Despite its optics, an Idaho college town remains a complicated place for people of color
On a scorching day in Moscow, Idaho, Dr. Sydney Freeman was cooling off with an icy drink at the Starbucks on University of Idaho’s campus, but it was not the promise of a cold beverage that drew him to this coffee shop percolating with students and professors.
“We're sitting on what I would call sacred ground or holy ground,” Freeman, an educational leadership professor, said.
This is where the university’s Black Student Union once lived back in the 1970s. Freeman is studying the historic contributions of the university’s small Black community and working with students to piece together BSU’s past through historical records and university documents. The Black Student Union's cultural space, he learned, has struggled to survive.
First, it sat in an old building that was razed, rebuilt and is now home to Starbucks and the university bookstore. It then migrated to a building that today houses one of the university’s sororities. In less than five years, it lost its physical space for good and the student organization meant to support the school’s Black students has ebbed and flowed ever since.
University documents reflect its beleaguered past. They show rent and utilities where BSU lived were adding up and the university expected students to foot the bill.
Freeman said BSU’s existence has also been sporadic because the school has made little effort to attract Black students and acknowledge them as multifaceted.
“Traditionally there has not been intentional outreach to attract and retain Black students outside of high revenue generating sports, such as basketball and football,” Freeman said.
“You have to be rare and exceptional, but you’re not acknowledged as such."
Back in 1973, a Black student quoted in the school newspaper said lack of diversity fueled BSU’s demise — there weren’t many Black students there at the time. Little has changed. In 2019, they comprised roughly 1% of the student body.
This year, at 36, Freeman became a full professor. He is one of just a few Black instructors in the university’s 132-year history to receive this title. His colleague, Shaakirrah Sanders, who became a full professor at the College of Law in 2018, is suing the school for racial and gender discrimination. Sanders and Freeman, meanwhile, are among the 2% of full-time Black college professors in the U.S.
Freeman says to survive as a Black man in academia, he faces a higher bar. The prolific writer and researcher speaks, mentors, hosts a podcast, and has a forthcoming book about thriving in predominantly white places like Moscow.
“You have to be rare and exceptional, but you’re not acknowledged as such,” he said.
Freeman remembered the university recognizing him with a welcome sign in the hall of his department when he took the job. After a while, he said the easel board bearing his photo became a point of contention and administrators took it down in favor of something “more universal.”
Freeman’s experience at the University of Idaho reflects the challenges people of color face in navigating predominantly white institutions. And looking at Moscow through this lens forces us to confront its uncomfortable history of racial exclusion.
'Once you have driven out one group...'
In the early 1900s, white people in Moscow expelled the town’s small Chinese community. For a time, that likely made Moscow a sundown town. Today, that event seems distant from this blue dot in a red state. But the university town is still a difficult place for some people of color to call home.
The sociologist and historian James Loewen, who died in August, uncovered America’s sundown towns — places where people of color and other minorities were once forcibly expelled or prohibited from living within city limits. Sometimes, it was the message on a sign, warning different racial or ethnic groups to leave before sundown or else, that marked these places and provided their namesake.
What little is known about Moscow’s exclusionary history targeting Chinese Americans comes from an eyewitness account. During a 1983 archeological excavation, Mamie Jabbora Sheffield remembered as a little girl the town’s “cowboys” driving out the small Chinese community. She was then given their dishes and other possessions to play with.
“If they could not take their things with them, they must have indeed left very hastily,” wrote historian Priscilla Wegars, who interviewed Sheffield. She suspects Chinese people were driven out of town between 1904 and 1909.
Wegars wrote about some of the anti-Chinese hostility in Moscow around this time. A young boy attacked an elderly Chinese vegetable merchant with a brick. A restaurant advertisement read: "Cleanliness is godliness. Think of that and don't eat China cooking. Go to the Delimonco Restaurant where you will find every thing neat and clean. We cook in a good holesome (sic) style and by a white woman. White cooks, white waiters and white prices. Give us a call. Ball and party suppers a specialty."
Loewen said racism and a lack of diversity sometimes persist in sundown towns and permeate their institutions. He pointed out that statewide, Idaho had a thriving Chinese population before white folks across the state drove them out in the early 20th century. Today Idaho is 93% white.
“Once you have driven out your Chinese population, once you're used to keeping out a group, it becomes easier to keep out the next group,” Loewen told the Mountain West News Bureau in June.
U.S. Census records show that Idaho’s Chinese population evaporated from more than 2,000 in 1890 to less than 900 by 1910.
Tale of two cities?
But today, Moscow’s brief history as a “probable” sundown town seems a continent away. The northern Idaho town of 25,000, flanked by lush rolling hills and old conifer forests, saw multiple racial justice protests last year. Black Lives Matter signs line the windows of Moscow’s downtown restaurants and cafes.
Vanessa Anthony Stevens says those optics ring true for white people but it is a different story for people of color.
“When my husband and I were offered jobs at the University of Idaho, when we got to Moscow," Stevens said, "one of the things that we were told by many white professors really quickly was, ‘This is such a nice town. It's such a beautiful place to raise a family. It's so safe here. Everybody's really friendly.’ And when we talked to our Native colleagues, it was a very different story. It was, ‘Shut the door. You need to know where you are.’”
Stevens and her husband Philip are professors. She is white, he is a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. In 2019, they were among multiple Moscow households that found racist postcards on their doorstep.
Today, Stevens does not want her family members of color to go out alone.
Others share her worry.
Graduate student KT Turner, a Louisiana native, remembers the conversations she had with friends after she was accepted into a master of fine arts program for theatre directing at University of Idaho.
“When I said, ‘Hey, I'm going to grad school in Idaho,’ everyone's like, ‘Are you sure? Like what part of Idaho?’ ‘Moscow.’ ‘Are you sure?’”
One of her social media posts saying she doesn’t feel safe as a Black woman in Moscow went viral last year.
“I love hiking. I'm not going hiking out here by myself,” Turner told the Mountain West News Bureau.
Less than 2% of the city’s population is Black and Turner feels like Moscow is a modern-day sundown town when it comes to her comfort venturing out alone. After Turner graduates, she is leaving.
“There's some places you don't go in general, and there's some places you don't go alone. Unfortunately, I didn't feel comfortable going anywhere alone here,” she said.
“There's some places you don't go in general, and there's some places you don't go alone. Unfortunately, I didn't feel comfortable going anywhere alone here."
Still, Turner says living in Moscow has helped advance her studies in theatre. The school is among the nation’s land grant universities and its revenues come from unceded Native American land. That’s widened her understanding of injustice.
Her research asks: “When colonizers come in and they make you change everything about yourself, how do you bounce back from that? Or do you?”
Idaho’s ban on public schools from teaching critical race theory, which examines racism as a systemic problem, has further strained Turner’s sense of belonging here.
At a recent hearing, members of a government task force led by conservative Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin argued the teaching of critical race theory would diminish white people’s achievements.
“We’re going to celebrate Sojourner Truth, but ignore George Washington,” said task force member Scott Yenor, a political scientist at Boise State University.
Moscow’s proximity to entrenched pockets of white supremacy weighs heavy on people of color here. It is 90 miles from Hayden Lake, home to the former Aryan Nations Church compound. Some of its members mounted an armed attack against a Native American woman and her son years ago. A subsequent lawsuit bankrupted the group. Last year armed militiamen showed up to social justice protests in nearby Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint, reminding residents of the area’s fraught history.
But you don’t have to drive to Hayden Lake to find fringe ideology.
“If you read through slave narratives, you're going to get accounts that are blood chillingly horrific. You will also get accounts of former slaves who loved their masters,” said Pastor Doug Wilson.
The Christian reconstructionist pastor – meaning he wants to apply biblical law to life in Moscow and beyond – is thriving with churches, a classical Christian school, a liberal arts college and a publishing house. Wilson has disavowed racism, but in a decades-old book on slavery, he defended Christian slave-holders. The Bible permitted Christians to own slaves, provided they were treated well, he wrote.
"We were never even considered someone that would be asked to the dance.”
Debbie Line, a Chinese American, left town years ago to escape this kind of thinking. She and her siblings were perennial outsiders growing up in Moscow despite their parents’ heavy involvement in the community.
“We never really were invited over to people's friend's houses growing up,” Line said. “We never dated anyone. I mean, we weren't maybe considered beautiful or prospects. We were never even considered someone that would be asked to the dance.”
Historian Priscilla Wegars said Line’s great grandparents were likely the first Chinese Americans to settle in Moscow roughly 20 years after white people drove out the town’s Chinese residents.
Line’s brother, Michael Chin, said his family set entrenched roots in Moscow and were well-respected. His great-grandparents and grandparents were successful restauranteurs. His parents were well-educated, his father had a master's in metallurgic engineering, his mother was a schoolteacher. Yet he echoed Line — relationships with his white neighbors remained at the surface level, his family was "part of the community, but not part of the community."
He remembered a defining moment in high school when the class was reading Native American poetry. “My classmates, people who I grew up with, started saying, ‘Well, we still think that Native Americans live off the government, are drunk, are gamblers and come from broken families.’”
If his classmates believed this, Chin wondered: “Then how do you feel about me?”
Still, Chin says growing up in Moscow compelled him to eventually embrace his differences from his white classmates and explore his cultural identity. He became curious, proud of his Chinese roots. But he wonders if his hometown will ever be a place where people of color feel at ease.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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