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INHM: African American Mayor James E. Chase

James Chase Campaign Sign, 1981-1982, Museum Collection 3762.1

Twenty-year-old James Chase rode the rails to Spokane from Texas in 1934 - looking for new opportunities. His formal education had ended when his all-black high school closed during the depths of the Great Depression. In Spokane he first shined shoes at a local barbershop, then in 1939 joined partner Elmo Dalbert to open a successful body-and-fender shop – and to do repair work for Spokane’s Army air base during World War II.

James married musician and social worker Eleanor Barrow, whose family co-founded the area’s first black church, Calvary Baptist. Both were strong believers in civic involvement. Chase led the local NAACP chapter and Prince Hall Masonic Grand Lodge, and became the first African American member of the Spokane City Council. In 1981 he ran for Spokane’s highest elected office and captured 62 percent of the vote to become the city’s first African American mayor, a historic feat in a city with a black population hovering between 1 and 2 percent.

Ill health prevented Chase from seeking a second term, and he died of cancer in 1987. But his name and spirit live on through the James E. Chase Middle School, the Chase Art Gallery at Spokane City Hall, and the Chase Youth Commission, dedicated to improving the lives of the city's youth.

Museum staff rescued a well-worn cardboard campaign sign from a garage sale. It is now preserved in the museum’s permanent collection.

The Inland Northwest History Moment is a collaboration of Spokane Public Radio and the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture (MAC), in celebration of 100 Stories, the museum’s centennial exhibition. 

More Resources:
Williamson, Jerrelene, African Americans in Spokane. Charleston: Arcadia Pub., 2010
Museum Collection Ms 159 Chase Family Papers: James E. Chase (1914-1987) and Eleanor Barrow Chase (1918-2002)