“In 1928, the city rezoned River Street unrestricted “F” zone. The original residential neighborhood remained intact while industrial and commercial growth took place on all sides which further isolated the area. It wasn’t long before residents began to find the area less desirable and relocated in other growing areas of Boise.” Mateo Osa, Survey of the Lee Street Neighborhood (1983)
In 1982, Mateo Osa recorded groundbreaking interviews with River Street’s then aging African American population. This oral history project was the first of its kind in the River Street Neighborhood, which was then identified as “the Black Neighborhood.” Osa proclaims that his project had the intent of gathering information about the Black settlement patterns on Lee Street, one of the most intact portions of the River Street Neighborhood today. In the process, Osa revealed much about the African American experience in Boise, Idaho. Transcripts of these interviews are on file at the Idaho State Archives in Boise. You can download a copy here: Mateo_Osa_Lee_Street_Survey_1981
“Yeah, that’s right, World War II. There was a lot of servicemen because with the two bases at Gowen Field and Mountain Home. Well they were allowed to bring their wives and children who a few of them had children. And they just lived in every little hole they could. It was as I say, a lot of people made their garages into a little dwelling. At that time. But, then, it wasn’t too long before the war was over and people left.” Bessie Stewart’s interview with Mateo Osa (12/17/1980).
Born into a tobacco farming family from Tennessee, Bessie Stewart moved to the Boise area in 1943 with her husband. She was able to convince her husband to purchase a home in the River Street Neighborhood during World War II and the couple promptly rented it out to African American servicemen and their families. A River Street resident for over 40 years, Mrs. Stewart recalled occasional discrimination in stores and businesses throughout Boise. She also had several remarks on the infamous Red Light District that existed along Pioneer Street/Lover’s Lane (the Pioneer Walkway today) during the 1940s and 1950s. You can download a copy of her interview here: Bessie_Stewart_1981
“I’ve raised all my kids down here and every one of them are good kids– they’ve all got good, responsible jobs and all have gone to college and everything, but there is some from over, oh, through Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, over through there, is where vandalism came from– not from our neighborhood. This has always been a nice, quiet, respectable neighborhood.” Doris Thomas’ interview with Mateo Osa (1/6/1981).
Doris Thomas moved to Boise in 1926 and recalls that, despite its reputation, the River Street Neighborhood was composed of families from a variety of races and ethnicities. Basque immigrants and Chinese merchants found homes and livelihoods in there. The place was characterized by neighborliness– new families were helped by the existing residents. The neighborhood telephone was shared. People worked hard but shared what they had. “That’s the way it was, just average middle-class, was what it was. It wasn’t a slum area at all. Everybody kept their places up nice,” Doris Thomas (1981). You can read her interview for yourself. Download a copy here: Doris_Thomas_1981
“Okay people, well my father hoboed to Idaho and then he’d send for the rest of the family and then I think he had a sister who’s husband worked for the railroad, or something, and they could get a pass. They’d bring somebody else. That’s the way people came.” Dorothy Buckner’s interview with Mateo Osa (1/23/1981).
Coming by way of Arkansas to Minidoka, Dorothy Buckner’s family played an influential role in the black community of River Street. Her father, Pistol Johnson, operated a barbeque restaurant and repaired and rented houses in the Neighborhood for their absentee owners. She recalls that River Street was home to African American Boiseans not only because of community. Discrimination kept African Americans there. Mrs. Buckner remembers when Boise’s African Americans joined the Civil Rights Movement and began pushing for their rights. Not everybody in the community thought that was a good idea, but Mrs. Buckner was not one to be kept down. After moving from the neighborhood, Mrs. Buckner recalls a cross burning in the front yard of her North End home. Not to be deterred, Buckner stayed in that home for over twenty years. You can read her interview by downloading a copy here: Dorothy_Buckner_1981
“I shall never forget when my husband died. The neighbors right straight across over there, came to me and said, ‘We are not just your neighbors, we are your friends. If you need anything or want anything or anything comes up that you can’t take care of, call us.’ And they have proved to be my friends.” Ellen Perkins’ interview with Mateo Osa (12/16/1980).
Longtime fixture of the River Street Neighborhood, Ellen Perkins came from a family that owned several properties in the neighborhood. Her family was from Arkansas and, for a short while, she tried to reconnect with her ancestral home but ended up right back home in Boise. For her, life in River Street was characterized by kindness, sharing, and community. Through discrimination, Mrs. Perkins remembers neighborhood residents finding a way to live side by side. Read her interview. Download it here: Ellen_Perkins_1980
“Oh, in Pocatello we are freer with one another. Boise was rather reserved, I mean both the Blacks and Whites. We more or less, a newcommer or a johnny-come-lately had to prove themselves. But once you got over that, it’s okay. But I’d rather live in Pocatello.” Rosa Tigner’s interview with Mateo Osa (2/6/1981).
Coming from Texas, Rosa Tigner grew up in Pocatello, Idaho and moved to the River Street Neighborhood with her husband. Mrs. Tigner recalls the way racial relations in the United States improved after World War II. With black and white men fighting in the trenches together, both came to understand that discrimination was not in this country’s best interest. She recalls that conditions for African Americans were better in Idaho than Texas, but felt that the black community in Boise was standoffish. Newcomers had to prove themselves before they were accepted. Tigner believed the small Black community in River Street made it more conservative than comparatively more cosmopolitan Pocatello. You can read her interview here: Rosa_Tigner_1981
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