2023 Spring Convocation Presentation
A Piece of History
Profiles of Several African American Students in Whitworth's History
Feb. 2, 2023
Dale E. Soden
Today's convocation, in conjunction with Black History Month, features several inspiring stories of African American students who have come to Whitworth and gone on to live remarkable lives. This is a small part of a larger project which has attempted to capture a larger number of stories of Black students at Whitworth. I have worked closely with Dr. Roberta Wilburn who has recently retired after serving as the longest serving African American professor/administrator in Whitworth's history. Dr. Wilburn has had a strong vision for documenting the experiences of Black students at Whitworth. The university owes her a great debt of thanks for her tireless work on behalf of marginalized students and her promotion of diversity on campus.
Ernie Tanner appears to have been the first African American to attend Whitworth. His parents moved to Tacoma in 1900 when Tanner was eleven years old. His mother was a nurse and his father a trapeze performer. In 1908, he enrolled at Whitworth, where he played football and baseball. According to the Oregonian newspaper, he was the first African American to play football for any college or university in the Pacific Northwest. In 1908, Tanner played a key role in what remains one of the biggest wins in Whitworth's athletics history when we defeated the University of Oregon, 16-10.
After attending Whitworth, Tanner went on to a spectacular career in the Negro Leagues in the Northwest and was labeled by some the "Black Jim Thorpe." And by another as the "greatest athlete ever developed in the Pacific Northwest."
Eventually Tanner became a leader in the International Longshoremen's Association and his great moment came during the 1934 Longshoreman's Strike. He was the only African American on the Tacoma strike committee. His role in Pacific Northwest Labor history led the University of Washington to name a building on its Tacoma campus the Ernest C. Tanner Labor and Ethnic Studies Center.[i]
Over the next fifty years, only a handful of African Americans attended Whitworth, but one who did was Frances Scott. Born in Spokane, Scott was the great-granddaughter of freed slaves. Raised by a single mother who was a trained nurse but could only find work as a cook or a maid, Scott experienced various expressions of racism during her years in Spokane. These included not being allowed to speak at her high school graduation even though she was the salutatorian. She began her college career at Spokane's Holy Names College, but had to leave after she got married. She matriculated at Whitworth and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in sociology under Professor Gus Schlauch by 1947. Fifteen years later she returned to earn a teaching certificate from Whitworth. She once said, "Whitworth gave this black woman an opportunity when it was far from commonplace. They gave it, I took it and I'm glad I did."[ii]
Scott ended up teaching English, German, sociology, and African American history for 31 years at Rogers High School. While teaching, she attended law school at Gonzaga and passed the bar exam in 1979. At the time, there were only 17 other African American women in the state who were licensed to practice law. in 2005 she was honored by Whitworth as a Distinguished Alumna. In 1988, she moved to the west side of the state of Washington, but could still be found as a keynote speaker at Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations. In 2021, the Spokane School District renamed Sheridan Elementary, Frances L. N. Scott Elementary in tribute to her life and work.[iii]
Another African American of note in Whitworth's history was Eugene Breckenridge. Born in Texarkana, Arkansas, Breckenridge served in the segregated Army during World War II as a master sergeant. After completing his college degree at the all-black West Virginia State College, he was accepted in the graduate program at Whitworth where he earned the distinction of being named Whitworth's outstanding student teacher in 1951. However, no school in Spokane would hire him simply because he was Black.
Breckenridge continued to stay in Spokane and worked as a window washer and head waiter at the Spokane Press Club. However, Breckenridge became involved in the Spokane chapter of the NAACP and his plight drew the attention of Spokane's most famous civil rights attorney, Carl Maxey. Maxey threatened a lawsuit through the NAACP. Rather than challenge the suit, the district hired Breckenridge in 1951 to teach math and English at Havermale Junior High School.
He thrived in the classroom, and by 1957, he was hired as a history teacher at Shadle Park High School. Breckenridge continued to be active in Spokane regarding racial justice issues. He gave hundreds of talks to local civic and church groups. In 1967, the Washington Education Association awarded him its first Educator-Citizen of the Year. In 1969, Whitworth awarded him an honorary doctorate. Toward the end of his career he moved to Tacoma and served as the assistant superintendent for affirmative action and community affairs where he implemented a plan for hiring minority candidates. Breckenridge was the Tacoma School District's highest-ranking Black administrator.'
Another extraordinary person who received a degree from Whitworth was David Casteal. Born in 1965, he grew up in the Deep South and experienced various forms of discrimination and racism. An outstanding athlete, Casteal ended up playing football at the University of Alabama. In one game he scored four touchdowns and was encouraged to declare for the NFL draft. However, Casteal decided that he wanted to become a teacher and wanted to live in a different part of the country. He chose the Pacific Northwest, applied to Whitworth and was accepted into the Master in Teaching program.
Once in Spokane, all did not go well. He was profiled repeatedly by the Spokane Police Department because he drove with Florida license plates. Gradually, police stopped harassing him, and he settled into his life first as a student at Whitworth and then as a sixth-grade teacher at Cooper Elementary in east Spokane where he has been for nearly 30 years. Over the years, David traveled during his summers several times to various counties in Africa and learned the art of African drumming. He has taught countless Cooper elementary students the art of African drumming, and for many years, he and his students performed at Northwest Arts festivals.
Truly a Renaissance man, Casteal completed a doctorate at Cappella University with a specialty in reading and also developed into a gifted actor. He performed in several productions including the Jackie Robinson story and most notably a one-man show entitled, York which was based on the life of the one enslaved individual on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Performed in many parts of the country, York was also shown off-Broadway in New York City.
Ginger Ewing attended Whitworth College between 1997 and 2001. In the twenty plus years since she graduated from Whitworth, Ginger has emerged as one of Spokane's recognized leaders for her work in the arts community and within the non-profit world. She has received numerous awards in recognition of her contributions. Ginger grew up in Cheney, Washington and came to Whitworth on a scholarship to play softball which she did for four years. She settled in as a history and biology double major.
After Whitworth, she studied forensic science in anticipation of going into the F.B.I. However, she changed directions and began to explore her passion for the arts as well as wanting to help Spokane develop into a community that would appeal to young people from diverse backgrounds. She began her career as Curator for Cultural Literacy at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture (MAC) where she initiated programs that reached new audiences. She helped develop an educational program for Indigenous students in the region.
In 2007, Ginger and her husband Luke Baumgartner founded the non-profit organization Terrain. The aim of Terrain is to provide "economic opportunity for the artists, makers and culture creators of the Inland Northwest." Terrain puts on large-scale events that bring artists and the public together. In 2019, the YWCA of the Inland Northwest recognized Ginger as one of their "Women of Achievement for Arts and Culture." In addition to putting on large-scale events, Ginger also mentors Black, Indigenous, and other artists of color through a state-wide mentorship program, sits on the Boards of Artist Trust, Whipsmart, Keep Music Live, and the Washington State Arts Commission, and is on the Advisory Committee for All in Washington.
Let me end with a quick recognition of our four African American trustees. They are all Whitworth graduates and all deserve significant recognition:
Walt Oliver graduated in 1967. Eventually, he became a senior vice president for General Dynamics and one of Whitworth's most successful graduates period. In 2008 he was name chairman of our board of trustees and honored in 2015 with the naming of Oliver dormitory.
Denice Randle graduated in 2007 and became a leading educator in the Tacoma School District and now serves as the Executive Director of the Peace Community Center. She joined the board in 2014.
Travis Downs graduated in 1985 and became a very successful attorney in San Diego and joined Whitworth's board in 2014.
Jocelyn Wilson also graduated in 2007 and went on to receive a medical degree and serves as a pediatric physician. She was appointed to the board in 2021.
All of them serve on Whitworth's board for three basic reasons: they believe in the mission of Whitworth, they appreciate how Whitworth made an impact on both their professional and personal lives, and they believe that Whitworth can continue to get better at becoming a place that celebrates its diversity as well as a place where all students can flourish and belong.
Dale E. Soden, Emeritus Professor of History
[i] Dale Soden, Ernie Tanner, BlackPast.org; Ty Phelen, "Ernie Tanner: Washington's Black Jim Thorpe" https://negroleagueshistory.com/ernie-tanner/
[ii] Whitworth profiles book https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2021/may/25/school-name-finalist-frances-scott-spokanes-first-/
[iii] Spokesman Review, May 25, 2021.