EWU Supporting Project to Preserve Spokane’s Black History

October 12, 2023

Eastern Washington University is supporting a project to preserve the histories of Spokane’s Black citizens and the many contributions they’ve made to the community.

The Preserving Spokane’s Black History: Community Scanning Day project will be held from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 14, at the Carl Maxey Center, in Spokane. EWU students, faculty and staff are asked to look through their family treasures for photographs, documents, or small items that can help expand the stories of Spokane’s Black community, with a special emphasis on individual lives and accomplishments. Items will be scanned immediately and returned.

Led by the Carl Maxey Center and the Spokane Public Library’s Inland Northwest Special Collections team, the project will create an archive that fills a gap spanning 140 years – and multiple generations – during which our Black community’s achievements have been underrepresented.

Steven Bingo, university archivist at EWU, and Larry Cebula, a professor of history and expert in collaborative, digital public humanities work, will team up with students in his Nearby History class to help scan items and record those histories. Other partners include Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture and the Spokane Historic Preservation Office.

“What excites me most about it is the opportunity to bring to light histories that are not as visible in the archives – but really should be more visible,” Bingo says. “I’m just really pleased that Eastern can be involved in helping to build this important collection.”

Angela Schwendiman, assistant dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and program director of EWU Africana Studies, has helped to publicize the event to EWU’s Black community members so they can contribute.

She says she is proud of the university’s involvement, adding that preserving history strengthens bonds and forms community: “That’s another step towards equality, being able to recognize and preserve it so that it is something that can be passed along for generations.”

Keepsakes and documents, such as photos, school yearbooks, church programs, obituaries, housing contracts, mortgages and even receipts from transactions at Black-owned businesses, can help to portray this rich history, she explains.

“It could be anything that you might not think of as being relevant, but that gives us some kind of historical evidence of what was relevant in people’s lives at that time,” Schwendiman says. Even a letter can be helpful in creating a historical narrative, because “it’s not just a personal document, it helps us understand and get a feel for who these people were and what they were going through.”

In some cases, family keepsakes go all the way back to illustrate the story of how Black pioneers arrived in the Spokane area.

For instance, Schwendiman says, people often don’t realize that Spokane’s earliest Black citizens were recruited from southern states to come and work in the mines. What was notably missing from the offer of employment was transparency: Black workers often arrived to find currently employed miners on strike and understandably hostile to the appearance of the unwitting strike breakers.

A printed program from Calvary Baptist or Bethel AME represents worship at two of the oldest Black-founded churches in Washington. Established in 1890, the churches gave Black citizens a voice in establishing schools and other foundational infrastructure — this at a time where they were unable to vote or run for office.

Bingo says the gap in recorded Black history is widespread. “If you were to look at archival collections, not just in the region but nationally, they tend to reflect individuals who have held positions of power,” he says. “Historically, people of color have been excluded or have faced more challenges in obtaining those sorts of positions.”

On Saturday, he’d like to see a broad selection of photos and other items representing Black families, arts and culture, including singers, local jazz bands and quartets, local clubs and military personnel.

During WWII, when the armed forces were still segregated, Bingo explains, Black service members often found themselves fighting on two fronts: battling enemy forces in Europe and Japan, then returning home to fight the battle for equality. So, a photo of grandpa wearing his full military uniform tells a powerful story.

“I’m sure there have been many distinguished veterans, Spokanites, who have served in various wars and otherwise,” Bingo says.

Bingo hopes the project is the start of a digital collection that spans the late 1880s to the present, and that the Carl Maxey Center can continue to grow the collection for future generations.

The Carl Maxey Center is located at 3114 E. 5th Ave., in Spokane.