“Will Be Run Out of the City”

Racial profiling in Spokane at the Turn of the 20th Century

Sometimes the law comes swift and unfairly as with the African American sex workers of downtown Spokane in the early 1900s.

Beginning early in the year of 1905, Chief of Police Leroy Cotman Waller unleashed a campaign against all “vagrants” designed to round up as many perceived undesirables as possible and place them in the city jail. As the war on crime progressed into the spring, police attention turned to the Black prostitutes in the downtown area, who Waller blamed for almost all the robberies in Spokane. On May 8th he officially announced that all Black women “engaged in unlawful occupations” were to leave town immediately or be arrested. Eight women had already left and four more were slated be jailed if they did not quickly follow. Two weeks later, police jailed seven women of color believed to be pickpockets. Some plead guilty and were fined $50 while others chose to fight their cases. Some had been charged with theft previously, but all were acquitted when witnesses did not show up in court.

After the May arrests police efforts to expel the women from the city slowed down. The newspapers still warned of the suspected roaming pickpockets, but there was no mention of further round ups.

This was not the first-time Black sex workers were forcibly expelled from Spokane. Two years prior twelve Black prostitutes were told to leave town immediately, and when they refused, five were caught and arrested by the police for vagrancy. Two had previous theft charges, so they left town on the advice of their lawyer N. E. Nuzum, while the others plead not guilty. Nuzum argued that of the 80 known prostitutes in Spokane, only the ten Black prostitutes remaining were facing charges. He threatened "if the rank discrimination continues against them I shall proceed in demand that the entire 'burnt district' be cleaned." The same day the five posted bail, three of the women were jailed a second time. Despite Nuzum’s best efforts, five were charged and fined, while the other five entered negotiations to leave town for Lewiston, Idaho, where the Chief of Police there said they would be arrested again.

Vagrancy was the charge brought against the sex workers in 1903 and likely would have been for the women in 1905. Vagrancy laws are designed broad intentionally, and make it illegal to be poor, suspicious, and idle in public or private spaces. Unsurprisingly, the law was used on the poor and minority groups lavishly until the 1960s when such laws were dismantled by the civil rights movement. Other charges such as disorderly conduct, loitering, and general misdemeanors were commonly used to punish "undesirables."

As 1905 pressed into late summer, Chief Waller remained the center of attention, but not likely in the way he anticipated. Waller and Deputy Assessor, Fred Leghorn, were brought before a grand jury for embezzlement. Waller and Leghorn were collecting fines from sex workers and pocketing the cash. The Judge explained that if they turned in the money, the courts would not have a case against the two men. It seemed they followed this advice as no further developments in the case were ever released. By October, Chief Waller was avoiding the subject of prostitution entirely and the previously expelled women slowly began to return to Main Avenue.