The Black Pioneers of My Hometown I Never Learned About

They were an All-American family, and we never learned about them at school.

I grew up in Walla Walla, Washington.

It is a small town, in the middle of the Walla Walla Valley famous for onions, wine, and a desire to be left alone. I often jokingly call it “The Shire”. We love our remoteness from the big cities of Seattle and Spokane. The nearest “big city” is 45 minutes away, which is actually a group of three cities (the Tri-Cities). They are fancy. They have Olive Garden and Outback Steakhouse.

Walla Walla is one of those towns that gets shaken up when a new store opens on main street. We are very protective of main street and any big city nonsense that infiltrates the tight-knit community. In fact, I warmly recall my father lamenting about the opening of a cupcake shop in our downtown area, saying the town was becoming “too uppity.” My father ended up loving the cupcakes from that shop.

As a little Black girl in Walla Walla, I rarely saw other people like me with my skin tone. It wasn’t until about the eighth grade that I made my first Black friend. There were only a few people in town who could do Black hair. Needless to say, my childhood was a bit whitewashed. Including my knowledge of the region I grew up in.

In Washington State, you are taught Pacific Northwest history as part of the curriculum. In my 18 years of primary and secondary education, I only recall learning about one Black person who was part of Pacific Northwest history: York. He was a slave on the Lewis and Clark Expedition who traveled with them all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back. Other than York, I cannot recall learning about someone with my skin tone who contributed to my region’s history.

Now, as an older woman, I found myself wondering: Where were the Black people in Walla Walla’s history? Well, I just found some of them. So now, all of you must know about them.

Their names were America and Richard Bogle.

Richard Bogle was a Black immigrant from Jamaica. According to An Illustrated history of Walla Walla County, State of Washington, published in 1901, he “learned the trade of barber,” moving around California, Oregon, and Washington. According to author Kimberly Stowers Moreland’s book African Americans of Portland, “Due to racial barriers and black exclusion laws, the Bogles settled in eastern Washington…” Richard went onto help establish Walla Walla Savings and Loan Association.

Despite the difficult, racist attitudes of the times, Richard supported his people in their journey west. According to The Fort Walla Walla Museum, “Mr. Bogle often allowed African Americans who were temporarily in town to live in the rear of his shop, where they could keep warm and cook an occasional meal.” While knowledge of the Bogles is limited, what can be found about them paints a picture of a respected family that took an active role in the Walla Walla community.

America’s personal history is a bit more complex. We know she was born in Missouri and came west on the Oregon Trail. According to Brian W. Johnson, from what we know, she was born in 1844, but he notes that there is no definite record of who her father and mother were. Johnson also notes that amember of the Bogle family, Kathelyn/Kathryn (I am unable to determine correct spelling), who was interviewed for an oral history in 1974 allegedly stated that America was the child of one of the Waldo brothers. Another family member, Dick W. Bogle, reiterated this family story in 2009 in an interview with the Urban League of Portland: “My great-grandfather, also named Dick Bogle… he married America Waldo, daughter of the White slave owner Daniel Waldo, whose family had also arrived by wagon train.” In short, the Bogle family has within their family oral history a record of America’s ancestry.

However, some historians point to records that contradict the family’s statements. According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, Daniel did not have slaves after 1830 and he would have gone west before America’s birth in 1844.

Of course, the raging question is for many people is “Was Daniel Waldo her father?” On this note, I cannot give a clear answer. However, I would like to state my case for believing the family.

First, it is quite possible that America hid her true connections to the Waldo family, but told her children about their true ancestry. She was a Black woman, in Oregon, in the 1840s. If you know anything about Oregon’s history… it was not very welcoming to people with melanin. Revealing her (blood) connections to the Waldo family may have been something she felt endangered her and her family.

Second, although Daniel Waldo claimed to not have slaves by the 1840s does not mean he did not sire a child with a Black woman. Daniel Waldo had been a slave owner. It is not a far fetched idea that he would have been the father of a mixed child. And, as a white man, admitting to a mixed child may have been something that he felt damaged his reputation. After all, upon his moving to Oregon he did become a legislature member of the Provincial Government of Oregon. Could he have gained that position with public knowledge that he had fathered a mixed child?

As someone who has read countless former slave narratives, I find myself biting my lower lip in critic of the rather rosy portrayals of Daniel by other historians. When we talk about slave owners, we often look for the good ones, the decent ones. The ones that were “a product of their time”, but otherwise, good people, who treated their slaves well. As a black woman, this narrative always rubs me the wrong way. The reality is that slave owners were complex people, as all people are in history. They also happened to own other human beings.

One thing that does give me pause and make me look closely at the narratives of the Bogle family is how history tends to discount the narratives of Black people. Often times, these narratives are disregarded because we do not have the proper records to support family histories. This has to do, in large, with the fact that people tend to not record the accomplishments of Black people. We also tend to not ask Black people about their lives and make permanent records of them.

In short, I will state for the record that there are inconsistencies with the family’s stories and what historians say. However, I will also state my hesitancy to simply ignore the Bogle family narrative and records that have excluded America’s presence. If you know something, please reach out. I would love to know more.

With my part being said, I will admit that I found myself massively frustrated in researching the Bogle family because of this. Doing this project in the middle of a pandemic limited me to websites, online materials, and online archives. Another disadvantage was not being able to listen to the oral history of Kathelyn/Kathryn Bogle as it is currently archived at Washington State University. I hope someday, to dig more deeply into this family history.

As a former resident of Walla Walla, I wanted to learn more about the Bogles and their lives in Walla Walla. The Bogles went on to be very prosperous, owning a large ranch and raising a family. I am so curious about what their life was like. What was it like to live in the small frontier town as a Black family? Who were their friends? Did they go to church? If so, which one? The Bogles would have had such unique insights to frontier life. In addition, as a Black family, I am very curious how they integrated into a community where not everyone welcomed their presence. What schools did the children attend? How did America and Richard keep their family safe? As a someone raised there, who is Black, my heart broke thinking about their lives. I remember feeling so isolated in my childhood because no one looked like me. Was it the same for them? What was it like, for America, to raise Black children in a place where she may not have been allowed into restaurants?

I spent an afternoon learning about this family and it has only reinforced in me the importance of recording the histories of diverse communities.

Growing up in Walla Walla, I never saw an exhibit about the Bogles. We never learned about them in school, though I did learn quite a bit about the Whitmans, two white missionaries who were killed by members of the Cayuse tribe. My childhood education was filled with white experiences of the Pacific Northwest, and I feel sadness knowing that the Bogles were never given the spotlight they deserve by my hometown.

According to findagrave.com, Richard and America are buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Walla Walla, Washington. Just down the street from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church I attended as a child and not far from a public high school.

If you are in Walla Walla, Washington, and have some time, consider stopping by and saying hello to the Bogles: two Black pioneers and entrepreneurs who built a life of prosperity in a frontier town.

Sources:
Whitman University, Walla Walla Photographs Collections
The State of Black Oregon (Urban League of Portland)
Brian W. Johonson, America Waldo Bogle and the Question of her Ancestry
The State of Oregon
Kathelyn Bogle’s Oral History, located at Washington State University

Nikki Brueggeman writes about Black history, grief, and current events.

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