Excerpt: Segregation Made Them Neighbors

William A. White III is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California–Berkeley. His new book, Segregation Made Them Neighbors: An Archeology of Racialization in Boise, Idaho (Nebraska, 2023), was published this month.

Segregation Made Them Neighbors investigates the relationship between whiteness and nonwhiteness through the lenses of landscapes and material culture. William A. White III uses data collected from a public archaeology and digital humanities project conducted in the River Street neighborhood in Boise, Idaho, to investigate the mechanisms used to divide local populations into racial categories. The River Street Neighborhood was a multiracial, multiethnic enclave in Boise that was inhabited by African American, European American, and Basque residents. Building on theoretical concepts from whiteness studies and critical race theory, this volume also explores the ways Boise’s residents crafted segregated landscapes between the 1890s and 1960s to establish white and nonwhite geographies.

Archaeology That Promotes Antiracism

Born in 1927 in Van Buren, Arkansas, Dorothy Buckner came to Minidoka, Idaho, when she was about two years old. Her father, Luther Johnson, hoboed from Arkansas to Idaho during the Great Depression in search of work. He took up various odd jobs, making ends meet, until he could bring his wife, Pearl Johnson, and his eight children to Idaho. As African Americans in an overwhelmingly white part of the country, the Johnsons were unique. Few Black Americans were willing to establish residency in white-dominated landscapes. Black neighborhoods offered safety and familiarity, even though these places were formed through segregation and racism. The Johnson family started their lives out west in Minidoka until they eventually settled in the River Street Neighborhood in Boise, Idaho, just before World War II. Luther eventually settled into a role as a local pawnbroker. The neighborhood already had a reputation as a rough place, and Luther, known in the neighborhood as “Pistol,” settled in among the gamblers, bootleggers, and hustlers who congregated in a small section of Pioneer Street (Buckner 1981; Osa 1981). This segment of Pioneer Street became one of the city’s vice districts; the main red-light district in downtown Boise was shut down by local law enforcement. Vice was allowed on Pioneer Street because, between the 1930s and 1950s, local police had an unstated policy of allowing illegal activity in the neighborhood. Segregation already kept Blacks and other nonwhite people out of the main downtown district. The illicit activities on Pioneer Street bolstered the neighborhood’s identity as a negative space. In mid-twentieth-century Boise, the police and other officials played an integral role in maintaining the separation between white and nonwhite people. By allowing vice to occur in the district associated with Black people, the police contributed to the stigmatization of Black spaces, which made it an undesirable place for upstanding whites to be seen. This reality reinforced the idea that
white people who lived in that neighborhood were also “up to no good” and undeserving of white privilege. River Street was ground zero for the complicated dialectic between space and race in Boise.

During World War II, Pistol Johnson played an important role in the informal economy that helped African Americans survive in a segregated world. In addition to operating several businesses in River Street, Pistol
acted as an informal rental agent who assisted incoming African American GIs to find homes in Boise’s tight housing market. The influx of service people and their families to local military bases strained the local housing stock (Demo 2006). As was the case in other cities in the United States, de jure real estate segregation prevented Black people from living freely throughout the city (Rothstein 2017; Hunter and Robinson 2018). The River Street Neighborhood was the only place they could rent homes, but European American people were still the primary property owners in River Street. White realtors were prohibited from selling to nonwhite people at the time, and white landlords were reluctant to rent to Black servicemen. Landlords were also known for not maintaining their properties because they knew most residents had nowhere else to go. Dorothy recalled how they had difficulties keeping tenants because the window frames were rotten, water heaters broke frequently, and the properties were run down (Osa 1981). Only those who had no alternatives were willing to rent these dilapidated buildings.

During the war Black people needed somewhere to live, slumlords wanted to find tenants desperate enough to rent their worn houses, and Pistol Johnson was constantly looking for new ways to make money. He seized the opportunity. He made a deal with a white rental agent, who worked with a white landowner named Kaiser, to rent houses to Black people in the River Street Neighborhood. Johnson split the rental fees and rent 60/40 with him, earning the lion’s share as long as he could either keep the tenants in those places or find new ones to replace them. Johnson kept this deal going throughout the war (Buckner 1981).

Pistol Johnson and his wife separated during the war. Dorothy and her mother spent the rest of World War II living in a boarding house in the River Street Neighborhood at 1114 Miller Street, where she astutely watched how Black people used personal networks to survive the war. Housing “agents” like Pistol helped Black folks find places to live. Other Blacks in the neighborhood helped each other find jobs. Rationed foods were shared. Dorothy’s mother regularly cooked plate lunches that others could purchase for a small fee. Dorothy called the war years River Street’s heyday, the time when the Black population was at its zenith (Buckner 1981). With the modest influx of African Americans, the neighborhood resembled the Black world that could be found elsewhere in the United States. River Street started to resemble a proper American Chocolate City: a landscape where Black society could be produced and maintained (Hunter and Robinson 2018). African Americans always comprised a small proportion of the River Street population. Dorothy recalls it was less than 25 percent of the neighborhood’s total population even during the war (Buckner 1981). Nevertheless the sheer presence of Black people in that place was enough to label it a Black space. African Americans in Boise attempted to create a place where they could be Black.

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