Sunday, January 19, 2020

Ten Days in Jail for Tearing Down a Whites Only Sign in 1920

Rather than a soothing story as we head into the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, here is a more ambiguous one, a story of courage and righteous anger, but also peril and undue punishment, right here in Salem from 100 years ago.

morning paper, February 24th, 1920
Clear evidence of explicit segregation has not been plentiful, but some surfaces here in the post-war climate of 1920.*

A year before, the papers had small notice about Beatrice Cannady visiting Salem to lobby at the Legislature for a civil rights law.

Morning paper, February 3rd, 1919
Afternoon paper, February 4th, 1919
Still, at the start of 1920, the new management of the Hotel Glenn was confident enough to advertise "white people only" in the public media here. This is the climate in which the second KKK took root here in Oregon and nationwide.

January 1st, 1920
At this time the Blue Bird Cafe, a door or two south of Harry Scott's bike shop, didn't advertise "whites only" in the papers, but they did tout their "lady waitresses."

"Lady waitresses" - February 19th, 1920
And apparently they also had a sign in the window. This, more than advertising in the newspaper, would have been the way segregation was made known.

From the morning paper on February 24th, 1920 (clip at top):
The sign in the window of the Blue Bird cafe which announces that only white persons will be served there is reported to have caused a small commotion as a result of which H. A. Bost, a negro, was arrested. He was freed under bond of $10 as his case could not be heard on the holiday.

Mrs. R. C. Cook, a waitress in the cafe, complained that Bost had made a disturbance and applied to her a vile epithet when she did not wait on him. When she pointed to the offending sign Bost tore it down. Officer W. J. White responded to the summons and arrested the man. Bost admitted to Night Sergeant Elmer White that he had torn down the sign but complained of the general determination against negroes in hotels and restaurants. He will appear before Judge Race this morning.
Afternoon, Feb 23, 1920
The version in the evening paper from the night before is a little more inflammatory, drawing on the fear of "race riots" in the previous summer:
police were awaiting the outcome of a rumored threat in colored circles that one of the negros "carries a fawty-faw and is going gunnin' as a result of an uprising and disturbance Sunday night in the Blue Bird Cafe....

[Cook] told police that Bost had entered the restaurant and demanded service. When she pointed to a sign in the window that whites only are accomodated she said that Bost in a furious rage tore the sign down and called her a vile name....

Bost admitted to Night Sergeant Elmer White that he tore down the sign and said "there ain't no place a colored gentleman can eat, and they won't even let 'em sleep any more," he guessed....
The court resolved the case very unfavorably for Bost.

He was fined $20, and it appears he may have chosen a 10-day prison term instead.

That's a harsh penalty for tearing down a sign and, let's just assume as true, uttering one or more "vile names" in anger. It is also possible Cook, and even "witnesses," lied to embellish her case. Law enforcement and popular mobs supported the grievances of white women, and these she-said, he-said cases sometimes escalated to lynching. Bost would have known he was in special danger. (Though it was not motivated by race, remember the lynching in Centralia in November of 1919.)

Morning, February 28th, 1920

Afternoon, February 28th, 1920
The sentence was clearly disproportionate to any crime. The real crime was being uppity. It was not vandalism or rude language. The punishment was intended to send a message: Its desired effect was to make it clear non-whites were not welcome and to suggest they go elsewhere.

About Bost there should be more to say, but he disappears. Maybe more research will turn up something on him. The narrative in the papers is not fair to him, flattening him out as a type rather than a full subject and agent.

* In James Loewen's database on "Sundown Towns," Salem is listed, but the documentation is slim. Mostly the evidence is anecdotal, so it was helpful to find something better documented.

Previously see:
Addendum, February 22nd

The Oregonian has a piece about "the only documented racial lynching in Oregon history." As it was nearly 20 years old in 1920, I'm not sure how directly relevant it is here, as even from far away, the 1919 race riots would have been more immediately terrifying.

But the lynching is background context nonetheless.

The Journal seems to have had a more direct correspondent, and the Statesman published "old news," the next morning. The clips here are flipped by publishing date, therefore, to give the narrative order right.

September 19th, 1902

September 18th, 1902

1 comment:

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

(Added clips on the 1902 Marshfield lynching.)