I came to live in Spokane on Aug. 8, 1989. I was an Air Force member stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base. A newlywed hoping for a fresh start, I was filled with hope, optimism and the opportunity for happiness. Our first Spokane views inspired a friendly, welcoming feeling that touched our senses in a healing way. The picturesque city view invited thoughts of quality, style and splendor. Having grown up in Chicago, I’d never seen the colossal beauty that the Cascade and Rocky mountains showcase. Clearly, the reference to God’s country was right on the mark. However, the coming experiences changed forever those naive perceptions of what this African American’s life would be like in Spokane, Washington.
For example, the task of finding housing played out to be unusually difficult. It seemed as though the nicer places were peculiarly unavailable. Now I don’t want to come off as paranoid, yet the likelihood of such an occurrence is quite odd. How about Spokane life as a military member? Part of the team, right? (As many young people humorously shout, “not.”) This could not be further from the truth. As the sole African American member in my organization, I soon realized that the sense of isolation felt within the Spokane community would show its ugly face in the workplace as well. I sincerely believe these isolation stresses, among others, contributed to my marriage’s downfall just two short years later.
Driving the Spokane streets, I eagerly searched for faces of color. Yet they were few and far between. I asked someone from the base if an African American community existed here and they directed me to the “east side.” So I journeyed ahead where a number of African Americans resided. Unfortunately, many of them appeared socially and economically disadvantaged. However, for the first time in my life I saw “poor whites.” I was shocked. They lived in run-down homes. Some dressed grubby and clearly were indigent. Yet, I must say these whites seemed somehow more humane than those I had encountered in the high-rent district. I guess the common thread of poverty transcends race.
The majority Spokane credo in my view seemed abundantly to be “Let’s keep it white.” The unrelenting number of hate crimes allowed by this community ought to be more embarrassing. Notwithstanding, the acts continue and are shamelessly targeted against all segments of African American citizenry. My teen age son was targeted after authoring an award-winning essay printed in The Spokesman-Review. The cowards didn’t have enough courage to pick on somebody their own size. Anyway, if they are reading this article I’d like them to know their coward mail has served as a powerful motivation to my son. Who knows, their children may work for him someday.
Needless to say, those experiences led me about the task of meeting African Americans living in Spokane. Let’s see, there was the National Association for the Advancement Of Colored People (NAACP), Blacks in Government (BIG) and the African American Forum to name a few. I visited these organizations as well as a number of area churches seeking increased memberships. Unfortunately, I must say the experiences generally left something to be desired. I couldn’t determine the missing ingredient, it was a mystery. Fortunately, my son Lance and I met a wonderful African American family who adopted us, so to speak.
The Montgomerys are a long-standing, African American kindred in the Spokane area. Their family, combined with former major league baseball player Maury Wills, were among the sparse known people of color living in the Spokane Valley community in past decades. Lance and I have sincerely enjoyed the collective care, intellect and wisdom this family shared with us over the recent years. Otherwise, though, my experience with Spokane African Americans has been strangely distant and aloof. Attempts at socialization left me feeling culturally disconnected.
I believe, sadly, the collective African American population in Spokane has been negatively acculturated from its traditional heritage - a legacy borne from strength, intellect and abiding self-respect. They need to know times have changed and to no longer be afraid. I can only imagine how difficult life must have been. Life in Spokane can wear on your sense of self worth.
Yet I must say the time has come to stand up. Help is here and, remarkably, coming from diverse origins seeking real change. I have always believed racial justice could not be obtained unless our white brethren sincerely partake in the action. Let us continually challenge them to make this change. We need each other.
Illustration by Tadashi Osborne
MEMO: Ralph Neely is a civilian employee of the Army Corps of Engineers. Until recently he resided in Medical Lake while assigned to the Corps’ office at Fairchild Air Force Base. He since has been transferred to Germany.