1991 -- African American Settlers in Tucson

By Harry Lawson, Ph.D.

The African American History Internship Project (AAHIP) program has just completed its fifth year. Summaries of previous projects were reported in Lawson (1988, 1989, & 1990). These documents can be reviewed at the Arizona Historical Society Library. This year's theme was "African American Settlers in Tucson."

While African Americans are conspicuously absent from the general literature that deals with the settling of Arizona, a few Black authors have attempted to make the public aware of the presence of African Americans in Arizona (e.g. Harris , 1983) and in Tucson ( Yancy , 1933) from the beginning. Gloria Smith (e.g., 1969, 1977, & 1980) has not only carried out research on African Americans in Arizona, she has also presented a number of programs to make the public aware of the presence of Blacks and their contributions in this area.

Despite their omission from traditional history sources, Blacks nevertheless came to Arizona. The first non-native to enter Arizona (an expedition that brought him near Tucson) was a Black slave, Estevan (variously known as Esteban, Estevanico, or Little Steven), who was the front man for an expedition of Spanish explorers under the leadership of Fray Marcos de Niza, Vice Commissioner-General of New Spain, searching for the fabled "Seven Cities of Gold" or Cibola. This was in 1539. Though Estevan was killed by the native Indians, his efforts, according to Yancy (1933, p. 9), broke "the way for Spanish exploration, conquest, and military enterprise." However, there would be a long span between Estevan's arrival in Arizona and the coming of other Blacks -- over 300 years.

Yancy (1933) could find no record of Blacks (other than Estevan) entering Tucson prior to 1850. He reports that the first Black Tucson settlers were a couple: Mr. and Mrs. Wiley Box who arrived here from Oklahoma between 1850 and 1855. Following these initial pioneers, others came. They included prospectors, cowboys, Buffalo Soldiers, (the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments), cooks, barbers, maids, farmers, miners, business people and, finally, professionals. For examples of pioneers during the 19th century, the reader should consult Yancy's (1933) work.

AAHIP's project begins where Yancy left off. Ten interns (seven from Pima College and three from the University of Arizona) were trained in oral history research techniques. This represents the largest number of students and subjects since the inception of the program and the first time we provided college credit through the university. An intern from last year's project returned to participate in this year's program. We identified and. interviewed ten early settlers in Tucson, those arriving after the pioneers in the early part of the 20th century. Our settlers range in age from 77 to 104. By occupation they include: an army colonel (a second generation Buffalo Soldier) and administrator, a small business owner and beautician, a dentist, two cooks, an educator, a minister, a postal worker, and a hotel baggage clerk and car detailer. Our earliest settler, Jessie Martin Washington, came to Tucson in 1907.

One intern did not complete the project. Therefore, only nine of the ten settlers will be reported on.

We believe that their vignettes shed light on what Tucson was like for African Americans in the early part of the 20th century. Though none of our settlers was directly involved in the civil rights movement, in their own way they made their contributions toward breaking down segregation and making things better for Blacks in this southwestern city.

Each interview was tape recorded. Most of these recordings are of sufficient quality, and are preserved at the Historical Society. Photographs were also collected where available to be used in an exhibit. This exhibit, along with previous displays, is maintained at the society and can be borrowed by organizations for special occasions.

The interns have written summaries of their interviews which appear on the following pages in alphabetical sequence by subject's last name. They will receive scholarships from the Arizona Historical Society and Pima College to attend either the University of Arizona or the Community College next semester.

Once again I would like to thank those who contributed to making this research project a success: the members of the AAHIP committee, staff members from the Arizona Historical Society, Michael Engs, liaison for Pima Community College, Dr. Glenn Smith, Director of African American Studies, who made it possible for students at the University of Arizona to receive credit and participate in the program, the interns, and the settlers who shared their memories, thoughts, and feelings. A special thanks to Susan Peters who helped with the editing of the students' papers and the day-to-day activities of the project.


Harris, Richard. The First 100 Years, Apache Junction. Arizona: Relmo Publishers, 1983.

Lawson, Harry, ed. Dunbar School. Shared Memories of a Special Past. Tucson; Arizona Historical Society, 1988.

Lawson, Harry, ed. African Americans in Aviation in Arizona. Tucson: Arizona Historical Society, 1989.

Lawson, Harry, ed. African American Churches in Tucson. Tucson: Arizona Historical Society, 1990.

Smith, Gloria. A Slice of Black Americana. Tucson: Gloria Smith, 1969.

Smith, Gloria. Conference of Black Heritage in Arizona. Tucson: Gloria Smith, 1980.

Yancy, James. The Negro of Tucson, Past and Present. Tucson: Unpublished Master's Thesis, The University of Arizona, 1933.

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