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Best Of Idaho Matters In 2020: Why Idaho's Racist History Matters

Tom Davenport
AP Images
White supremacist Richard Butler uses a megaphone while leading a parade in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho in October 2000. The leader of the Aryan Nations moved to North Idaho in the 1970s from California.


Today in a special encore presentation from Idaho Matters, we take a deep dive into the history of racism in the Gem State and what that history tells us about our present day reckoning with white supremacy. 


Credit Screenshot / 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.

From Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War era to housing discrimination in the mid 20th Century, Idaho’s history is riddled with racist policies and attitudes. 

In 2020, our nation and state once again confronted systemic injustice. Today we’re sharing two interviews from this summer with Boise State University history professor Dr. Jill Gill. The conversations helped us better understand how Idaho became a place that attracts white supremacists. 

Transcript below: 

FRANKIE BARNHILL: The interview you're about to hear first aired July 30th. We hope you enjoy this encore presentation of Idaho Matters from Boise State Public Radio.


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.


GILL: Well, thanks so much for having me. 


GAUDETTE: 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 true. 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.


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 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.


GAUDETTE: 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 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 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. 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 Borah and the Dixiecrats, that killed it. And the Senate had never passed it.




GAUDETTE: Jill, thanks for coming back on the show.


GILL: Hi, Gemma. Thanks for having me back.


GAUDETTE: Ok, so last time we left off around the 1930s. So I want to flash forward to the end of World War Two and the time when black GIs were returning to the United States because that was a completely different experience for black GIs. And what in particular do we know about these GIs who were coming back to Idaho?


GILL: World War Two brought a lot of airmen. Boise and Pocatello got folks like went to Mountain Home, Gowen Field and the air base out of Pocatello. And many of them stayed in those places and worked. And they were part of segregated units. And they met people here and they engaged in the black churches here and the other civic organizations, they sometimes got married here and stayed. So the environment they found here -- and in places like Pocatello, these airmen alone coming in doubled the black population of Pocatello. So that was pretty dramatic. And they came back to an Idaho that really mimicked the kind of Jim Crow -- sometimes called James Crow. So we didn't have school segregation here because there weren't enough African-Americans for that to be practical. But there were public accommodations segregation that was pretty widespread in restaurants, hotels. Playground equipment in Pocatello was pretty much off limits to Black kids. The YMCA was off limits there. Many theaters either kept Black people out or they had to sit in a special section. This is all in Idaho, Boise and Pocatello. Black people were not allowed to try on clothes or return clothing from department stores. There was job discrimination, housing segregation, which was rampant. So it was -- this is very typical with respect to, you know, the northern discrimination that these guys came back to. Yes.


GAUDETTE: And as we know, I mean, Idaho was, as you mentioned, very white. It still remains a majority of a white state. So how many people did these discriminatory policies affect? Because was it only focused on Black people or did we see this in just people of color overall? And if you could include a couple of specific examples, maybe from different parts of the state and what people had to deal -- I mean you mentioned, you know, like in Pocatello with the playgrounds. 


GILL: Right. So in northern Idaho, I know that the unions, which were fairly radical in supporting, you know, the white working man were very anti black. Senator Mary Lou Reed, longtime Coeur D'Alene resident and representative, talked about the fact that the unions kept Black people out. So as of 1970, there were only nine black people, I think, that lived in Coeur D'Alene simply because they kept folks out. I know in across southern Idaho, both African-Americans, Latinos and Indigenous populations ran into signs that said, you know, essentially no people of color allowed and they would use [inaudible] notations of that. I actually saw a picture of a sign that said we solicit white trade only. That's a direct quote that was on a brand new bar called the Cowboy Bar that opened in October of 1954, just a few months after the Brown decision. And it was in the Pocatello newspaper and the newspaper interviewed the owners that opened this bar and said, yeah, we want to advertise that we're a clean, safe, respectable establishment. So saying we only allowed white people in was the way to code for that. Most often there weren't signs. But I do know that people saw signs around just you just learn, you know, where you can go and and where you couldn't go. It was pretty clear. And you would get, you know, retributions if you if you crossed a particular line.


GAUDETTE: Can you talk about redlining? This is a word that's come up recently as Americans really grapple once again with systemic racism because it is still here. Can you define it and then share an example from Idaho during this mid century time?


GILL: Sure. So redlining was actually part of federal housing policy, and it worked in conjunction with local segregation policies to basically box African-Americans out of the housing market when, you know, housing was kind of one of the number one ways to build retirement, to build a nest egg, to pass on your kids and to rise up, if you will, pull yourself up by your bootstraps.


So redlining was a policy that basically said if the federal government is going to back bank loans for housing, you know, that really cool 30 year mortgage, you know, low interest, no money down kind of thing -- it had to be in a neighborhood that was 'Greenlined.' And they use colors to codify whether they considered a neighborhood a good investment. OK, so the federal government is going to back that bank loan that is seen as a good investment. You know, where the housing value is going to go up? Good schools, yada, yada. Well, they used race to determine that. So a green area was a white area, just assuming that a white area is going to have all those qualities. If there was a certain percentage of people of color, the colors would go from yellow, orange and red would be predominantly a black neighborhood. And if a place was red lined, it would not qualify for that federal security for bank loans and therefore banks would not give African-Americans those good loan rates. They would use gouging rates. They, you know, give them 15, 20% and, you know, had to get more money down. And they would do things like contract buying, which pretty much prevented most African-Americans from being able to safely and securely buy a home. And again, this is, you know, this period of time after World War Two that between 1940s and the end of the 60s was what we call the golden era of the American economy. There was no better time in America for people to be able to in some sense, you know, achieve an American dream. We've kind of lost that since the 1980s to that extent. And African-Americans were boxed out of one of those really critical ways. Jobs, schooling, too, was all part of that. So it was really insidious.


And not only did the federal government have those policies, but then you had realtor steering, which local realtors did. You had housing covenants. And these are examples I can give you from Boise and Pocatello, where, you know, the housing covenants. I have copies that I can show people from Morris Hill, from off of State Street that pretty much said -- and it was standard language that you would also find in California that nobody other than a white person can can live in this home or buy this home unless it is a domestic servant domiciled with the family that's a person of color, like a maid or a gardener or a nanny. So realtors combined with banks, combined with housing covenants, combined with these federal policies, were all collaborating.


GAUDETTE: And we should note, I mean, in Boise, I mean, there was a redline river district. And that is River Street today.


GILL: Yes! That's right. And there's a map there's a school map in the archive in the YWCA papers that anybody can get to from the 1960s. And it shows how effective it was because there's these little black dots that are in the neighborhood and you can see all the black families that were clustered there. There's a few random little black dots, black families that lived off of Harrison Boulevard up in the foothills and off of Warm Springs. But those were workers who served wealthy white families. So that shows the effectiveness of this.


And the other thing, housing segregation across the north was the key way for James Crow to operate on all kinds of different fronts. If you can segregate housing, Gemma, then you can do job discrimination because you have to put an address on your job application so people can suss out your race without even asking by your address. You can gerrymander school districts, you can gerrymander tax districts, voting districts. You can, you know, the zoning in the River Street neighborhood was zoned for noise and warehouse and industrial, whereas white neighborhoods were zoned to protect them more. And then you can do gouging, which is crazy. They could control the supply and demand if there's only a small area where Black people can live. And they did this in Pocatello in really vicious ways, you can create an overcrowded situation in the Black community because they won't let black people live outside. That then you can couch them on rents and purchases, even though they're often getting a substandard place compared to what white people can get.


GAUDETTE: And then this goes into that whole idea of generational wealth. And you mentioned this in the beginning of this conversation, that it's this idea of you buy a house, you build equity, you know, you can retire, you can then pass that house along to your children. With redlining, African-Americans, black people did not have that opportunity, and I think it's critically important that people understand that, this was created to make sure that Black people could not build generational wealth, could not make their situations better. 


GILL: Correct. Absolutely. It's critical. And that particular time period, like I said, was a really vicious time to do it, because this is when housing values really shot up. It was a booming time economically, and it was a time that a lot of white Americans moved from the poor or working class into the middle class and then got to secure their places there.


GAUDETTE: Let's move into the 1960s when the civil rights movement was happening and there was a resistance to it in Idaho, correct?


GILL: Yes, there sure was.


GAUDETTE: Can you talk a little bit about what we were seeing? And part of it was the people that were frankly starting to to visit the area in particular, you know, Aryan Nation founder, Richard Butler.


GILL: Yeah, he was probably our most infamous white flighter. Right. So he and his wife, Betty, were flying up here and they had a private plane. He was a millionaire by his mid 50s from Lockheed. And they were coming up vacationing, from what I can tell, in Idaho in the late 60s. They eventually bought land in 1974. But, yeah, he's up, you know, hunting and fishing and talking to people in the Albertson's and the Stinkers Station. I mean, they knew I know pretty well before they bought land up here. And yeah, I think one of the reasons that he bought land up here in 1974, build this compound and started the Aryan Nations by the late 70s, is he gambled on the fact that in addition to, you know, having liberal gun laws and cheap land and a kind of a live and let live atmosphere what she wanted and it was sort of isolated, he also gambled that Idahoans were on his side of middle. They weren't as extreme as him. But, you know, when he's talking to people casually, he's picking up on -- race was his number one subject. He was already a white supremacist. He belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ Christian when he was down in Southern California. So he's insuring, you know, he's putting his toe in the water. And what he was hearing gave him a sense that this would be a place, at least, like I said, be on his side of middle and he'd have a you know, probably a if not a hands off atmosphere, there would be some people that might be open to his message. And I think, you know, I have seen in the letters that came from all across Idaho, massive numbers of letters that your listeners can look at that were mailed to Frank Church. All his constituent mail is in the special collections at which State University or if you're up in northern Idaho, you can look at Compton White's mail up at the University of Idaho. I looked at every single piece of mail they got on the civil rights bill of 1964, which was designed to end segregation in public accommodations and job discrimination. And Frank Church, he was a co-sponsor of it, didn't think that Idahoans would get whipped up about it because there were so few African-Americans and so on. It's not going to impact the state greatly. But they did get whipped up. And he said his mail was running ten to one against the bill at one point. And there's just, you know, huge boxes of this stuff. I did my own poll and I got about over 70 percent, between 70 and 73 percent against. And it was pretty strong. So I figured, you know, when Richard Butler is up, you're flying around and talking to people casually. He's going to hear those private sentiments because mail that goes to a politician, they didn't know that, you know, that Boise State is going to save that stuff. But they thought they were giving a private audience, being able to give their two cents to their elected officials. So it was not friendly. And there were actually huge organizations in Boise that came out against the civil rights bill of 1964. The Idaho Farm Bureau ran a letter writing campaign against it. So they used the Idaho Farm Bureau affiliates to campaign and lobby against the bill. The Haley Kimberly in Sandpoint Chambers of Commerce were against it. The Gooding JCs, the Canyon County Republican Booster Club, the Sun Valley Women and Professional Women's Club was against it. The Women's Christian Temperance Union was officially against it and I could go on. 


GAUDETTE: So then we get to what, at least in the last maybe 30, 40 years that Idaho has become infamous for and that was the Aryan Nations. And, you know, this idea that Idaho was, if you're a white supremacist, come to Idaho. And how does that play into the bigger story of racism in Idaho? Because growing up in Washington state, I mean, you know, all I ever heard about was white supremacists in the Aryan Nations. And that basically that was my idea of Idaho.


GILL: Yeah, that's right. And in some sense, that's where we think the story begins and ends with racism. We treat the bad image that Idaho did get nationally because of the Aryan Nations -- they got a lot of press back in the East Coast newspapers. We treat treated as a PR problem. But when you look at it historically and you stand back, there are waves of white flight that come in to Idaho. And they proceeded and they've also come after the Aryan Nations. And so we talked about the Confederates that were fleeing, looking at the Pacific Northwest, you know, last time we were together that that was a fairly white place for, quote, free labor, which was coded as white. Those waves continue. And as time moves forward, eventually, you know, it was always Washington, Oregon and Idaho that were sort of seen that way, Montana as well. But as the I-5 corridor diversifies and that starts with World War Two, with these wartime industries that are shipbuilding and airplane building and so on. A lot of African-Americans moving to Seattle and Portland, San Francisco and L.A. and eventually those population bases become more Democratic and they become extremely diverse. Well, the whiter regions of those states that are somewhat more conservative started to feel like the political base of those states are pulling in a different direction. But Idaho is still one of the most rural states in America and it's one of the most conservative. So if you are somebody who lives in Southern California, like Richard Butler and you see the Brown decision and the, you know, the Civil Rights Act of 64, the Voting Rights Act of 65, the Fair Housing Act of 68, starting to allow African-Americans and other peoples of color to move into jobs, schools and neighborhoods that they hadn't been in before. And if you're discomforted by that and you're harkening for a past of Leave It to Beaver, whatever. Right, Idaho is going to start to look very attractive to you. So we saw waves of white flight in the late 1960s and early 70s. Richard Butler was part of that, running away from that diversification. We saw further waves of it in the 1990s after the Rodney King riots in the south. There's one historian that called the highway from Southern California to Idaho, the white flight highway. There's a writer who wrote a book called Whitopia that talks about that the number of U-Hauls that were coming one direction. And then now --. 


GAUDETTE: It's still happening today.


GILL: Oh, absolutely. Richard Butler's been dead since 2004. He's buried up there in Coeur D'Alene and the Aryan Nations are gone. They were bankrupted by the Task Force on Human Relations and the Southern Poverty Law Center for $6.3 million in 2000, 2001. But yes, there's new groups up there. There's a Redoubt Movement. There's the Northwest Front that actually talks about the Butler plan, which is about, you know, reconstituting Butler's old idea that the Pacific Northwest would be a white supremacist or white separatist area.


BARNHILL: This has been an encore presentation of an Idaho Matters interview which first aired August 13, 2020. I'm Frankie Barnhill, thanks for listening. You can find more episodes of the show on the Idaho Matters podcast. 


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


Frankie Barnhill is the Senior Producer of Idaho Matters, Boise State Public Radio's daily show and podcast. She's always interested in hearing surprising and enlightening stories about life in the West. Have an idea for Idaho Matters? Drop her a line!