The first of the Terrell Family members came to River Street over 100 years ago. Coming from North Carolina, Warner Terrell’s grandfather came to Boise in 1905 with his half-brother to work on the railroad. In 1905, Terrell’s grandfather bought a house in River Street on 527 South 14th Street and brought the rest of his family up from Utah. Terrell’s father (Warner Terrell, Jr. and Clara Terrell) and mother were married in that house on S. 14th Street and that was the house where Terrell’s father was born. Warner Terrell, III had one sister, Zenobia, and a half brother James. Terrell, III’s mother was born in Rigby, Idaho and was a member of the African American Steven’s family.
Both of Terrell, III’s parents worked: his mother as a housekeeper and his father at the Arid Club for over 45 years. The Terrells served as point people for new black arrivals to town, helping them find housing and work after arriving to Boise.
Terrell, III recalled a few memorable discriminatory acts that served to keep blacks in their place. For instance, when famed African American singer Marian Anderson came to Boise she was refused lodging at the Owyhee Hotel—one of the town’s premier hotels at the time. She was later allowed to stay at the Owyhee as long as she agreed to enter through the back entrance and take her food in her hotel room. Marian Anderson was one of the most famous black singers of the twentieth century, breaking the color barrier for other black artists. She gave a critically acclaimed concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 and was the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Nevertheless, the Owyhee Hotel in Boise, Idaho initially refused her service. Warner Terrell, III’s father helped arrange Anderson’s lodging at the Owyhee Hotel. Terrell, III did note that conditions had changed by the second time she came.
Several players helped make this red light district possible. For instance, a colorful neighborhood fixture called “Big Mama” operated some brothels in the neighborhood, and Terrell, III recalls that she was a nice lady that regularly attended Bethel AME Methodist Church. She was generous to all and maintained good relations with the Boise City Police.
“If you drove through Pioneer Street, there would be a whole line up. Waiting to get in the houses.”
The red light district on Pioneer was frequented by all types of people ranging in age from teenagers to older professional men. Terrell, III explains that the district was created slowly over time. At first, one or two rental houses turned into gambling spots or brothels but, over time, their number increased. As long as the owners were getting their rent, many of them did not care what was happening in their properties. Eventually, the whole street had turned into a red light district and the other residents just avoided those places.
“That was there and one probably started and those people kinda hung together. And then the rest of the people just avoided them.”
Terrell, III recalls being told to avoid Pioneer and he listened to his parents. He never played near the Joints, staying near his home or the houses of his other relatives. His house was on South 15th Street, maybe 50 feet or so from his home. He recalls trains passing by, spewing smoke on the houses that flanked the south side of the track.
After school time was spent in a similar fashion as other River Street kids. Terrell, III had chores after school including tending the garden, watering the lawn, and helping tidy the house. In the summer, he recalls helping till the soil in his back yard in order to plant a garden with his grandmother. “It was her garden, but I think I did most of the work,” Terrell, III recalls. Gardens in the neighborhood contained a variety of different vegetables that were primarily eaten by the family. What wasn’t eaten fresh was canned for later consumption. River Street residents also did other activities to help make ends meet. For instance, Terrell, III’s grandfather used to chop and sell kindling for sale and collected honey when sugar was rationed during World War II.
Outdoor recreation was also important to River Street residents. Terrell, III recalls doing a lot of hunting and fishing with his relatives and in the Boise River. He fished for a variety of species, catfish, trout, steelhead, and salmon. He mainly hunted birds on agricultural fields near present-day Eagle, Idaho.
While there was discrimination in Boise, Terrell, III recalls his fellow students were amiable and cordial. He was student body president at North Junior High and does not recall having trouble finding dates in high school. Schools were integrated and interracial dating was okay in the neighborhood, but Euroamericans from outside the neighborhood frowned on interracial dating. Terrell, III recalls an instance when he was talking to a friend from school, a white girl, when a Boise Police officer drove by and saw them talking. The white police officer stopped and forced the girl to get in the car. He took the girl to the police station and made her call her parents and tell them what she was doing.
Growing up in River Street, Terrell, III recalls a happy childhood in a community that shielded him from overt racist acts. He agrees that neighborliness was a way of life in River Street. Residents overcame many of the racial taboos of that time, including interracial dating; however, that was not the case elsewhere in Boise. His youth was filled with hunting and fishing—activities that he still enjoys today. He says the neighborhood has changed and the community he enjoyed as a youth no longer exists today.
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