by Logan Camporeale

Category: Heroes & Scoundrels

Charles Stewart Parker: Community Leader, War Hero, and Accomplished Botanist

Charles Stewart Parker was born in 1879 in Corinne, Utah Territory, a non-Mormon transportation hub in the northern part of the state near present-day Logan, Utah. He was born to John Byron Parker (watch for a future blog post about John Byron) and his wife Odella Parker nee De Reyno. John Byron worked in Corinne as a barber where he cut hair for travelers who stopped over in the town. 

Railroad companies skipped over Corinne when they rerouted which quickly turned it from a boom town into a ghost town, as was common in the American West. The Parker family picked up and moved to another boom town, Eureka, Nevada, in search of new clientele for John Byron’s barber business. According to the census, Charles gained two siblings while living in Nevada, one in 1881, and another in 1883. The family had both Black and white ancestry and they were often characterized by census takers as “Mulatto.” 

In 1883, when Charles was six years old, the family of five moved to Spokane, Washington. He attended public schools where he was a standout athlete in track and football. He graduated from Spokane High School as part of the class of 1898. After graduation, Charles headed to Washington D.C. where he attended classes at King Hall seminary, a theological training school associated with Howard University. He fell in love with Annice Marguerite Lewis and they married in D.C. The newlyweds returned to Spokane in 1901 before Charles could finish school due to health issues. 

Historic photo of the Parker family home at 2826 West Dean Avenue. This photo was featured in the Seattle Republican, a Black-owned newspaper, as an example of a successful home-owning Black Spokanite. The house still stands today, check out this recent Facebook post from the Spokane Historic Preservation Office.

Once back in Spokane, the couple moved into the family home at 2826 West Dean Avenue and Charles found work as a shipping clerk at the Crane Shoe Company. Beyond work, he became an active member of Spokane’s Black community. He was a leader of a congregation, the St. Thomas Episcopal Mission, where he would often read sermons and participate in ceremonies. In 1908, Charles and fellow Black leaders began planning for the centennial celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s 100th Birthday and he was appointed secretary of the Lincoln Centennial Association. In 1909 Charles co-founded the Nonpartisan Colored Improvement Club, which is likely the first non-religious and non-partisan organization in Spokane dedicated to advocating for the rights of Black Spokanites. 

The front page of a 1912 edition of The Citizen newspaper, a Black-owned newspaper that Charles S. Parker edited.
A portrait of Charles S. Parker printed in the The Citizen newspaper.

In 1908 Charles partnered with another Charles, Charles Barrow, the son of Spokane pioneer and former slave Peter B. Barrow Sr., to found Spokane’s first Black-owned newspaper, The Citizen. Charles Parker served as the paper’s editor from 1908 to 1913 when the paper ceased printing. After the newspaper, Charles continued to work at X-Ray printing, a Black-owned print shop, while also pursuing agricultural education at Washington State College in Pullman, WA. Parker’s interest in agriculture and botany was almost certainly spurred by his involvement with the Deer Lake Irrigated Orchard Company, a Black-owned fruit orchard located north of Spokane. Parker was a co-owner and treasurer of the company. 

In June of 1917, just two months after the United States entered World War I and one month before Spokane conducted its first draft lottery, Charles enrolled in the United States Army (joining his brother who had served in the United States Navy for over a decade). Charles was sent to Fort Des Moines in Iowa to attend officer training specifically for Black candidates. In October of 1917 he received an officer’s commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 366th Infantry Regiment and was quickly promoted to 1st Lieutenant. In June of 1918, the 366th departed for France where they were active in combat at Alsace and at Meuse-Argonne, the principal offensive for U.S. forces in France. Charles led his platoon to the frontlines under heavy fire and through thick fog of noxious gasses. In a letter from the front to a friend back in Spokane, 1Lt Parker remarked that “the question as to whether the American negro will stand the pressure of trench warfare is no longer a problem. He has been called to the bat and hit a home run the first inning.” Parker and his troops advanced into Germany where they remained until the Armistice was signed. 

1Lt. Charles S. Parker (second from left) with fellow Black officers from the 366th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army. The officers from left to right—Capt. L.H. Godman, Lt. and Adj. Chas. S. Parker, Capt. Chas. G. Kelley, Capt. Wm. Hill, Capt. C.W. Owens, Capt. Geo. A. Holland, Capt. W.T. Thompson, 2nd Lt. Wm. D. Nabors. Public domain image.
Charles S. Parker in a newspaper clipping detailing his distinguished service.

1Lt Parker returned to Spokane in May of 1919 where he was greeted with a celebration from his friends, family, and the local NAACP chapter. Soon after he returned, the Department of War awarded him with the rank of Captain for his heroic leadership on the Western Front. 

In 1919, Charles was awarded a professor position at the Tuskegee Institute, a university for Black Americans in Alabama founded by Booker T. Washington. While teaching, he continued to pursue his own education culminating in a doctorate degree in plant pathology from Penn State University in 1932. After graduation, he was hired as a professor at Howard University, a famous Historically Black College and University known by some alumni as “the Mecca,” where he was Chair of the Department of Botany for sixteen years. The Charles S. Parker Herbarium on Howard’s campus, a collection of specimens he assembled, is named in his recognition. 

Professor Charles S. Parker sitting at a microscope at Howard University circa 1936. Photo courtesy of the Harmon Foundation Collection at the National Archives. 

During his academic career, Charles returned home to the Pacific Northwest in search of distinct flora native to the region. He collected thousands of specimens which he documented in two journal publications. Some of the specimens he collected are still held at Washington State University’s Marion Ownbey Herbarium. Charles’ contributions to the field of botany were recognized by renowned botanist Harold St. John when he named a species of pea plant after him (Lathyrus parkeri St.John). 

A specimen of Lathyrus parkeri St.John, the pea plant that Harold St. John named to recognize Charles S. Parker.
Professor Charles S. Parker observing the leaf structure of a plant on Howard University campus circa 1936. Photo courtesy of the Harmon Foundation Collection at the National Archives.

Charles Parker was a product of Spokane’s public schools. He was an influential community leader and he served his country selflessly in World War I. He became an accomplished botanist and left a lasting legacy at Howard University. In 1950, at 71 years old, Charles passed away in Seattle, Washington.

Walter Lawson: Breaking Down Barriers, Upholding the Law

-Walter Lawson served the Spokane Police Department for eighteen years

When the 1900 United States Census was taken, there were 376 black residents in Spokane, making up slightly more than one percent of the city’s total population. One of those residents, Walter Lawson, moved to Spokane in 1894 where he became an officer for the Spokane Police Department.

Members of the 25th Infantry Buffalo Soldiers at Ft. Keogh, Montana, 1890, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Before arriving in Spokane, Lawson completed five years in the United States Army. He enlisted for his term in 1886 and became a member of the 25th Infantry Regiment, a segregated unit of black soldiers often referred to as the Buffalo Soldiers. During Lawson’s time in the service, the 25th Infantry was stationed in the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Montana. They did not see much active combat but the regiment was involved in the Ghost Dance War, a months-long armed conflict that ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre.

After his service, Lawson settled in Spokane with his wife Millie and began work as a porter at downtown hotels. Hauling luggage was not as exciting as soldier life, but in 1899 his military experience paid off. He was hired as a special policeman with the Spokane Police Department.

Officer Walter Lawson soon after he was hired by the Spokane Police Department, c1900, courtesy of Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

In 1905, a terrible crime occurred in Spokane. An abusive husband shot his wife in the abdomen and knee, and left her to die. The woman bled on the floor for hours before crawling to a neighbors home seeking help. She was taken to Sacred Heart Hospital where she was treated for her wounds, but her attacker was still at large. Officer Lawson located the man the next morning and apprehended him. As Lawson made the arrest, a .38 caliber revolver fell from the suspect’s pocket. Lawson had his man, and the likely assault weapon.

Officer Lawson worked over eighteen years with the Spokane Police Department serving in various positions including as a stock policeman, a driver, and a patrolman. In 1917, while still working for the department, the well-liked officer, husband, and father passed away. Much of the city was devastated. The Police Chief and fellow officers lauded him as “one of the bravest officers who ever wore the blue or swung a nightstick.” Newspapers across the nation exclaimed Lawson’s death noting that the Pacific Coast was now without a single black police officer.

 This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column “Heroes and Scoundrels.”

“Baby Face” Bobby Landis

-Bobby Landis killed a cop, an inmate, and attempted multiple prison escapes.

Bobby Landis was a scoundrel. Before he set foot in Spokane at sixteen years of age, he was an accomplished thief, who had shot and nearly killed a druggist. His crimes had earned him a fourteen month stay at a reformatory for young boys, and when released he violated the terms of his parole. This was just the prologue of Landis’ wrap sheet, once he arrived in the Inland Northwest he became an infamous criminal and an uncontrollable prisoner.

Detective Roy Fordyce, Image Courtesy of Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture

On November 13, 1929, Spokane Police Detectives witnessed two boys buying a handgun from a pawn shop on West Main Avenue. The detectives, Roy Fordyce and George Bradley, confronted the suspicious pair as they left the shop. The detectives questioned the boys and, after learning they were staying across the street at the dodgy Spokoma Hotel, asked to search their room. The boys agreed and the group headed up to the third floor of the building. It is unclear exactly what transpired after they entered the room, but moments later the unmistakable sound of gunshots poured from the hotel.

The Daily Tribune, 11/23/1929, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin

When the firing came to a stop, the boys were apprehended but both officers had been shot, and Detective Roy Fordyce lay dead on the floor. The suspects were arrested and one of the boys, “Baby Face” Bobby Landis, took responsibility for the murder and confessed to shooting his weapon first. After a dramatic trial, the jury convicted Landis of murder of a police officer. The young murderer was spared the death penalty, in part due to his age and his questionable mental stability, and he was sentenced to life in prison at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington.

Landis took the life sentence in stride. Less than a year after he arrived, he made his first escape attempt. The convict made it over the first prison wall but he gave up when guards started shooting at him. Landis was not discouraged though. Eighteen months later, he sprinted across the yard and pole-vaulted over the west prison wall. This time he made it out, but he was recaptured later that day and returned to the prison. In another daring escape attempt, Landis, with a group of fellow inmates, hijacked a prison truck and led guards on a chase through downtown Walla Walla ending in a gunfight that left Landis wounded.

Before he faded from the public eye, Landis added one more dark line to his already extensive wrap sheet. He and another prisoner from Spokane County, Joe McWilliams, had been bumping heads. At some point, Landis had enough of McWilliams antics. One morning, while the two were in the exercise area together, Landis drew a handmade knife and stabbed McWilliams twice, once in the stomach and again in the chest. McWilliams spent the next three months in the prison hospital before succumbing to his wounds. He was not tried for the crime, but “Baby Face” Bobby Landis had killed again.

In just over three years at the penitentiary, Landis nearly escaped three times and killed a fellow inmate. But, despite his turbulent start, the convict settled in to prison life and never committed another major violation. Although he was handed a life sentence, after serving nearly twenty-two years Robert Landis was paroled from the penitentiary in 1951. “One of the prison’s all-time worst headaches had,” according to the Spokesman-Review, “mellowed and matured with manhood.”

This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column “Heroes and Scoundrels.”

Francis Cook: The Father of (Mt.) Spokane and an Early Spokane Booster

-Francis Cook’s legacy is evident in green space sprinkled across Spokane County.

On an early summer morning in August 1912, sixty-one year old Francis H. Cook climbed into an open roof automobile alongside some of the most important people in Spokane and Washington State. The caravan of finely dressed dignitaries included W. J. Hindley, Mayor of Spokane, Marguerite Motie, the first Miss Spokane, and Marion E. Hay, Governor of Washington State. The group, joyfully waving green and yellow pennants, headed northeast to put a capstone on one of Cook’s most important accomplishments, a freshly graded road to a newly accessible recreation paradise atop the tallest mountain in Spokane County.

Francis Cook and dignitaries in a procession of automobiles on Riverside Avenue before embarking on their journey to rename Mt. Spokane on August 23, 1912. Image Courtesy of Washington State Archives, Digital Archives

Francis Cook came to Spokane in 1879 when only about 300 white people called the city home. He started the region’s first newspaper, The Spokan Times, and he was one of the city’s first and most effective boosters. Early editions of his newspaper encouraged readers to share the paper with friends and family encouraging them to settle in the “Wonderful Spokan Country.” His paper included a regular column,

“How to Reach this Country,” which provided detailed instructions and approximate costs to arrange transportation to Spokane. His newspaper was a bullhorn featuring a regular sales pitch for the City of Spokane.

Cook did more than beg people to move to Spokane; he helped develop the city. In 1888, he started the city’s first interurban railroad that connected Downtown Spokane with the South Hill. The steam powered train provided easy transportation to and from Cook’s newly planned neighborhood, the Montrose Addition, which later became the Manito neighborhood and park. In far north Spokane, he developed the area that became the Wandermere Golf Course and neighborhood. Cook’s efforts paid off as he watched the City of Spokane grow from a few dozen pioneer families to over 100,000 residents.

Spokane dignitaries raise the United States and Spokane flags at the top of Mt. Spokane in 1912. Mt. Spokane was renamed on this occasion. It was previously called Mt. Baldy or Mt. Carlton, and not surprisingly, its renaming was met with some resistance at the time. According to the Spokane Tribe, the original name for the mountain is “scq'wulsm,” referring to a place with dried flowers and leaves. Photo courtesy of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (L96-39.49).

Although his life was not without speed bumps, in August of 1912, when he departed with the automobile procession of dignitaries to christen his most recent project, his life accomplishments were realized and recognized. When they reached the top of his new road, which the Spokane Daily Chronicle lauded as “the longest auto grade in the world,” a ceremony was conducted where the United States flag and Spokane’s municipal flag were staked at the summit. Miss Spokane addressed the group, “You, our mountain, have been a true friend to Spokane. Our act this day cannot be more than a weak recognition of our love for you. You shall have the best we have to give—our name itself. I christen thee Beautiful Mount Spokane.” After years of hard manual labor building the road with his son, and after decades of boosting Spokane’s image, Cook was recognized for his work and the mountain was named after the project he cared most deeply about, the development of the City of Spokane.

 

This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column "Heroes and Scoundrels."

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