Three Changemakers Who Left Their Mark: Black Women Play a Significant Role in Flagstaff’s History Today | Sponsored
In the civil rights movement, reproductive justice, literature and the arts, politics and science, there is not a single area where black women have not had a lasting impact. In Flagstaff, where the following three women live or lived, each featured in the 2019 exhibit, “Resilience: Women in Flagstaff’s Past and Present”, the story is no different and it is important to highlight their role during both Black History Month and the year round.
“Resilience” was a collaboration between students at Northern Arizona University, the Martin Springer Institute, and the Northern Arizona Historical Society Pioneer Museum, among others.
In 1944, Shirley Sims’ father, mother, and three older siblings boarded a train in central Louisiana headed for Flagstaff. Sims, a longtime assistant pastor at First Missionary Baptist Church in Flagstaff, was unborn. His father, a lumber company worker in the small community of Rochelle, Louisiana, learned from an uncle that lumber workers in Arizona received higher wages than their southern counterparts. His father immediately found a job in Flagstaff.
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The family first moved in with the pastor of a local church on the south side of Flagstaff, Sims said. She was born the following year.
As she grew up, Flagstaff was still divided along racial lines, which a young Sims sought to disrupt in various ways. It was the 1960s, the American civil rights movement was gaining momentum.
As a student at the then isolated Dunbar School (now Murdoch Community Center), she witnessed discrimination. From a walkout she led at Flagstaff High School after the White Homecoming Queen’s parents refused to let her be paired with Black Homecoming King Moses Winsley, to a sit-in at a local restaurant.
“I’ve always been that person who would take a stand, for what’s right or for someone I felt unable to speak for themselves. It doesn’t matter what color. It’s just who I am,” Sims said .
Sims was only 14 when she and a group of young NAACP members walked into the El Charro Café at 409 S. San Francisco St.
At the time, in September 1960, the Mexican restaurant had a policy of not serving black customers, Sims said.
“So it came through the senior NAACP to use the youth,” she said, adding that they had all been given some money so they could order dinner.
The group of students who entered that day were not served.
“But because we initiated this, it came back to the NAACP and the resolution was [the restaurant’s owners] would fit in and allow African Americans to patronize the restaurant,” Sims said. “So it wasn’t a very difficult thing to accomplish, someone just had to stand up and say, ‘That’s not OK. “”
A photo of Joan Dorsey, American Airlines’ first black flight attendant, shows her in a pressed work uniform at the base of a large plane.
Dorsey grew up in the historically black neighborhood of Flagstaff in the 1940s, in the family home on O’Leary Street where his niece, former mayor Coral Evans, also grew up. Dorsey’s mother was a homemaker, and her father, like many other early black Flagstaff residents, worked at the Southwest Lumber Mill, which once stood on West Route 66.
Dorsey’s life, she said, was “wonderful” growing up in a neighborhood she remembered as diverse and community-driven. She, like Sims, attended Dunbar School and later studied at the University of Arizona, graduating in 1962.
Not only was Dorsey the first black flight attendant for American, but she was also the first to hold a supervisory position within the company.
“I was interviewed [for the job] five times. You know no one else has had to go back there so often. But I kept coming back and coming back,” she said.
“I think you have to be resilient, grow up as an African American woman, and ultimately decide what you want to do in life.”
Dorsey’s work has taken her all over the world. One particular job saw her working on the charter flight for Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s future vice president, for an entire campaign season. She and other flight attendants sat down with Johnson at his ranch, where she told him about her job.
Humphrey was one of the main authors of the Civil Rights Act, something that was constantly on Dorsey’s mind as she flew with him.
“He was fighting for equality, that was the message. And equality was a big deal and I was there too to pursue equality for everyone,” she said.
Dorsey retired from America in 1999.
Coral Evans joined the Flagstaff City Council in 2008, later running for mayor and winning in 2016.
The decision to enter politics was prompted by his fight to save the Dunbar School from demolition. Evans’ mother, among other family members, had been one of his students.
The city was to sell the building, but Evans, along with the Southside Community Association, fought to keep it standing. The push proved successful, and the school was renamed and renamed Murdoch Community Center, a location that now serves as a historic landmark and community gathering space. Dunbar School was desegregated in 1954.
“I grew up with Dunbar stories. Then when I heard the city was looking to sell it and tear it down, I knew we had to save it,” Evans said. “It’s part of the story. I grew up with an appreciation for that history, knowing where you came from, knowing not to make the same mistakes again.
Evans began her run for mayor the same year she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She decided not to go public with the news, but continued to campaign with a team of people who helped her juggle running for mayor and cancer treatment.
“I love my community and I think it’s such an honor to be able to represent them,” she said. “I love the way we come together when we have major issues, the conversations we have about the struggles and conflicts we have with our different values and how best to move past them.”
Evans currently works on Arizona Senator Mark Kelly’s transition team.