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ASU anthropologist shines light on the erasure of Black history in Arizona

Portrait of ASU Clinical Assistant Professor Meskerem Glegziabher.

ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change Clinical Assistant Professor Meskerem Glegziabher

December 09, 2022

There is a deep history of Black people and African Americans in the Southwest that has been erased and forgotten, explains Meskerem Glegziabher, clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University's School of Human Evolution and Social ChangeGlegziabher recently published an essay, “Where Are All the Black Folks? Popular Narratives and the Erasure of Black History in Arizona,” in the Journal of Arizona History. 

“Black people, African American and immigrant alike, are labeled as outsiders and largely excluded from narratives about the past, present and future of Arizona,” Glegziabher said in the essay.

In the essay, Glegziabher talks about Black soldiers, farmers, loggers and merchants who grew Arizona as a territory long before statehood. 

“When contemporary Arizonans imagine territorial Arizona, with its cowboys and ranchers, how many of us picture Black horse riders? In fact, how many of us think of the Valley of the Sun as a place for thriving cotton farms recruiting Black laborers from across the American South?” Glegziabher said. 

ASU News talked with Glegziabher about her recent work.  

Question: What led you to write this article? 

Answer: In 2019, I collaborated with a local artist, Clottee Hammons, and her organization called Emancipation Arts LLC on a multimedium traveling exhibition pairing local African American elders and high school students, and explored Black migration into Arizona. While doing archival research for that exhibit, I was struck by how little I was able to find about Black communities in what were often characterized as extensive collections on Arizona history. Later, when I was invited to contribute to a special issue with the theme “Imagining Arizona,” it seemed like the perfect opportunity to address this dearth. 

Q: What is something surprising you discovered while researching and writing this piece? 

A: One thing that I learned initially during our community project with community elders, and later through the limited documents in the archives, was that Black agricultural workers were actively recruited from places like Oklahoma and Texas in the 1930s and '40s to work on local cotton farms due to their expertise cultivating and harvesting that particular crop going back to enslavement and beyond. 

Q: What are important takeaways the general public should know about this research? 

A: Despite the dominant narratives, there are long-standing Black communities across Arizona, African American and immigrant alike. Similar to many other places around the country, they continue to experience structural racism and inequity. 

Q: What are common misconceptions about the history of Black and African American communities in Arizona? 

A: Perhaps the most common misconception I’ve encountered is that Black Arizonans are recent arrivals and don’t have long-standing communities here. 

Q: You discuss the erasure of African American historical landmarks in current Arizona metropolitan cities. Can you talk about those landmarks and what it means that they were torn down?

A: Here in the Valley, more than half of the 175 historic properties identified by the city of Phoenix’s 2004 African American Historic Property Survey have been torn down. Among some of the most notable are the Rice Hotel downtown and the former Booker T. Washington Hospital. The former was one of the only downtown accommodations that would serve African Americans and is listed in the 1940 “Negro Motorist Green Book.” It was torn down along with several other businesses to build Chase Field. The latter was opened in 1921 by the city’s first Black physician, Dr. Wilson Hackett, and was the first hospital to serve African Americans in the city. That location is now an empty lot. While the demolition of these two properties may have been unrelated, their absence from the city’s geography serves the larger sanitation of the state’s history that excludes itself from national narratives of Jim Crow and racial segregation, which are often erroneously mapped onto a North-South binary. 

Q: Will you continue to research this topic?

A: While of personal interest to me as a (recent) Black Arizonan, this particular topic is part of my broader scholarship, which examines how dominant narratives produce and perpetuate marginalization and uphold structural inequality; how marginalization has very tangible and at times physical impacts; and asks, “What are the ways that, at a micro scale, we can disrupt, mitigate or at the very least expose these inequities?” 

Q: What do you hope happens next for the history of Black communities in Arizona?  

A: As I try to emphasize in the article, while official history books, archives and mainstream narratives have erased or ignored local Black histories, Black Arizonans have attempted to illustrate the unbroken links between early Black settlers to the region and contemporary communities in a variety of institutions and cultural productions that offer important counternarratives to the dominant narratives. My hope is that we seek those out and amplify them until official histories of the region reflect these stories. 

Q: Why do you think this erasure has taken place? What can we learn from this to stop it from happening in the future? 

A: Historical archaeologist Christopher Matthews argues that such erasures often occur because they “represent minority histories and presumably lack significance,” and I would specify “to a whitestream gaze.” I believe there needs to be an intentional effort on the part of public archives and institutions both to incorporate the work of BIPOCBlack, Indigenous and people of color historians and archivists, and to collaborate with and amplify the information housed within the community archives and cultural institutions of marginalized populations.

Q: Why is it important to work to reverse this erasure? 

A: While there are many reasons why it is important to reverse this erasure, I will point specifically to the fact that these erasures are a critical component of how public heritage is narratively constructed. This in turn delegitimizes, within the dominant public imaginary, Black folks’ claims to space and an Arizonan identity. This, in turn, undermines their (our) ability to help shape Arizona's future, unlike other communities whose belonging is legitimized within dominant narratives.

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