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

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A Brief History

Early Settlers


Fort Apache, Arizona, 1887. U.S. 10th Cavalry Troop A
Fort Apache, Arizona, 1887. U.S. 10th Cavalry Troop A
(The man on the far right is identified as one Sergeant Fuller.)
[UALSC]

Two of the first recorded African American settlers in Tucson, Mr. and Mrs. Wiley Box, came to this area between 1850 and 1855. They journeyed here from New Orleans and Oklahoma respectively. Wiley Box found work doing manual labor, stage coach driving, and prospecting. Other early settlers included Joe Mitchell, who was a barber and chicken rancher, Harvey Merchant, who was a cook and a cowboy, and Charley "Banjo Dick" Williams. [Henry, p.90] Edmond Robinson arrived in Tucson in the 1890's. By 1905 he and his wife were running a two-story rooming house in Tucson whose tenants included "a German baker, Irish carpenter and Orientals." [Sanchez] By 1900, records show that 86 persons lived in Tucson who identified themselves as of African descent.

Many of the African Americans coming to this region were leaving the southern states looking for new opportunities to establish roots, raise families, and escape racial persecution. Others came to the area as soldiers stationed at Ft. Apache or Ft. Huachuca.

The type of employment found by these early pioneers varied. Some started homesteads or ranches. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, almost all barbers in the area were Black. Some individuals, such as Arthur Lewis, Frank Denkins, and George Braggs, owned their own shops and were able to offer jobs to others. Shoe shine parlors and restaurants were among the businesses that African Americans opened. Others found work as cooks in local hotels. There were African American families who built homesteads and maintained farms. In the early 1900's the Preston Family owned 160 acres near what is now the Palo Verde Overpass. Joe Montcrief and Mary Felix also owned ranches in that area. [Yancey]

Significant numbers of African Americans worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Some performed manual labor by repairing the tracks. Others worked as machinists in the railroad shops, or as baggage handlers and porters. Mining and prospecting brought others to Arizona including Charley Embers who arrived here in 1861.

African Americans could only buy or rent homes and businesses in certain areas of town. Both legal restrictions and the actions of Anglo settlers enforced this discriminatory policy. Many African Americans chose the A Mountain area to build homes.

These African American settlers had come to Arizona Territory searching for freedom and opportunity. Rising above the hardships and racial discrimination they experienced, African Americans helped build the city we know today. They contributed to the vitality of the early Tucson community, as family members, businessmen, and citizens.

The African American community also worked to end racial hatred and discrimination through organized activities and education. In 1884, they formed the "Wide-Awake Colored Club," a political organization that worked to keep its members informed about the political issues facing the community and supported various political candidates. By 1918, the Tucson chapter of the NAACP was formed. Tucson's African American community can be proud of the role they have taken challenging discrimination.

Continue with African American Soldiers