September 21, 2008 in City

19th century councilman’s race unclear

By The Spokesman-Review
 

When Jim Chase was elected a Spokane city councilman in 1975, some accounts listed him as the city’s first black member of the council.

That description was challenged by a 1979 history of blacks in Spokane funded by the NAACP, and by a 1989 book by Joseph Franklin. Both said that one of Spokane’s early pioneers, Daniel K. Oliver, was among the first black residents and its first black councilman in 1896-97.

In the 21st century, Oliver might have been called a person of color or mixed-race. Using the terminology of the late 1800s, those histories referred to him as a mulatto, which would have meant that one parent was white and one was black.

He was listed as a mulatto on the 1880 Census, taken about two years after he arrived in Spokane Falls.

He ran as a Populist in 1895 and was elected in the Second Ward. He was an official in one of the major veterans groups of the day, the Grand Army of the Republic. He was probably well-known in the black community, which included prominent members who were also Populists.

But he may not have been a minority.

No news accounts of the 1895 election mentioned his race, or the race of any of the other candidates.

Oliver’s biography in at least two histories of the city written around the turn of the 20th century likewise don’t mention his race, but the books don’t appear to include any prominent black residents of the day.

More curiously, the 1880 Census is the only one that lists Oliver as mulatto, with a handwritten “m” in the race column. The territorial Census of 1887, conducted before statehood, and the 1900 Census, list Oliver as white. Oliver was born in 1847, and the 1840 Census lists his parents, John and Rachel, as white.

None of this is definitive. Through 1900, the determination of a person’s race was made by the census taker, not the person being counted, said Patty Farnam, a spokeswoman for the Census Bureau. The 1880 listing could be wrong, or the others could be.

When he died in 1906, his race was listed as white on his death certificate. His obituary didn’t mention his race. But it didn’t mention his two-year service on the City Council, either.

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