The ‘historical silence’ of the Black workers who made Phoenix prosperous

By: - June 19, 2020 9:18 am

The downtown Phoenix skyline, circa 1940. Unknown author | Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Before he met adoring fans during his European tours; before he performed with Ray Charles, Muddy Waters and B.B. King; before he was inducted into the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame, Big Pete Pearson, Arizona’s King of Blues, writhed in pain every night before collapsing into an unsettled slumber. Markings from cotton burrs pierced his dark, rugged skin and burns from the blistering sun seemed to be tattooed on his hands.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Pearson spent 12 agonizing hours a day picking cotton on fields along Camelback Road in Phoenix and elsewhere in Arizona, and then packing, lifting and loading hundred-pound sacks of it, a mighty part of the engine that shored up a pillar of the state’s economy.

Peering from under the wide brim of his straw hat back then, Pearson saw people like him — African Americans, hundreds of them — toiling in row after row of cotton plants. 

“That was regretful days that you wish you didn’t have to be there,” Pearson, 83, said in a February 2020 interview. 

Today, there’s hardly any mention of the cotton pickers’ contribution as driving forces of the area’s economy. Only one cotton field lives on, on the far-west end of the city. The others have been replaced by the shopping centers, gas stations, restaurants and car dealerships that line Camelback Road.

Historians and advocates say that is part of a larger, systematic erasure of the history and presence of African Americans in Phoenix. 

Meskerem Glegziabher, director for inclusion and community engagement at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, calls this “historical silence.”

“We often have a tendency when we do recognize these omissions of history as it being somehow accidental, and it wasn’t accidental,” Glegziabher said. “It doesn’t feel good to acknowledge a country that you’re very proud of (having) this very dark history.” 

The nationwide protests, spurred by the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and countless other Black individuals, are just one moment in time against the systemic racism that is rooted deeply in the country’s founding. Hours before Floyd died on May 25 in Minneapolis, an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper shot and killed Dion Johnson thousands of miles away. Phoenix’s protests, which have happened daily since May 28, have been centered against police brutality and created renewed momentum for the state to remove its monuments to the Confederate States of America. 

The systemic and ongoing erasure of the trauma Black people in America have experienced since the nation’s inception, often at the hands of the state, allows people to feign surprise every few years when the killings of Black people erupt in widespread anger and protests,” Glegziabher said. 

The false narrative that the litany of injustices—things like lynchings and whites-only accommodations and race restrictive real estate covenants—were isolated incidents stems from the general failure of America’s history lessons to reflect the totality of America’s racist legacy.

The current movement for Black lives is intrinsically linked to the deliberate erasure of Black presence, in part through the destruction of their properties, Glegziabher said.

Destroying Black legacy, building Confederate monuments

Phoenix’s 2004 African American Historic Property Survey determined, through archival research and oral histories, 175 individual properties to be of high significance due to their connections with people prominent to the city’s African American community from 1868 to 1970. These were the properties that the City of Phoenix Historic Preservation Office took special interest in. These were the properties that would have been eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion B, meaning they were associated with important, historical individuals. 

Over the decades, 97 of these properties have been demolished

These were locations where Black Arizonans lived, worked and worshipped. At a time when they weren’t tolerated across a large swath of the country, they were actively recruited to come to Phoenix, Glegziabher said — and many of them did. These Black residents made pivotal contributions to the transformation of Phoenix from a desert outpost to a functioning city.

Winston Hackett, Phoenix’s first Black physician, opened the Booker T. Washington Hospital on 1342 E. Jefferson St. in 1921. It was demolished in the early 1960s.

Arthur Randolph Smith operated The Phoenix Tribune, the first African American newspaper in the state, out of 923 E. Jefferson S. It folded in 1931 and the building was torn down in the late 1970s. 

Roy Lee served as the first Black principal at the Phoenix Union Colored High School, later called George Washington Carver High, at 415 E. Grant St. It stands today as one of only two properties in Phoenix classified as a Black area of significance in the National Register of Historic Places.

Phoenix's erased Black history
Where Booker T. Washington Hospital once stood near downtown Phoenix is now an empty dirt lot. During the first three years of its opening, it saw more than 300 patients, according to the City of Phoenix’s 2004 African American Historic Property Survey. Image via Google Earth

Phoenix is far from being the only place in the country where the history of African Americans is being erased. And across the country, there’s a growing movement — spearheaded, in large part, by African Americans — to save and honor what is left. 

The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, led by Brent Leggs, has invested $25 million to save a number of historic African American buildings and grounds in Oklahoma and Virginia. It is also weighing almost 2,000 proposals for preservation of properties across the country, totaling nearly $190 million. 

“The traditional preservation movement has honored and preserved places associated (with) a few privileged Americans, and that being mainly white Americans,” Leggs said. Preservation, he explained, is “not only a tool, but it is a force to help repair some of the kind of racial challenges that our nation has faced.”

For example, the University of Virginia has recently constructed a Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, recognizing the thousands of Black people who built the university.

Meanwhile, there are at least six Confederate memorials in Arizona, including one across the street from the State Capitol and two that are four-minute drives from historic Black properties.

Arizona Reps. Geraldine Peten and Reginald Bolding, two of the state’s three Black state lawmakers, have sought to remove the state’s Confederate monuments and memorials for several years.

“Those monuments were put up during the time of Jim Crow. They wanted to intimidate and keep African Americans in their place with the threat of white supremacy,” Geraldine Peten said in a 2017 Arizona Capitol Times interview. “Why would you display hatred?”

Some city residents, like third-generation Phoenician Rodney Grimes, are taking the task of raising awareness of the state’s Black history into their own hands. He has put together a painstakingly detailed presentation with 174 slides centered around his relatives’ contributions to Arizona over the past century. 

Among his family members are the first African American baseball player at what is now Arizona State University, one of the first African American officers at the Phoenix Police Department, an Arizona Boxing Hall of Fame inductee and the chairman of Arizona Black Votes for the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1984, who was also a graduate of the first integrated class at Phoenix Union High School. 

Grimes, who was born in 1946, said he hopes to one day expand the project into a documentary film.

Driving past the empty dirt lots and brick office buildings that now line Jefferson and Washington streets, he can still see the original structure of Booker T. Washington Hospital, which closed its doors in 1943 when Hackett’s sight began to fail. He can still see the Rice Hotel, Hagler’s Barber Shop and Thomas Crump’s dental practice, all of them owned by and catered to African Americans.  

He still sees what it once was, growing up in that neighborhood. 

Phoenix's erased Black history
Third-generation Phoenician Rodney Grimes takes a drive down memory lane, as he recalled the Black community and businesses that inhabited Phoenix when he was younger. Photo courtesy Brendon Derr

“I like to come by and look and remember,” Grimes said. “But in terms of what I see and what’s here, it’s just gone.”

What he does vividly still see in his mind today is the horrific photograph of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s brutalized body on the cover of the 1955 Jet magazine — as haunting now as it was when he was a little boy. It served as a reminder, growing up, that he must know the limitations of where he could and could not go in Phoenix because of his skin color. These thoughts have been internalized throughout his life. 

Reminiscent of today’s monumental upheaval over the publicized murder of George Floyd, he also recalls marching down those same streets in March 1964 to protest segregation in places of public accommodation. He stood with other protesters outside the Capitol, near the memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops that had been installed just three years earlier—the very same monument that Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs asked Gov. Doug Ducey’s administration to remove in a June 8 letter. 

Ducey has resisted the pressure from local chapters of the Black Lives Matter movement and the NAACP to have the monument removed, telling The Arizona Republic in 2017 that it was not his “desire or mission to tear down any monument or memorial.”

Despite today’s renewed and growing outrage to remove the monuments, Ducey has mostly stuck to his original stance. Earlier this month, he deflected questions about removing the Confederate memorial from the Capitol Mall by insisting that a “public process” take place to determine its fate.

Exactly what the process would be remains unclear, as his administration has the sole authority to decide which monuments are erected on the Capitol Mall.

‘We are always on the fringes’

Clottee Hammons, a visual artist whose Black great-grandparents moved to Arizona in the early 1900s, believes Confederate monuments are still standing because of a political dynamic grounded in the lack of African American representation in the Arizona Legislature. 

Hammons lectures and organizes art exhibitions and events to educate the Phoenix community about the historic truth of Black migrants in Arizona. The goal of her community events is to teach what is not taught in schools, Hammons said — and to do so in a way that doesn’t stifle Black voices. 

During a recent lecture for an exhibit she curated, she talked about the slaves who walked the Trail of Tears side by side with Native Americans, and said the woman who is often cited as the first African American to come to Arizona with her children in 1868 was, in fact, a former slave who continued to work for her master’s family. She was brought to the state when the family moved here, not of her own volition. 

“The systemic racism in Arizona is undeniable. We are always on the fringes,” she said during her lecture.

Hammons’s exhibit—titled “The Great Migration: Indiscernibles in Arizona” and located in Heritage Square, Phoenix’s original town center—was inspired by the lack of acknowledgement for and awareness of the presence of African Americans in Arizona. The exhibit focused on 1915 to 1970, when Black Americans escaped to Northern, Midwestern and Western states, spotlighting their experience in Arizona.

The exhibit, which closed due to COVID-19, featured artifacts, oral histories, photographs and art donated by some of Phoenix’s Black families, as well as information about the history of prominent places that no longer exist and maps depicting the lines that divided the areas where white and Black residents lived. 

Kari Carlisle, executive director of Heritage Square, said the exhibit tells an important part of the city’s history. 

“This,” she said, “is the beginning of a long tradition of telling the stories that are not told.”

One of these stories tells the connections between Arizona’s Black residents and the state’s cotton economy.

Phoenix's erased Black history
Phoenix artist Clottee Hammons painted a depiction of her great-grandmother, Effie, and her dog, Chip, standing near her cotton bush in her front yard. Photo by Megan Lupo | Arizona Mirror

Hammons remembers one afternoon when she was a little girl, a Black man pulled off a piece of cotton from a plant growing in the front yard of the Phoenix home of her great-grandmother, Effie Stamps, a native of Mississippi. In her yellow and pink apron, Effie chased the man, and when she caught up to him, she jumped on his back and hit him in the back of the head just to get her cotton back. Effie was 70 years old. 

The ‘Anglo utopia’ thrived because of Black labor

“I want to challenge everybody right now to think of five examples of public art that reflect a Black theme,” Hammons said at the beginning of her lecture. 


“Don’t everybody shout out at once,” she quipped. 

In Phoenix currently, there is only one Black artist among the 35 artists who have created the city’s 63 public art points and four public areas. 

“We have actually more Confederate monuments than we do (examples) of Black art,” she noted. 

Hammons, who said she felt like “just a number” when she attended Arizona State University in the 1970s, has been initiating her own cultural engagements throughout the city for decades. 

Through her organization, Emancipation Arts, she created a literary event called the Emancipation Marathon, where members of the community gather every June and read selected literature about the American chattel slavery to commemorate its victims. Due to COVID-19, the readers in 2020 are being videotaped, and their recordings will be posted on the Emancipation Arts Facebook page on June 19 throughout the weekend. The Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts will also broadcast the videos on its YouTube channel, Scottsdale Arts, accompanied by blog posts. June 19, or Juneteenth, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. 

Like Hammons, Leggs said that Americans need to understand that the founding of the nation was rooted in slavery. His job at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he said, is to confront misconceptions. 

“Preservation mirrors social values in America. And what I mean by that is a structural racism that has existed,” Leggs said. “It’s a lack of cultural competency. It is an intentional desire by white America to preserve what is viewed as American history.”

Leaders and many of the residents in young states like Arizona are only now beginning to understand the value of historic preservation, Leggs said.

But that’s a difficult task when the knowledge of Black history and presence in the state is dependent on disconnected and scant artifacts, events and oral histories, Hammons said. There is no repository of information to establish a community that long-time residents can build upon and newcomers can learn about.      

“There is also, within the greater metropolitan Phoenix area, a notable lack of will to create new spaces and include Blacks in public art, politics and media,” Hammons said. “Boards of directors of numerous organizations claim to prize diversity, to the extent that there is the false impression that Black people do not have a footprint in Arizona.” 

That’s in part because Phoenix was heralded as an “Anglo utopia” by the white population that first migrated to the city, Glegziabher said. Many of those people came to Phoenix from the same Southern states that African Americans who came to the city had escaped from.

“Most African Americans in Phoenix when they moved here either worked in the fields or were domestic workers. And that’s sort of the reality, and there’s no shame in that,” Glegziabher said. “There should be an acknowledgement of that history. And reconcile this myth of Arizona being the land of plenty.” 

A step up from slavery

Decades before Big Pete Pearson stepped foot on the Camelback Road cotton fields, Grimes’s great-grandfather, Isaac Island, Sr., was a sharecropper on that same land.

He equated the work to a step up from slavery.

Black migratory cotton pickers, who mostly came from Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas, were recruited during a period in the early 20th Century marked by what Hammons refers to as “intra-American terrorism”—lynching, violence and brutality across the South. 

The workers arrived in Phoenix lured by the false promises of clean cabins and sanitary working conditions that were made in flyers distributed primarily in Black Southern towns by the Works Progress Administration, a 1935 American New Deal agency created by former President Franklin D. Roosevelt to employ millions. 

The housing quarters were, in fact, in “deplorable condition,” concluded J.D. Dunshee, the former director of local health administration for the state health department. His comments came after a typhoid fever outbreak in 1938, according to reporting in The Arizona Republic.

Phoenix's erased Black history
A 1941 Works Progress Administration flyer was distributed throughout Arizona, advertising cotton picking jobs throughout various cities. A version is on display at the “The Great Migration: Indiscernibles in Arizona” exhibit at Heritage Square. Photo by Megan Lupo | Arizona Mirror

Hammons said that many cotton-pickers died of diphtheria and tuberculosis—the latter a disease that, ironically, played a major part in white migration to Arizona’s dry climate for convalescence. The crops they tended were also sprayed with DDT, a chemical originally developed as an insecticide but later determined to be hazardous to human health. Some collapsed from heat stroke, others were bitten by rattlesnakes. The lack of adequate and accessible health care led to many preventable deaths.

“We know that hospitals were segregated. We know that graveyards were segregated,” Hammons said. Cities that built their prosperity on the back-breaking labor of Black cotton-pickers “are quite prosperous” today, she said. 

“I want a public monument and I want acknowledgement to the contributions,” she added. 

Hammons hopes to make “The Great Migration: Indiscernibles in Arizona” a traveling exhibit, heading to cities like Chandler, Gilbert and Florence, all of which had the cotton farms listed on a New Deal’s Works Progress Administration flyer. Her goal is to highlight the contributions of countless Black laborers whose names are not mentioned in the accounts of Arizona’s history. 

She said she also wants to bring attention to the often-neglected fact that Black Americans are still living a divided existence that stems from segregation.

From the cotton fields to blues stardom

Growing up in St. John Colony, Texas, Pearson said he used to wonder why he was treated differently from white children whenever he stepped off the farm where his grandparents worked. 

“As a young boy, I can close my eyes and see the people that called me out of my name, which I don’t like to think about very much,” he said, casting his powder blue eyes down at the faded red-to-tan ombrée area rug below his feet. “I was called everything but Big Pete or Pete.”

He remembers, when he was about 7, watching a white boy receive candy and cookies from store owners, while he was ordered to stand in the corner whenever he ran errands for his grandparents. 

He said that his wife, Kelly, who is white, once told him, “If I was there, I would’ve said something.” 

“And I said, ‘No you wouldn’t, because it wasn’t that way back then. You wouldn’t have did nothing. Just like I didn’t do nothing.’” 

He recalled her leaning on the kitchen counter behind the reclining armchair, saying, “The law was against you. You didn’t have recourse.”

Pearson said that his life improved once he moved to Phoenix in his early 20s, but the discrimination was still there. He has been refused service at restaurants as recent as the late 1980s, he said, with waiters simply not giving him the cup of coffee he ordered or failing to bring out silverware for his table.

Kelly said that, up until former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was ousted in the 2016 election, deputies from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office would follow Pearson home and sometimes pull him over—not for speeding or for having a broken taillight, but simply because they were suspicious of a Black man living in the affluent, predominantly white suburb of Litchfield Park.

Phoenix's erased Black history
The “Bona Fide Blues Review” album cover, which features Big Pete Pearson, is a photo of the last remaining patch of the cotton fields along Camelback Road. Pearson was a laborer in those fields in the 1950s and 1960s. Photo by Megan Lupo | Arizona Mirror

Even though almost all of the cotton fields in Phoenix are long gone, a part of Pearson will always remember those struggling days, no matter how much he tries to forget. A photo taken by Hammons of the last remaining cotton field in the area, on 98th Avenue and Camelback Road, was used as the cover of an album he was featured on, “Bona Fide Blues Review.” He said it was a way of uniting one of his biggest joys and one of his biggest heartbreaks; Pearson has been playing music since performing on his first show at 9 years old at a bar in Austin, Texas. 

Even during his cotton field days, he continued to play music in bars every chance he could. By the late 1960’s, he became recognized throughout the Valley. In the making of becoming a local legend, he caught the attention of other blues icons—Muddy Waters, Ray Charles and B.B. King, who he began to work throughout his career. 

Preservationists blame misguided efforts at urban renewal for the devastation of historically Black neighborhoods. Leggs listed many examples of places once thriving of Black culture and businesses that were decimated in the name of progress—the Southwest Waterfront in Washington, D.C., redeveloped in the 1950s and ’60s and Oklahoma City’s Deep Deuce district renovated from the 1960s to ’80s—because the systems that guide the decisions over what should and shouldn’t be preserved are, at their core, racist systems. One purpose of his fund is to stop this destruction.

“When municipalities are looking to grow, develop, alter a city landscape, these places have been deemed worthy of preservation,” Leggs said. “You can begin to understand the loss of social cohesion, the loss of cultural heritage and the disruption that poor public policy and planning has had on Black historic neighborhoods.”

Grimes wishes for racial justice and change. Although it has been broken down and crushed before, seeing the thousands of enraged (and diverse) protesters in the past several weeks throughout the country and world, he continues to hope.

“With the level of frustration across the board, something good could happen,” Grimes said. “Just maybe, we’ll get some vicarious justice for Emmett Till.”

To Pearson, that’s one way to right the wrongs of the past that still haunt him. The other is to remember, include and honor the Black Americans who helped make Arizona what it is today.

“Yesteryear, it was super bad, but we still have the same problem. You just don’t see it as much. You don’t hear it as much. But, undercover, behind somebody’s door, somebody still feels the same way he did 60, 70 years ago,” Pearson said. “A lot of young kids don’t even know what happened yesterday. And it would be good for them to explore some of the history that we had to go through.”

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Megan Lupo
Megan Lupo

Megan Lupo is a graduate student at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, currently pursuing a master's degree in the inaugural investigative journalism program. Born and raised in New Jersey, her passion for journalism emerged when she read John Branch’s “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” in The New York Times. In Spring 2018, she won first place in the enterprise/investigative reporting category at the N.J. Collegiate Press Association Awards for two of her pieces. She aspires to hold those in power accountable and tell the stories of those marginalized.