The Cowboy Bar and Racial Discrimination in Pocatello
In 1954, African Americans in Pocatello organized protests against racial discrimination. In response, the owner of the Cowboy Bar, which was located on this corner, placed a "white only" sign in his window. Signs like these were rare in Pocatello. Similar to other Northern communities, however, African Americans and other minorities were often made to feel unwelcome at white-owned restaurants and stores even when there were no signs or other explicit outward markers of Jim Crow. Following a state-wide campaign by a coalition of black, Asian, and Native American citizens, and with the strong backing of liberal whites, the state of Idaho passed a civil rights law in 1961--three years prior to the federal 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1963, this same coalition secured the passage of a resolution barring discrimination by employers. These laws and resolutions were an important step towards challenging the attitudes and preconceptions of minorities expressed by this sign and other manifestations of racial prejudice.
Backstory and Context
African Americans represented just one-fifth of one percent of Idaho's overall population throughout the 20th century. In Pocatello, the African American population ranged from 1.5% to 2%-a relatively small number but a significant proportion of the state's black population. This small black population made segregated schools impractical and the state ended racial segregation in school in 1873-a reflection of the Republican Party's gradual movement against racial segregation following the Civil War. Of course, the state law also reflected the impracticality and financial burden of trying to maintain separate schools in cities and towns that only had a handful of black families.
In the early 1900s, a small number of Pocatello businesses displayed "white only" signs outside their restaurant. In the wake of World War I, African American veterans organized protests against segregation in many northern cities. In 1919, several men from Pocatello’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church entered the Louvre Café and attempted to be served despite that businesses' policy of racial segregation. The men sued the restaurant for discrimination, but failed to win their case.
In many cities during the 1920s--a decade that saw great hostility against immigrants and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan--a number of rural black families in Idaho were driven from homes and farms. In general, however, racial discrimination was more subtle, with black families being made to understand that they would not be welcome in white neighborhoods.
Residents of Pocatello recalled that during the 1940s and early 1950s, there were many restaurants and other establishments throughout the city where African Americans were made to understand that they were not welcome. The city's YMCA maintained a "white only" policy until African Americans in Pocatello led a protest against the organization in 1952. While the handful of "white only" signs in Pocatello were removed by the mid-1950s, African American residents still understood that they lived in an informally segregated community.
Jill K. Gill, The Civil Rights Movement in Idaho, Blue Review, https://thebluereview.org/civil-rights-movement-idaho/ Address of former "Cowboy Bar" determined by unrelated article in the IdahoState Journal, December 14, 1954