Exclusion is a hurtful thing. Most of us have felt it–either as the victim who is ignored or shut out of a group’s activities or as one of the people making the choice to go along with that behavior. A strong character is necessary to withstand being treated in such a way. Is a strong character also necessary to choose not to participate in the excluding behavior?
1897… Married less than a year, Bill and Elizabeth Smith stepped on a train in Chicago, Illinois (population: 1,700,000) with dreams of starting a new life in the Arizona Territory. Bill would be a porter on the Santa Fe, Prescott, and Phoenix Railroad and Elizabeth…well, she would find “something” to do. On that August afternoon no one, not even Elizabeth, could imagine just how that “something” would impact Wickenburg, Arizona (population: 300). The young couple were the first black residents to join the mixture of Native Americans, Mexicans, Asians and Caucasians who were farming, ranching, or hoping for the next big strike in the area around Henry Wickenburg’s Vulture Mine.
Getting off the train in Wickenburg, the couple were told they could get a bed and a meal in a dilapidated one-story adobe building at the end of the street. Fortunately, the old Baxter Hotel would offer them more. The couple would find an opportunity. Richard Baxter was in desperate need of a cook. A sample of Elizabeth’s cooking assured him she would keep the customers happy. When Bill convinced Baxter to allow him to manage the hotel’s bar, he gave up his job with the railroad. Elizabeth’s delicious meals and her special chocolate chip cookies brought a steady stream of miners and townspeople to the Baxter. With Elizabeth’s earnings and savings, she and Bill were soon able to buy the hotel from Richard Baxter.
1905… Wickenburg was enjoying a boom, which would double the town’s population. The couple had added a wooden second story to the old adobe hotel, creating the town’s first two-story building. Elizabeth had even more ambitious plans. Within a few years, officials from the Santa Fe Railroad approached the Smiths about building a larger new hotel closer to the railroad station. Trains did not serve meals and many passengers also wanted a nice place to spend a night or two before proceeding with their travels.
Somehow, Elizabeth managed to find enough funding to plan and build what was referred to as “the finest building in the town” in an article in the Sept. 13, 1905 edition of Prescott’s weekly Arizona Journal Miner. Elizabeth and Phoenix architect James Creighton created a showplace, which could host up to fifty guests. The Vernetta Hotel, named after Bill’s mother, contained a post office, small bank, and a shoeshine booth. Twelve-inch thick red brick walls kept the rooms cool in the summer and fireplaces warmed the winter evenings. Officials from the Santa Fe Railroad were so pleased with the facility they built a wooden walkway from the depot to the hotel’s front door. Elizabeth would often walk down to greet the guests at the station. Travelers from around the country enjoyed a stop at the Vernetta as they sought the mild winter climate of Arizona and California. Bill’s bar, the Black and Tan, and Elizabeth’s dining room offered relaxation and delicious food. Elizabeth had made a wise investment in buying a small farm where she raised the beef, chickens, and vegetables that ended up on the hotel’s dining tables.
This daughter of a freed slave had another surprising talent. Elizabeth spoke, read and wrote French. Each week, residents of Phoenix began to make the fifty-four mile journey by train, horseback, or buggy to take French lessons while enjoying a stay at the Vernetta. Guests discovered that their hostess was also a eager card player. Bridge games were held in the lobby with Elizabeth sitting in as a skilled fourth player.
Elizabeth and James Creighton had an additional contact which benefitted Wickenburg. Both were devout Presbyterians. They worked together to help establish the local Community Church. This would later become the First Presbyterian Church in Wickenburg.
In 1908, Elizabeth went back to Illinois to visit her uncle. On this trip, she met Bill Butler, a struggling young black musician. Since the grand piano in the lobby of the Vernetta often sat empty, Elizabeth invited him to come to Wickenburg and entertain her guests. Butler was welcomed by the town and was often hired to sing at parties and social gatherings. He also worked on the farm with another man who had benefitted from Elizabeth’s kindness. Dan Davis had been born with a clubfoot and some mental challenges. ‘Clubfoot’ Davis could not find even menial work on any of the ranches around Wickenburg. So, Elizabeth gave Dan a home and a job on her farm. He fed the chickens and took care of the other livestock that provided food for the Vernetta.
These years from 1905 to 1912 were good for Elizabeth Smith in many ways. She owned the Vernetta and had helped to start a church. She had also acquired a restaurant, a barbershop, several rental homes, and an opera house where touring theatrical companies entertained the community. But her personal life had suffered. Children from the town always found cookies and a welcome at the kitchen door of the hotel. But she and Bill never had children. Sadly, Bill had a drinking problem, which worsened over the years. He often disappeared for days, even weeks, at a time. Bill returned home only when his money ran out. In November of 1912, Elizabeth divorced him on the grounds of desertion.
For the next decade, Elizabeth poured herself into the hotel, the church, and the town. During the 1920’s, Wickenburg benefitted from the good economic times spreading throughout the nation. In 1897, Elizabeth had stepped off the train at a village on the edge of a dry riverbed. Thirty years later, Wickenburg was a thriving, industrious community with prosperous new businesses and many new residents. Some of these new residents felt Wickenburg should reflect the ideas they brought with them about what was “right and proper”. These were people who had not been part of the work that had gone into building the community. Many were people who did not see the rightness of treating other people the way they would want to be treated. But they were powerful people — powerful enough to shut Elizabeth out of the social life of the town she had lived in for decades.
1929-1935 It would be easy to say the exclusion of Elizabeth Smith was the result of the Great Depression. However, the Depression’s worst effects would not have been felt in Wickenburg until the mid-1930’s. The doors began to close — literally and figuratively — on Elizabeth before then. Bridge players began to close the parlor doors of her own beautiful hotel as a sign she was not welcome to join the game. Visitors from the big cities of the East and Midwest were not corrected when they thought the aging black woman cleaning their rooms, preparing and serving their meals was only the maid.
First, Elizabeth was edged out of the church circles of the Presbyterian Church she had helped to establish. Eventually, she was not even allowed to attend the church services.
Even during the worst years of the Depression, wealthy people from the East and Midwest had their own private train cars that were hooked to trains traveling to the West. It was possible to travel in great comfort from Cedar Rapids, Iowa to Arizona and California to escape the cold winters. Many of these winter visitors were looking for the activities found in larger cities. Fewer ordinary travelers stopped for a pleasant stay at the Vernetta. Her income greatly declined.
What made Elizabeth stay in a town where she was no longer regarded as valued member of the community? It could not have been poverty. At the time of her death, she had assets of $50,000. In 1935, this would have been more than enough to allow her to leave Wickenburg, relocate, and live comfortably without the embarrassment of being shunned on the street by people she had known for years. Perhaps she stayed because she still had the strong will that had given her the courage to come to the Arizona Territory in 1897. Perhaps she stayed because she still had the determination that allowed her to build a string of successful businesses. Or, perhaps she stayed because she had come to love the rocky skyline and beautiful sunsets in the place she had called home for almost forty years.
Elizabeth Hudson Smith died on March 25, 1935. Her obituary in the Hassayampa Sun praised her for her “many deeds of kindness to the community.” But the town barred her from being buried in what was now a whites only cemetery. Elizabeth’s body was put to rest in the Garcia Cemetery, along side the Mexicans, Indians, and Asians who had died in the community. Today, a statue of her stands there. Her beloved Vernetta Hotel is now the Hassayampa Building. She has been honored in Arizona Highways, the Territorial Women’s Memorial Rose Garden, and the Arizona Centennial Legacy Project’s, Arizona Women’s Heritage Trail. One wonders if that is also true of the people who made the choice to treat her as a person less worthy than themselves.
(source: Materials from Desert Cabelleros Western Museum, Wickenburg)
- What are some differences Elizabeth would have experienced in 1897 when she moved from Illinois to Wickenburg?
- In the late 19th century, it may have been easier for a black woman to become a successful businesswoman than it would have been for a white woman. Write reasons to agree or disagree with this statement.
- Create a role-play where people from this article give their point of view.
- Outline the changes in our society, which might cause some different outcomes in Elizabeth Hudson Smith’s story if it were happening today.