court. Bonner’s family received death threats, and her father hired a private detective to help ensure her safety.

A highlight for Bonner was attending a festival luncheon with her mother, who worked as a server at the Spokane Club. “Instead of my mother having to serve, she was served,” Bonner recalled. Bonner also remembered the feeling of being on the festival float and looking out at the faces in the crowd, many of them Black, and knowing what her honor meant to them.

After high school, Bonner attended Gonzaga University and went on to become one of the first Black employees at Washington Water Power (now Avista). She later worked for IBM.

James Everette Chase

James Everett Chase came from humble beginnings, the youngest of 7 children growing up in Depression-era, segregated Texas.  When the Depression shut down his all-black high school, Chase was thrust into the workforce without even a high school diploma. When he was 20-years-old he came to Spokane by catching trains with two of his friends in search of greater job opportunities.  Chase became a shoe-shiner, but his entrepreneurial spirit led him to open some auto body repair shops with friends. He also spent time  at Fairchild Airforce Base, supervising an auto body repair shop for the Air Force during World War II.

Early in his resettlement in Spokane, Chase was unsatisfied by the opportunities offered to people of color, so together with Clarence Freeman, Chase founded the Negro Active League, which sought to provide a social networking platform for Spokane’s Black community and push for greater opportunity for Black Spokanites.  It was during this time Chase met the woman who would become his wife, Eleanor Barrow.  His civic involvement led him to become President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, a position he held for 17 years.

Chase had his political debut in 1969 when he ran for city council in a race which he ultimately lost. This defeat didn’t deter Chase, however, who went on to oust an 8-year incumbent for a city council seat 5 years later, becoming the first-ever Black city councilmember in Spokane’s history.  While on the council, Chase was a champion for youth programs as well as an outspoken critic of how stagnant City Council was at effecting change.  His popularity on the council grew over the next 4 years, ensuring his retention on the Council in 1979 by a three-to-one margin.  Chase next ran for Mayor, and in a landslide win, became Spokane’s first Black Mayor.

Despite racial tensions, Chase was a well-loved Mayor for his leadership, insistence on government transparency, and bettering communication.  After just one term as Mayor, and while rehabilitating from back surgery, Chase chose not to seek re-election.  Chase passed two years later in 1987 from cancer.  His legacy includes the Chase Art Gallery outside City Hall, an homage from his 1% for Art program instituted during his Mayorship, as well as the Chase Community Center, Chase Youth Commission, and Chase Middle School, which bear his name.  He was awarded the President’s Medal from Eastern Washington University in 1985, and Washington’s Governor declared December 12, 1985 to be James Chase Day.

Jerrelene Williams

Jerrelene Williamson has spent her life sharing the stories of Spokane’s first Black settlers, including her own story. She grew up in a city that mostly refused service to minorities. Realizing there was no one else to accurately document the challenges and racial issues the early Black Spokanites faced, and wanting better for her five children, Williamson documented their lives and wrote about them herself.

Jerrelene Williamson graduated high school in 1950, a time when there were no Black professionals permitted in Spokane. In 1965 Williamson became Spokane’s first Black grocery checker, after being rejected from the bakery on the basis of her skin color. In the 60s, she joined other families protesting to keep Lincoln Elementary School, educator to many Black students, open. Williamson later participated in civil rights marches and became active in the NAACP. Even after retirement, she remained active in the community, singing for nursing homes and educating new generations on the hardships Spokane’s Black pioneers endured.

Jerrelene Williamson was not only a founding member of the Spokane Northwest Black Pioneers, but also served as historian and president. These photos and stories she collected in her basement were later compiled into her book, African Americans in Spokane, published in 2010. It details the discrimination, challenges, triumphs, and general life experiences of herself, her fellow church members, and the other Black families in her community.

Jerrelene Williamson credits the news media’s accurate documentation of the civil rights protests in Alabama in the 1960s, as bringing awareness to the rest of the country. “The news media…had a great deal to do with the civil rights movement, because they went in and they showed what was wrong…If it wasn’t for them…then the whole country would not have known what was going on.” Similarly, Williamson preserved the history of Black Spokane Pioneers.