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A Common Man 

William V. Shannon: 1855-1911, one of Tucson's first African Americans

History textbooks overflow with the memorable exploits of the rich and powerful. However, common people doing everyday things account for most history.

In some ways, William V. Shannon was a typical Tucsonan of a century ago. Even though he was small in stature--standing only 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighing no more than 120 pounds--Shannon left a large legacy on this community, if a January 1912 newspaper story is accurate.

According to the Tucson Citizen, Shannon came here in the 1860s, making him one of the first African Americans to reside in this town, which then had only a few thousand inhabitants. The newspaper also states that Shannon "was born in Indian Territory (part of Oklahoma) and came to Arizona when he was 9 years of age."

Born in 1855, six years before the start of the Civil War, the young Shannon probably traveled west as part of a wagon train, a dangerous journey that would have taken several months. Census records indicate that Shannon's parents were also both born in Indian Territory, which was once home to many slaves, both captive and escaped.

While the Citizen claims Shannon lived in Tucson for 45 years, that assertion is impossible to verify, since he doesn't appear in the 19th-century census records for Arizona. Absence from these records isn't unusual, because many people weren't counted by the census for a variety of reasons, including not being home when the enumerator came by.

If Shannon was in Tucson by 1870, he would have been one of about only two dozen African Americans in the entire Arizona territory at that time.

Tucson's city directory for 1897-1898 does list a William Shannon working as a laborer. But whether this is the same man is unclear.

The 1901 Tucson city directory shows William V. Shannon residing downtown on Council Street and working as a waiter at Hotel Hall. This was a small establishment on West Broadway Boulevard that occupied part of the block where the city's largest skyscraper now stands. The hotel's telephone number was Red 1021, and rooms went for around $2 a night.

In front of a Catholic priest the following year, the 46-year-old Shannon married Gertrude Smith, who was 29 years his junior. The practice of middle-age men marrying teenage women was a common occurrence in territorial Tucson, in part because not that many women lived here.

In a short article about the marriage, the Citizen noted that Shannon had been headwaiter at the Hotel Hall for six years, and both of the newlyweds "are well known in colored circles".

Prior to her marriage, in 1900, Gertrude Smith was living in Globe with her parents and five siblings. Her father was a porter, her mother a laundress; Gertrude had a twin brother, Charlie.

A boy named William was born to the couple in August 1903. But he died of colic six days later, and his father had the infant buried in Tucson's Catholic cemetery.

Also in 1903, Shannon moved to a small apartment on North Meyer Avenue. It was part of a row of tiny living units in what is today the El Presidio neighborhood. The apartment still exists behind a rustic wooden door in a tan-colored stucco adobe building.

While Shannon could read and write, by 1909, the teaching of African-American students in Arizona's public schools was causing controversy. As a result, the territorial Legislature adopted a law requiring the segregation of African-American pupils from students "of the White race."

The segregation law, though, wasn't implemented in Tucson until after statehood. In 1913, a "colored" school opened at Sixth Avenue and Sixth Street to educate approximately 40 students in grades one through eight.

Three years earlier, the 1910 census shows William Shannon living in Benson, where he was working full-time as a porter. The records don't indicate whether his wife was still with him, but they do list that Shannon was residing in a rented house.

By August 1911, Shannon had returned to Tucson and wed Nora Ransom before the Rev. William Seldon, a "Minister of the Gospel," according to the marriage license. What happened to Gertrude Smith is unknown.

Nora Ransom was 30 years old at the time of the wedding, 26 years younger than her new husband.

Within several months of the nuptials, William Shannon was dead, a victim of heart disease: chronic endocarditis. By today's standards, Shannon was young when he died, but the average life expectancy for men a century ago was only 50 years.

Shannon passed away at St. Mary's Hospital, was taken to Parker's Mortuary on Scott Avenue in downtown Tucson for an afternoon funeral, and was then buried in the Catholic cemetery.

While never a prominent man, Shannon obviously left an impact on those who knew him. Not many obituaries were printed by newspapers long ago, but under a headline which read "Negro Is Dead After Residing Here 45 Years," the Citizen noted Shannon's life and death.

"After 45 years residence in Tucson," the newspaper wrote, "and nearly a quarter of a century as a waiter in Tucson clubs and hotel dining rooms, William V. Shannon, a Negro, died Saturday night, aged 57."

With that, after leaving his own impression on the community, one of the earliest African Americans to live in Tucson passed into history.

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