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Why Idaho's Racist History Matters: Part 1

via Idaho Statesman
In this Sept. 9, 1924 Idaho Statesman photo, a group of Ku Klux Klan members gathered in Boise for a parade through downtown. According to Statesman reports at the time, 350 people participated in the event.


As the country continues to grapple with racial injustice and questions about white supremacy in 2020, we’re taking a critical look at Idaho’s racist past. We think it’s important to examine our roots so we can better understand how we got here today and what steps we can take to be a more inclusive and equitable place for everyone. 

Today’s show is the first in a two-part series with Dr. Jill Gill, a Boise State history professor. Today we’ll begin looking at Idaho’s racism beginning during the Civil War and continuing through the 1920s and 1930s when the Ku Klux Klan had more than 10 chapters in Idaho. We'll look at how "white flight" from Confederate and northern states began to build Idaho's anti-Black reputation, and how the politics of leaders including Sen. William Borah supported racist policies.


UPDATE - August 13:  We broadcast part two of this essential historical conversation with Dr. Jill Gill. Beginning with the World War II era to the Ayran Nation compound in the 1980s and 1990s, Gill helped us contextualize racism in Idaho's past to help us understand why it matters today. 

Read the full transcript here:

GEMMA GAUDETTE: You're listening to Idaho Matters, I'm Gemma Gaudette.

As the country continues to grapple with racial injustice and questions about white supremacy in the year 2020, we are taking a critical look at Idaho's racist past. We think it's important to examine our roots so that we can better understand how we got here today and what steps that we can take to be a more inclusive and equitable place for everyone. Joining us today live to begin that conversation is Boise State history professor Jill Gill. Jill, thanks for being with us today and for sharing your expertise and for staying on hold like that as we took live coverage of Congressman John Lewis's funeral.

DR. JILL GILL: Well, thanks so much for having me. And an extra thanks for carrying that funeral, that was great. 

GAUDETTE: So important, right, to carry that in its entirety. And a quick note, before we begin, I want to let our listeners know that this is the first part of a two part series with Dr. Gill. Today, we're going to look at Idaho racism beginning during the Civil War and then continuing through the 1930s. Next Thursday, Dr. Gill will join us and lead us through World War II era to the present time. So, Dr. Gill, first, can you tell us quickly about your research on racism here in Idaho? How long have you been doing this work? And really what drew you to it?

GILL: I started the research in about 2012, and I'm from Seattle, Washington. I'm a native of the Pacific Northwest. There was not much thought about race when I was coming up through school. And then I went back to Philadelphia in the 1980s and 1990s. And Philadelphia was in a kind of a racial crisis that was paralleling what was happening in Los Angeles and other types of places. And I really wanted to learn more about race, to understand the world outside my front door and the Pacific Northwest had been ignored. Anything that I studied on race in school, tended to focus on the South. And then as attention moved to race in the north, it was always these big cities that had big interracial populations. Those are easy to study. And the civil rights movement was easy to look at there because you had these clashes. And places like Idaho were treated like a flyover state. And I even heard from Idahoans who said, 'oh, yeah, we didn't have any racial issues here, we didn't have any racial discrimination because there were too few Black people to even be racist against. So, of course, it didn't exist.' And I wanted to look into that because I knew -- even just from Black History Museum -- that that wasn't right. And also the fact that we have a kind of an innocence narrative here that plays off of the Aryan Nations, right, being up there. But I wanted a bigger story than that. You know, we seem to to focus on the Aryan Nations that that's somehow the beginning of where Idaho began to have racial issues or was getting slandered. And so I wanted to see if I could unpack that. And there's quite a story there. So I'm looking at -- I'm researching for a book called 'Idaho in Black and White.' It's going to go from the 1870s up to the present. And it looks at the racial dynamic between Black and white Idahoans and lays it against the national backdrop. What can we learn about the larger national story from Idaho? And how does Idaho play into that national story? What's similar to the national story and and what's different? And also what Idaho can tell us about its connection to how race played out in the north in respect to systemic racism.

GAUDETTE: Yeah, I think that's so interesting. So I grew up in Chehalis, which is about an hour south of Seattle. And, you know, it is there's something about the Pacific Northwest where you don't see or at least when we were growing up, not a lot of diversity. And I have this memory of of meeting one of my dear friends who had moved to the area. He was from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, African-American. And I remember I was about 19 years old and I said, well, something about well, there's not racism here. And he was like, trust me, it's here. You just can't see it. And at least in the south, it's in our face. And we see it.

GILL: Yeah, that's right.  

GAUDETTE: Right. And so what I'm curious about is Idaho, because I think the same could be said for Idaho. You call yourself an activist historian. So before we get into the history and all the way back to the Civil War, talk to me about what you mean by that.

GILL: Oh, thank you for that. Because history gets used for a lot of different things. It gets used for commemoration and genealogy and sometimes just for hobby, curiosity. An activist historian believes that history is essential to confronting and solving problems effectively today, you cannot address a problem unless you know the roots of the problem and the patterns by which a perennial problem perpetuates itself. So history is used diagnostically. It takes its seat at the table with other problem solvers. It's a social science as well as a humanity. And so you have to dissect the country or Idaho's history, kind of like you cut into a frog and see actually what's happening there and what perpetuates things. It's a data driven, kind of a cold, hard look at why things are happening, how they're perpetuated, what are the incentives, the 'whys,' the 'hows,' the 'so whats' and the 'reveals what's' in history. It's the same thing you would do if you're trying to solve a personal perennial problem, you might go to a counselor who takes you back into your own past. You can't solve a personal problem today that's perennial unless you understand where it comes from. Right. And an outsider to help you do that. So historians just do that on a societal level. And I do think it's essential. If you don't know the roots of the thing and those patterns, you might misdiagnose and produce a solution that doesn't solve.

GAUDETTE: So with that being said, take us back to the Civil War era and the white flight that really was happening from the south. So, I mean, who was coming to Idaho at that time? But also why were they coming?

GILL: Yeah. So back at the time of the Civil War, and this is actually a Pacific Northwest thing. It was a Pacific Northwest regional thing. And then Idaho is the state in the Pacific Northwest that most perpetuates this now. And I'm actually borrowing from a scholar here named John Dipple. He talked about this flood of what he called 'plain folk southerners' who were leaving the South in the 1860s and 1870s as the Civil War dislocated the world in which they live and enslaved peoples were freeing themselves amidst the Civil War. Right. And you have battles coming down and so on. And so you have this flood of southerners as well as you know, there's also some some we might call Copperhead Northern Democrats that are moving into the Pacific Northwest because they see it as a free labor zone, which was coded as white. They wanted to go to an area of the country that was white and where they could perpetuate a kind of, for lack of a better word, the kind of white monopoly that they were used to. Right. Because the world is getting more multicultural. The monopoly in the south is breaking down. And let's remember, too, that after the Civil War, the reconstruction amendments, the 13th Amendment frees the slaves in 65. The 14th Amendment gives African-Americans citizenship and civil rights in 1868. And then the 15th Amendment gave African-American men the right to vote in 1870. That is also disrupting a kind of a white monopoly in the north. The north didn't have slavery, but it had a Jim Crow system. So there was many places in the north that didn't allow Black people to vote. And they were treated as a caste, you know, sort of a caste group with different laws and segregated. And so these laws are changing white people's lives, north and south. And so you're getting a flood of people that are coming into the Pacific Northwest. And Oregon in the 1850s had already passed things called Lash Laws, which were designed to literally Lash Black people in the public square if they didn't leave Oregon. And so the Pacific Northwest was this area where they wanted free white labor to be able to operate without a multicultural environment. And, you know, people like the Aryan Nations and so on tried to perpetuate that same kind of vision of the Pacific Northwest. And so here's the interesting thing with Idaho. Up until from the 1970s to about 1920, the state that gave us the most in migration was Missouri, which was a slave state. Missouri and Utah were the places we were getting most of our immigration. And we had very strong Confederate strongholds throughout the Pacific Northwest, Washington, Oregon and Idaho that were strong confederates. Idaho City is a great example. The mining and timber areas in Idaho were predominantly confederates. So Idaho City's newspaper, The Idaho World, was owned and run by Confederates. You've got place names like Dixie and Atlanta. Stanley was named after a Confederate captain.

GAUDETTE: Really?!

GILL: Yes, all these names are place names that were people that supported the Confederacy and what it stood for. Now, there were also Republicans here. The owner of the Idaho Statesman ended up being a radical Republican, and the Idaho World, in Idaho City and the Statesman were kind of in a smack talk, you know, dynamic through the Civil War but this is you can also find this in Washington state and Oregon. So this was a really it's a regional thing at this time. Like I said, Idaho just ends up carrying forward these patterns a little bit longer than these other states. But they were very much looking for, like I said, a white place to live. Where a white person can work and operate without having to deal with competition.

GAUDETTE: So a very homogenous existence, right?

GILL: Absolutely. And that's what white flight is about. It's really about trying to get to a place where you can preserve a white monopoly.

GAUDETTE: So let's talk about the fact that when people were coming to the Pacific Northwest, to Idaho, white people were coming here for that homogenous existence, but also looking for land. Right, to to have a home, to homestead, all of that. We need to recognize the fact that they were taking that land from indigenous people.

GILL: Correct. 

GAUDETTE: And then there were the Chinese immigrants who also came to Idaho because they were mining. They were they were building our railroads.

GILL: That's right.

GAUDETTE: So then how did racism, white racism play out with other minority groups besides just Black individuals? Because we have quite the history here on the Pacific Northwest when it comes to internment camps.

GILL: Oh, yes. Yes. So you're getting on to a lot of really important things there. And this kind of actually harkens back to when your previous shows were where you asked a really great question, what's the root of racism? And your guest talked about race as being rooted in an idea. From a historian's perspective, that idea emerges in the context of colonization, where you've got -- and this is happening between about 1600 and 1800, where you've got white Europeans who are coming into the Americas for land and then the resources that can be produced from that land that give them power. Right. And that they can fight wars. You know, like Spanish are coming over for gold. The French are coming for fur. And the you know, the British are coming over for tobacco land and later cotton land. But that means taking land away from native peoples. And then you have to find labor that you can exploit. So they tried doing that with indigenous populations, later moved briefly to indentured servants. That wasn't practical, then moved to slavery. So you're building white liberty, which is rooted in land and the resources you could get from that land off of stealing land and labor from other peoples. And so what we create in this country is what some people call a Herrenvolk democracy, which is a democracy that puts white people as equals under the law. So they're the ones that can have access to the American dream, can have access to citizenship, can have access to the vote, homesteading and all those types of things. But it's always this caste system that's underneath that, that's exploitive, that's connected to other peoples of color, whether it's the labor of Chinese who weren't allowed to naturalize, they couldn't become citizens. Same thing with Japanese until after after World War II, Asian immigrants were not allowed to naturalize, which meant they couldn't vote and they couldn't have power in the society. They also couldn't often buy land. You're taking land away from native peoples during the late 19th century, the period we're talking about and putting them under reservations. And between the 1890s and 1920, the population native peoples are being so repressed that more dying than being born for a while. You've got African-Americans, right, that are being Jim Crowed during that period of time. And the Chinese are getting -- even though they built the railroads and brought all their skills with gardening and laundry -- there's the Chinese Exclusion Act that happens after the Civil War. And that was being pushed by a lot of white labor unions that didn't want the competition. And that's what we see in the Pacific Northwest. We want this to be a white working men's area. And so the Chinese, who were made up about 28% of Idaho's population in 1870, by the time you get to 1920, it's down to 0.5% because they're being driven out and Idaho is getting whiter. So in 1870, if you look at that first census, Idaho was 71% white. By the time you get to 1920, it is nearly 99% white. Driving out the Chinese, putting native peoples onto reservations. And then, like I said, they're being put in a fighting for their survival. Even the African American population dropped a little bit during that period of time from 0.4% to 0.2%. So Mexican immigration at that time was still fairly small. And so, yes, this is -- Idaho whitens during that period of time. And it is connected to the resources that can be got from colonization and control of labor. And then control of the political power that comes from that, that's actually what John Lewis was fighting against, right. It's the fact that white people are getting something out of this that they don't want to give up. Monopolies are a restraint on competition. And when you're creating -- trying to create a democracy, as John Lewis was, you have to make that good trouble to to try to push people from the the opportunities they get in a monopoly to truly wanting equal fair competition.

GAUDETTE: Well, it really has to be equal and fair. I mean, that is what a democracy is supposed to be. And it and it hasn't been right. I mean, that's just that's that's just pure fact. So, Dr. Gill, is it fair to say, too, that it wasn't just Southerners, though, who really brought racist and anti-Black sentiment, anti-Chinese sentiment to Idaho in the post Civil War era? Because we have the whole issue with mines in north Idaho. Correct. And that played into it?

GILL: Absolutely. No, that's such a critical point that we need to remember the whole battle with respect to racism in America is a national issue. It's been a perennial fight. You know, if the South was only 11 states, OK, and after the Civil War, their economy was only -- they only had about 24, 25% of the wealth of the country. So the North had a lot of power and so did the West together. And if they wanted to create that, you know, second reboot after the Civil War and have a true democracy, it could have. It's the fact that the North gave up. The North really didn't want it. You know, the South lost the Civil War. The North put in these, you know, the 13, 14, 13th Amendment. And then it goes back on it. The North made a choice. So the North has to own that. You're absolutely right. A lot of northerners did not want to give up the white monopoly and in fact, the North invented Jim Crow. You know, they didn't have slavery up there after -- it was phased out of the American Revolution, but it had segregation. It had housing discrimination. It had segregation of schools. It had job discrimination. So northerners that are moving into the Pacific Northwest are bringing that with them as well. And in many respects, the Republican and Democratic parties, white northerners and white southerners, the Supreme Court, Congress and the presidency from the 1870s into the period of John Lewis kind of all were in cahoots to keep a white monopoly going. So, yes, that is all part of Idaho. It is a national issue. 

GAUDETTE: Now, before the break, we were talking about how Idaho was already establishing itself as a white state where racism was tolerated, the years with before statehood and as we became a state. But Dr. Gill, I want to ask you something before we kind of head into the early 20th century. You mentioned, you know, after the Civil War. I mean, we know the South lost the Civil War. You had the North and you had the West, and they really could have come together to truly make a true democracy. What I think is interesting, having grown up in the West, is there was an idea, and correct me if I'm wrong, that we were never a part of the Civil War. Our hands are clean. We came out here to, you know, the Oregon Trail and it was pioneers and and we established the land. And there is a sense of not wanting to take any responsibility. Would you agree with that? And if so, that has to play into where we are now.

GILL: Yeah. I think it does feed into what the West might consider its innocence narrative that this was a place where democracy could play out. And indeed, you know, there were a lot of African-Americans, too, that came into the West with that kind of hope. But people brought the structures that they had from back east with them. They just wanted the liberty more for themselves. But there were clear and intentional things that happened out in the West to, you know, to Mexican Americans and to Chinese to particular kind of taxes on them out here that would that would penalize their race if they were trying to mine or things of that nature or to buy land. And so that's all part of the Civil War. I mean, it's all part of whether you're exploiting a particular kind of labor or not, and that people did bring their sentiments, they brought their sentiments with them. I mean, the Idaho State Journal in the 1950s, I was looking into the articles and they would talk about how people in Pocatello would cheer for Ole Miss when the football games were going on that people would would put Confederate flags outside of their houses in places like Pocatello and so on. That's an identification, you know, with the broader country, even as we also try to separate ourselves from it. Idaho was created as a territory during the time of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln created it because he saw so many Confederate people moving up here into the mining districts that he wanted to make sure that that the mineral wealth out of Idaho could come into the union. So he created Idaho as a territory to ensure that the union had access to that mineral wealth. So we were always tied, even if we don't want to admit it.

GAUDETTE: Right. Right. So one of the most visible I mean, but but frankly, most violent racist groups that had a stronghold in Idaho in the early 20th century was the KKK. Can you tell us about how this group actually gained traction in our state, but also how they operated?

GILL: Yes. So the Ku Klux Klan would kind of reboot itself, you know, they called themselves the ghosts of the Confederate dead after 1866, squished during the reconstruction period. But they rebooted themselves as a membership organization in 1915, stimulated sort of by the movie -- D.W. Griffith's movie Birth of a Nation, which heroized the Ku Klux Klan as being the savior to restore civilization and order to the South. It made it a hero. So that went national in the 1920s. It controlled states like Indiana's politics. It had a huge presence in the politics of Oregon, and it was very Protestant, 100 percent American, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Black. What we can tell is that, I mean, from my research, I found probably 12 to 13 chapters of the Ku Klux Klan in Idaho so far that popped up in the 1920s and three, at least three women of the Ku Klux Klan chapters. From what I can tell, the recruiters came down from Washington and Oregon. They would organize on the down low until they had a substantial membership role and money, and then they would pop out in a big way. In September of 1923, the Ku Klux Klan chapter of Boise popped out. They put an ad in the Idaho Statesman to advertise this big parade they were going to have, this initiation ceremony, and then they had it and they had a parade with floats and fireworks, which were expensive back then. They had the money for pyrotechnics. It was so big it created traffic jams downtown because they marched from downtown to the old fairgrounds and then they lit crosses and they had a Ku Klux Klan initiation ceremony. Our archive here also has pictures of marches in 1924 in Nampa, in Payette, Pocatello had a very virulent Ku Klux Klan and women of the Ku Klux Klan group. And they specifically, even if there were a small population of African-Americans because African-Americans had the smallest population of peoples of color in Idaho, the Klan still targeted them. They had a little Ku Klux Klan chapter in Shoshone. And there I think there was one Black man who lived there and the Klan beat him up and shot his dog. The Klan would march around the Black neighborhood in Pocatello, which was between Pocatello Avenue, Center Street and First and Third Street. They'd march around that singing racist songs and the racist songs from the Klan are in our archive. Their little song sheet is there. There are interviews in our archives of African-Americans who grew up in Pocatello who remember being held by the hair by white Klansmen when they were kids and white kids would punch him in the face. There was a rumor that the Klan in Pocatello was going to burn down the Baptist church which was a Black church there in the Black men got together to try to defend it. You know, we had a lot of -- there was a there was a Klan group that attacked a Black woman in her home up in Lewiston. And she was so frightened when she saw him, she ran out the back door. We have the charter of the women of the Ku Klux Klan. They were feminist racists, Gemma. 

GAUDETTE: Feminists racists? 

GILL: Feminists, racists. They believed in women's right to vote. They wanted women to be able to do all the things that men did, including burning crosses. You know, I mean it. That's so their charter from October 1925 is in our archive. Their police statement is there and one of their robes, one of the women's robes from Payette is in our state museum. So, you know, you don't have to believe me. We've got pictures --. 

GAUDETTE: We have proof -- 

GILL: -- we've got newspaper articles. And it was pervasive again. And I'm not done looking, but I've already found 12 to 13 of these chapters. And the picture in the Idaho Statesman has these people, you know, they're they're smiling. They're actually posing for the Statesman. And one Black guy brought his kid in a little Ku Klux Klan outfit. So they're proud. That tells you something that the norm and these are people of status in society, that the norm accepted them, that they'd be proud to have their pictures in their faces shown in the paper.

GAUDETTE: Well, and that's the thing. So one of those pictures we are going to post on our website for listeners, if you do want to see the one in particular about where they were unmasked, as you mentioned. So, yes, with that being said and how prevalent it was, I mean, a parade with fireworks, right? How did this politics support this? I mean, of course. I mean, I'm assuming I mean, know white leaders, but what was the reaction to this?

GILL: Yeah. I've looked a lot at the Idaho Statesman, which was owned by a Lincoln supporter, Radical Republican back in the day. They were clearly torn about this. And there were certainly clearly some people in Idaho that didn't like everything about the Klan. But the fact that you've got people of prominence that are proud to show their faces means that they're not fearing a political backlash or an economic backlash to their well-being. That tells you something that they're willing to be out there in public. And the pictures to show huge crowds, the picture of the march in Nampa and Payette. There are people lining up on the street in their Sunday best clothes with flags. It's a big crowd like you would come out for a Fourth of July parade. So that tells you something.

Now, the politics of the time are interesting. We're looking here at the 1920s. William Borah was our senator at the time. And he was sadly doing everything he could as a moderate Republican. There was a series of West and again, sorry, you and I as as Westerners, the western branch of the Republican Party tended to get in league with the Deep South in a states rights alliance against civil rights legislation. So during this time in the 1920s and 1930s, William Borah and his colleagues in California, Western Republicans, lined up with the South in State's Rights Alliance to block anti lynching legislation every time it came up and that was really well known.

GAUDETTE: To block it? 

GILL: Block it! In fact, William Borah, he was considered the second most powerful man in Washington, D.C. He was considered the the Congress's constitution expert, and he operated almost like the South's defense attorney against anti lynching legislation. And he put it in the state's rights context. And he talked about how the South was given kind of a raw deal with reconstruction, that the 15th Amendment should have never been passed that gave Black men the right to vote and that, yeah, lynching is bad. But the South sometimes needs to use extralegal measures to deal with something that was put on them that shouldn't have been put on them. Let me tell you a quick little antidote, because women are fighting for the right to vote at this point.

Borah was in favor of women's suffrage, and Idaho had given women the right to vote in 1896. But Borah was the only senator from suffrage state that was not in favor of a national amendment for women's suffrage. And he said, that's because I don't want to give Black women who are not prepared for the right to vote, access to the vote, repeal the 15th Amendment first, then I'll support a national amendment. So otherwise women had to do it state by state. And those women actually that talked to him were lobbying him, figured out that he was trying to position himself for a run for the presidency, which he did in 1936. He wanted Southern votes and the Dixiecrats loved him. The South loved William Borah. He supported putting Robert E. Lee statue in Statuary Hall in the Capitol when the South wanted to do that. I mean, they loved William. And so he actually worked against his party. In 1920, the Republican Party had promised to pass anti-lynching legislation, and it was the Western Republicans, particularly Boah and the Dixiecrats, that killed it. And the Senate had never passed it. So that's politics that are going on. 

GAUDETTE: How did how did that play out then? How was that received by voters in Idaho with this when he opposed anti lynching legislation and doing what he did?

GILL: Yeah. You know, and let me let me qualify and say that Borah was not in favor of lynching. There's actually a story from 1903 when he was a lawyer where he actually helped get a Black man who was being pursued by a lynch mob. He got into a fight after a baseball game. And as a lawyer, Borah helped get this guy on a train to get him out of Nampa so that he wouldn't get strung up. At the same time. He admitted also that if white women were being, quote, endangered by Black men, that maybe in that instance lynching is OK. But he but he put it -- he failed it in states rights and he knew it was happening. I mean, the anti lynching movement in America was huge. Ida B. Wells and the NAACP, the people are getting slaughtered, killed. There's a horrible hate crimes happening down there. And he was putting that as second fiddle to his state's rights. So, you know, there was some division in Idaho. But, hey, he was you know, he was Idaho's most powerful person in Washington, D.C. I don't get a whole lot of white people that were up in arms about his position killing it. And in fact, you know, there's the folks in California, they were against anti lynching legislation with Borah because they didn't want to see it as a slippery slope to have to allow the Japanese into the schools in California or to allow the Japanese or Chinese to get land. If one civil rights legislation goes through at the federal level, it can go through for other groups. And Borah was ended up saying to the California folks, yeah, we don't want that to happen, so we're going to stop that.

So I think, you know, a lot of white Idahoans kind of went along with it. I will tell you that Black Idahoans at this time in the 1920s and 30s, they're the clubs, the churches and particularly the clubs were bringing up the issue of anti lynching over and over again. They were having programs and debates and talks and stuff to try to shine a light on the fact that anti lynching legislation need to be passed. And one more thing. When Borah ran for president in 1936, the nation knew, Black people particularly knew that he was a key person in stopping anti-immigrant legislation. There is a picture from Getty Images from 1936, New York City, the headquarters of the NAACP. They were carrying signs that said if you endorse lynching, endorse Borah. That was in 1936 when he was running for president. If you endorse lynching, endorse Borah. That's in New York being held by leaders of the NAACP. So that's the reputation he had.

GAUDETTE: I want to thank you so much for coming in today and talking about this. You've gotten us up to the 1920s and 30s. We've been talking with Boise State history professor Jill Gill. She will be back next Thursday to take us through the civil rights era, the Aryan Nations in the 80s, in the 90s in north Idaho. As we continue to explore why this history matters today so that hopefully we can make real change. Dr. Gill, thank you so much for your time. And again, just appreciate you being willing to be so fluid with us today, but so important that we carried the funeral of Congressman John Lewis, especially when we're having this conversation today with you.

Have a question or comment for the show? Tweet @KBSX915 using #IdahoMatters

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Frankie Barnhill was the Senior Producer of Idaho Matters, Boise State Public Radio's daily show and podcast.