Prominent Figures

In the 19th century, African Americans made up a small but vital part of Tucson's business community

Military veterans, entrepreneurs and service providers constitute much of the community's current labor force. Many of the few hundred black inhabitants of 19th-century Tucson also fit those descriptions.

One of them, Henry Ransom, drove freight wagons for a living more than 110 years ago. "Through faithful service and honest dealing," James Walter Yancy notes of Ransom, "he remained with the Tucson Transfer Company from 1892 until 1931, when he was retired."

For his 1933 master's thesis in the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the UA, Yancy authored The Negro of Tucson—Past and Present.

Yancy profiled the general characteristics of African Americans in Tucson during the early '30s, while also looking at the black population of the community from 1850 to 1900, when Tucson had less than 8,000 residents. Primarily using oral interviews, he provides short vignettes of approximately 20 black Tucsonans from that period.

One story about Ransom—not mentioned in Yancy's account—is contained in a newspaper story from 1895. It states that Ransom was interested in homesteading 160 acres of land in the Fort Lowell area.

Yancy does write that Henry Conley homesteaded a farm in the same area, but eventually offered to sell half of it to Ransom, who declined the offer because of a lack of water on the property.

Conley, Yancy adds, "became the first Negro employed by the city of Tucson. He was hired by the city as a garbage man, getting $40 a month."

Another homesteader was Thomas Grant, who, like several of the men Yancy discussed, came to Southern Arizona with the Army. While living and working in Tucson, Grant also owned land near Fort Huachuca, on which he had cattle and horses.

While many of the people described by Yancy had close ties to the Army, Joe Mitchell ran into legal problems because of the Army.

A barber in Tucson who raised chickens on 160 acres of land along the road to the San Xavier Mission, Mitchell was arrested in August 1873 and accused of harboring two Army deserters. Unable to pay the $600 in bail, he was sent to jail.

According to the Arizona Citizen: "What a final hearing may show, no one can foretell, but the examination (to date) looks rather dark for the accused." Yancy declares that Mitchell was later acquitted.

Around the same time, Charley Williams moved to Tucson. Employed by a family named Smith, he was an "all around man," according to Yancy's term, "raising the children, washing, ironing and taking care of the livery. For this work, he got around $25 a month (plus) room and board."

Williams was better known throughout the community as "Banjo Dick." Yancy says the old-timers he interviewed fondly recalled Williams' music, while an 1886 Arizona Weekly Star edition simply states: "Banjo Dick was on a serenade last night."

Barbering was also the occupation of a few others portrayed by Yancy, including Henry Anderson.

In his downtown shop on Congress Street, Anderson cut the hair of patrons including businessman Mose Drachman. Yancy writes: "Mr. Drachman refers to (Anderson) as being such an accurate barber that he would often sever the body of a fly with his razor, while the insect was flying in the air, lest it disturb the customer upon whom the barber was working."

Only a few black women are included in Yancy's thesis, one being a Mrs. Lee. She came to Tucson in the last decade of the 19th century and operated a restaurant in a downtown hotel before illness forced her out of the business.

Yancy also talked to 84-year old Charley Embers. "(He) is the oldest living person in Tucson," the author states of Embers, who died in 1935.

During his many years in Tucson, Embers owned three homes. Plus, he told Yancy, he always kept his money at home, because he "never trusted banks."

At the opposite extreme was Harvey Merchant, who informed Yancy that he never saved any money. "He refers to his long years of employment," Yancy says of Merchant, "as 'saving up money for two or three months, coming to town and blowing it.'"

Much more prosperous was William Neal, who arrived in Tucson in 1878 with the Army. After leaving the service, he got into construction, employing Henry Ransom on a downtown job.

Neal eventually entered the freighting business and became successful hauling ore, gold bullion and the mail. These endeavors led him in 1895 to open the Mountain View Hotel on 160 acres in Oracle.

Operated by Neal's wife, Annie (See "Portraits From the Past," Feb. 20, 2003), the hotel was a two-story establishment with 12 rooms. An 1895 piece in the Arizona Daily Citizen refers to the project as "laudable" and suggests residents of Tucson should fully appreciate the undertaking.

"Mr. and Mrs. Neal," continues the Citizen article, "have been residents of Tucson for the past 17 years, where for all that time, Mr. Neal has been a prominent figure in business circles."

The Citizen article mentioned neither Neal's race nor his parentage of a black father and a Cherokee mother.

Little more than a decade later, though, racial segregation would be legally introduced to Arizona—and black people were treated differently for many years to come.

February is Black History Month.