A “miniature race war” directed against black people in the lower valley 84 years ago is a dark chapter in the history of Yakima Valley.
One night in July, a mob targeted black residents and farm workers in Wapato, driving them away as they sought refuge from attacks. And like many other incidents of violence against people of color, there was no justice to be served for its victims.
Racism, unfortunately, has not been a foreign concept in the Yakima Valley. An Indian boarding school was established at Fort Simcoe, where the federal government attempted cultural genocide against the Yakama Nation by attempting to forcibly assimilate Native children into American society.
The Ku Klux Klan staged recruitment drives in the valley in 1924, including a meeting at the Capitol Theater and a rally in the Ahtanum area where 700 people are said to have joined the racist group. They targeted Catholics and Asians in the valley.
In November 1927, mobs set out to drive Filipinos out of Toppenish and Wapato.
In the 1930s, as the country mired in the Great Depression, the Yakima Chamber of Commerce advertised employment opportunities in the area, particularly in agriculture and the railroads. Among those who answered the call to start over in the Pacific Northwest were a handful of blacks who came to work on the railroads and in the sugar beet fields.
As with other groups who came to the area, their arrival sparked resentment from white people who had settled earlier in the area, viewing the newcomers as job cuts.
Tensions reached a critical mass on the night of July 9, 1938. A report by a labor activist said the spark that ignited the powder keg was a rumor that a black man had raped a white woman. A similar fear of white women being raped by people of color also sparked the attack on Filipinos a decade earlier.
While the activist’s report stated that the woman in question was a well-known prostitute who plied her trade in a black labor camp, that did not stop a mob of 200 men and boys from attacking every black person that they could find.
Armed with clubs, hammers, stones and sticks, they attacked the labor camp, driving dozens of people from the area. An account in the Yakima Morning Herald, which was above an article about a black man being burned to death by a lynching mob in the American South, called it a “miniature race war”.
Several people were chased from their homes by the mob, including one, Earldine Young, 24, who was cut in one eye as she ran barefoot in her nightgown. Some accounts say others were bludgeoned, including a pregnant woman, while furniture belonging to black residents was smashed.
Some of those driven away took refuge in a hotel in Yakima, where they said they did not know what prompted the attack, which lasted two hours.
That night, Toppenish police and Wapato residents raided a railroad camp, beating up black workers, some who were jailed while others were exhausted.
No one was killed in the attacks.
Young and four other victims of the attack, represented by attorney JP Tunkoff, sued the county sheriff, city marshal and deputy marshal, alleging they failed to enforce the law even though they were aware of the mob action.
The defense of the three officers was that they were out of town on business at the time of the attack. The lawsuit then failed. Before the trial, there were people in Wapato who were happy about the attack, but a report said that as soon as the lawsuit was filed, they were silenced.
It Happened Here is a weekly column on the story of Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Donald W. Meyers. Contact him at [email protected] Sources for this week’s column include Historylink.org, the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project at the University of Washington, Blackpast.org and the Yakima Herald-Republic archives.