The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 3, Number 4, Pages 20-21
Fall, 1978

Emmett Hercules Holmes: Spokane's First Black Pioneer

By Joseph Franklin

Joseph Franklin is a freelance writer; he is working on a history of Blacks in the Northwest.

On July 7,1972 an event occurred in Mississippi that was to affect the city of Spokane and the state of Washington. The event was the birth of Emmett Hercules Holmes. The middle name he received was a harbinger of the many deeds that he was to perform in his career.

Mr. Holmes, who became an active member of the Spokane County Pioneer Society, could rightly claim the honor of being one of the first Black residents of the city of Spokane who contributed to its growth and stability during its early years.

The story begins when his mother, Helen Holmes, decided to move her family from the oppressive atmosphere of the Reconstructed South to the welcome opportunities that she felt would exist in the Northwest. The Holmes set out from Vicksburg, Mississippi and arrived in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the early part of July, 1888. Because the whole family had only $2.50 at one time Emmett decided to take things into his own hands by going to the station master with his references from a former job. (He had worked as a laborer for the Queen and Crescent railroad in Vicksburg, Mississippi) After reviewing his credentials, the ticket agent then got in touch with Emmett's former employer, a Mr. Charles S. Fee, who told the ticket agent to give the Holmes family passage to Spokane Falls, Washington, if they would leave their belongings with the ticket agent as a guarantee that they would pay him at a later date. After complying with the request, they then boarded the train and arrived in Spokane Falls on July 18,1888.

Emmett first found a job at the old grand hotel as a bellhop. His next job was as a porter in a saloon, then as a porter for the Seattle Lakeshore and Eastern, which was owned by A. M. Cannon, pioneer banker and one of the founding fathers of Spokane Falls.

During his early years in Spokane, Emmett worked in the construction of three of the railroads that played a part in the initial development of the city.

The first railroad he worked on was the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern, which was to link Seattle and Spokane. In 1889 he went to work on the Spokane Falls and Northern Railroad. Then in 1906 he participated in the construction of a line from Spokane to Eastport, Idaho.

During the intervening years Emmett also served as a butler for D. C. Corbin, a wealthy entrepreneur of Spokane. The friendship that began between those two men was to last for a lifetime and would reflect itself when Corbin died and left Emmett and his wife a pension for the rest of their life.

Besides being an excellent worker and able to get along with practically anybody, he was also careful not to let anybody abuse him for his color. For example, he instituted a civil rights suit against the Washington Water Power Company, which owned a restaurant in Natatorium Park, for their refusal to serve him. (The results of this suit are unknown.)

In the political arena, Holmes was an active person. At the early age of 16, he was involved in the John A. Logan Colored Republican Club of Spokane Falls, but ironically when he cast his first vote he elected to vote Democratic, which he did for the rest of his life. He was also elected Secretary of the Afro-American League when it was first organized in Spokane.

The political awareness of the Black pioneer began to payoff in the form of his first political appointment. In 1900, he was selected to serve as Deputy County Treasurer of Spokane County under George Mudgett, from 1900 to 1904. He then returned to the Corbins' employ in 1906 and worked for them for twelve years. Once again, however, in 1918 public duty called him under the administration of Governor Lister and Henry Drum, who was warden of the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, Washington. His assignment was identification officer at this penal institution. After this term of office he returned to the service of the Corbins for another decade. Then Governor Clarence D. Martin (1933-1941), a native of Spokane County, called him to serve as postmaster in the state House of Representatives and Senate. No doubt these appointments were made because of his ability to do a good job and get along with people.

Despite this constant political involvement he was elected grandmaster of Negro Masons of Washington, at Yakima in 1917. During his tenure there was extensive growth in Mason work in the Northwest.

He was a founder of the first African Methodist Episcopal church in Spokane and one of its first trustees. He also assisted with the inception of Calvary Baptist Church, and supported its early beginning.

Emmett Hercules Holmes died in 1948. During a lifetime of service to his fellow man, he had held with distinction more political offices than any other Black in Washington. He was a living example of how a person can succeed by hard work, perseverance, faith and the will to be successful despite the many obstacles that might bar the way.