Along a shady side walkway into Julia Davis Park, a 1920s-era wooden church with a steeple and stain-glassed windows along the sides stands ready to welcome visitors.
Except, this church isn’t open for worship services. It serves as the Idaho Black History Museum, a collection of exhibits and a meeting place for visitors to learn about the lives and history of Idaho’s tight-knit Black community and other social justice issues.
Over the years, the Idaho Black History Museum has featured exhibits on landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases blazing the trail for civil rights for all kinds of Americans, the first Black athletes at Boise State University, and the stain of the Klu Klux Klan’s legacy in Idaho.
Museum Executive Director Phillip Thompson pushed back on Idaho’s reputation as a bastion for white supremacy, noting Idaho’s history of integrating schools in 1871, decades before Brown vs. Board of Education, and no reports of lynchings.
Unlike other states, like the Jim Crow South, Thompson said Idaho’s attitudes toward freedom and hard work available for all in the early days of the state made it a place where the Black community could (largely) flourish without segregation.
“Not that it was a racial utopia, but the skillset to thrive here was more available to Blacks with things like mining and homesteading,” he said. “It’s no more complex than having avenues to giving people the skillsets to thrive in any given space. (Black Idahoans) were able to attain and were already equipped with those skillsets to thrive here.”
The museum is a family affair for Thompson. His great-great-grandfather, William Riley Hardy arrived in Boise in 1905 at a time when there were only 50 Black people in Ada County. Hardy later raised the walls of the church-turned museum on Broadway Avenue and started St. Paul’s Baptist, where he preached. The church landed a spot on the National Register for Historic Places in 1982 and served actively as a place of worship until the mid-1990s.
The congregation’s move to North 14th Street prompted questions about what to do with the historic church. Former Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, Thompson’s mother, and the other parishioners jumped into action to raise money to preserve the building and create the museum. It celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019.