In The Steps of Esteban: Tucson's African American Heritage

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Biographies & Oral Histories: Pioneers

The information on pioneers comes largely from: Yancey, James. The Negro of Tucson, Past and Present. Tucson: Unpublished Master's Thesis, The University of Arizona, 1933.

 

Thomas Grant, Richard Holt, and Henry Ransom
Richard Holt, Henry Ransom, and Thomas Grant
(photo taken: March 1, 1933)
[35K UALSC]


Charley Embers
(photo taken: March 1, 1933)
[23K UALSC]

Henry Ransom

Henry Ransom's last job, which he held from 1892 until his retirement with a life pension in 1931, was with the Tucson Transfer Company as a driver (see photo below). Ransom was originally employed as a freight driver for a private individual in Tucson in the late 1880s. After the business changed owners and names several times it was purchased by the Pioneer Transfer Company from Phoenix, Arizona, which was in turn bought out by the Tucson Transfer Company in 1892.

Thomas Grant

Thomas Grant was born in Germantown, Kentucky, in 1848. After arriving in Tucson in 1892 he immediately retired from the 10th Calvary and began working for attorney John L. Martin, for whom he still worked in 1933 when the Yancy thesis was published. In 1910, Holt homesteaded 22 acres of land at Fort Huachuca from the government. After recuperating from an illness in California, however, he returned to Arizona to find he had lost everything but the land which he later sold. Although Grant was once married he had no children and at the time the Yancy thesis was written, no surviving relatives.

Charley Embers

Charley Embers was born in San Bernadeno, California, in 1849. After moving to Tucson in 1866, he began working as a cook at a mining camp at Ajo for $30 per month, plus room and board. In 1876, he changed jobs and began unloading freight at Maricopa Wells, northwest of Tucson for $40 per month, exclusive of room and board. In later years he worked as an assistant to a surveyor and was employed at various times with the San Xavier Hotel, the Eagle Mills and with private families. Mr. Embers married a Mexican woman from Sonora with whom he had one daughter and at the time the Yancy thesis was written was "the oldest living person in Tucson."

Charley "Banjo Dick" Williams

Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Company's first wagon
Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Company's first wagon
[UALSC]

Charley "Banjo Dick" Williams
Charley "Banjo Dick" Williams
[7K UALSC]

"The person with the most illustrious career, ... who by far stamped his personality upon the pioneer citizenry of Tucson more than any other Negro was Mr. Charley Williams -- known to all Tucson music lovers as Banjo Dick."

Born in Kentucky on December 30, 1849, Williams came to Yuma, Arizona, from California in 1871. In Yuma he met and was later employed by Mr. L.A. Smith. In 1872, Williams moved to Tucson with the Smith family and worked for them as a " 'all around man' -- raising children, washing, ironing and taking care of the livery." Williams began to play the banjo "as a means of expressing his soul and also as a method of getting a little extra money." His biggest engagement was that of playing at La Vennis Park, the exclusive rendezvous of the Tucson aristocrats. In 1891, Williams moved to Nogales, Arizona, where he ran a shoe shining parlor for 3-4 years. The whereabouts of "Banjo Dick" after this time are unknown.

NOTE: In February, 2010, Ricardo Ojeda emailed to tell us that Banjo Dick is buried in the Nogales city cemetery. Mr. Ojeda, a history teacher at Nogales High School from 2004-2006, wrote: "In 2005 I had my students do some research on notable African-Americans who were in Nogales such as Henry O. Flipper, the 9th and 10th Cavalry, 24th and 25th Infantry, jazz legend Charles Mingus (born in Nogales!), and an actual member of the Tuskegee Airmen who was also born in Nogales, and of course Banjo Dick. I took them to the city cemetery so they can see for themselves how even in death the cemetery was segregated (white soldiers on one side, black soldiers on the other). By pure luck one of my students ran into a grave covered in vegetation and almost falling to one side." [email Mr. Ojeda]

Mrs. Lee

In the mid-1890s, Mrs. Lee came to Tucson to open a restaurant run exclusively for a white clientele. Mrs. Lee had originally come to Arizona in 1888 to cook for a wealthy Eastern family but "sought greater opportunities for the application of her unique 'cuisine art'," so she opened a cafe in Phoenix that catered to white tourists. "After a few years, her place became the most exclusive eating house in Phoenix." Upon her arrival in Tucson, Mrs. Lee made arrangements to rent the dining room at the Orndorff hotel, "which had been closed for some time due to the fact that it was not profitable to the hotel to operate it." Although her restaurant "received the patronage of the best people in Tucson" she was forced to close after three years due to poor health and died in the early 1900s.

Dave Lucas

Born in Kentucky, Dave Lucas came to Tucson with his mother, Elizabeth Lucas, who had secured employment at Fort Lowell as a cook. Although the exact date they came to Arizona is unknown it is assumed that it was around 1873, when Fort Lowell was erected in the northeastern section of Tucson by the U.S. government. Dave Lucas' responsibilities at Fort Lowell included taking care of the dining hall and caring for the horses of General Carr for which he received around $25 a month. "While working at Fort Lowell, Mr. Lucas became skilled in handling horses and soon became a jockey with unusual ability." In later years Lucas worked for various Tucson families and purchased the home shown above. Reputed to be the oldest home owned by an African American, still standing in Tucson, the house had been vacant for nearly 25 years when the photo was taken on February 28, 1933.

Yancey's thesis also included images of the Orndorff Hotel and an adobe home in which an African American was reported living. These images give viewers a sense of the times and conditions experienced by African Americans in Tucson in the 1930s.

The Orndorff Hotel
The Orndorff Hotel
[38K UALSC]

Orndorff Hotel dining room entrance
The dining room entrance to the Orndorff Hotel
[34K UALSC]



Proported to be the oldest home in Tucson belonging to an African American (circa 1933)
[36K UALSC]