Emma Arbuckle, a central figure in Chandler's black community for decades, wasn't Coy Payne's mother, but she acted like his mother. Payne, the city's first black mayor, recalls how "Miss Emma" once roped him into performing a funeral for a deceased indigent woman.
Payne protested that he wasn't a preacher.
She said, "You can read, can't you?"
Arbuckle, who helped lead the opposition to racial segregation at Chandler High School in the 1940s, was a community activist who supported the underdog, a dispenser of folk remedies, a midwife and an avid fisherman. If she said a defendant on trial was innocent of a crime, judges would be persuaded, Payne said.
"Probably through the force of her personality and her spirit, she became a neighborhood leader. I used to wonder, 'How did she get so much authority?'" he said. "She could not hold her tongue if she had something to say."
Arbuckle Park, at 1100 S. Norman Way on the south side of Pecos Road west of Gilbert Road, is named for her.
On April 4, Mayor Boyd Dunn and the City Council will unveil an interpretive history kiosk there celebrating Arbuckle's life and her contributions to the black community.
It's part of the city's History in Your Own Backyard program, now in its fifth year, said Jean Reynolds, Chandler public history coordinator.
Arbuckle Park is the seventh park to receive such a kiosk, at a cost of about $6,000.
Each kiosk celebrates the history of the neighborhood around it, as well as prominent families and Chandler figures, Reynolds said.
The one at Arbuckle Park also highlights the Hamstra, Ray and Willis families, who farmed the land or operated dairies in the area.
Chandler-Gilbert Community College is featured, as well.
LOOKING FOR LABOR
The city's first black resident, N.J. Harris, came to Chandler around 1912 and became chauffeur to city founder A.J. Chandler. Harris Park, at 150 E. Elgin St. on the southeast side of Arizona Avenue and Frye Road, also features a history kiosk.
Arbuckle arrived in 1937 from Oklahoma with her husband and five children looking to work the cotton fields. Her influence in the community would span nearly 40 years.
Her story is typical of black families who moved from Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas to Chandler looking for agricultural work at the behest of white farmers who needed laborers.
"They came to find the work they were accustomed to," said Payne, whose own family came to Chandler from Sulphur Springs, Texas, in 1942 to pick cotton. "The cotton industry was really at its height. They needed workers, so they encouraged blacks to move west."
Many settled southeast of downtown, in an area now bounded by Arizona Avenue, Frye Road, Kesler Lane and Delaware Street, Payne said.
"It was a place that was relegated to groups like blacks and Hispanics," he said. "That's where they could put up a tent or a shack and live."
CHANDLER HIGH SEGREGATED
Arbuckle's husband died soon after the family arrived, leaving her to raise five children by herself during segregation.
At the time, Chandler had an elementary and high school for white students, while black children had to attend the all-black Washington Elementary School in Mesa.
"There was no school in Chandler for blacks," Payne said.
Eventually, Chandler established a black school at Chandler Heights and Basha roads, with schooling up to the eighth grade, and only two teachers.
"One teacher had half the students and the other teacher had the other half," Payne said.
The school's first graduating class had 13 students, but Chandler High School did not accept blacks, so many went to work in the fields.
Those who continued on through high school had to attend the all-black Carver High School in Phoenix, Payne said. It was an hour bus ride and then a 30-minute walk to get to school, he said, while it took only 10 minutes to walk to Chandler High from the historic black neighborhood.
Leaders in the black community, like Arbuckle and Payne's father, petitioned the school board several times to allow black students to attend Chandler High, but their efforts were rebuffed. Payne said he recalls the words of one school board member.
"He said never in his lifetime will he see a black kid in the same class as his kids," Payne said.
But Arbuckle was not the type to let the issue drop, he said.
"She did not hesitate to stand before the decision makers of Chandler and express herself very well," he said.
Chandler High integrated in 1949, before federal mandates required it, Payne said.
Arbuckle's son and daughter were some of the first black students to attend the high school.
Chandler escaped much of the turbulence of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Payne said.
Arbuckle and others organized community meetings in minority neighborhoods to establish a better rapport between the city government and those communities. Those efforts led to paved streets, electricity, water and other public services to those neighborhoods.
"When you improve those kinds of things, then you improve relations between people," Payne said.
After the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Arbuckle was praised for her efforts to bring calm to the community by channeling the people's emotions into a solidarity march through downtown Chandler, according to Reynolds.
BLACK COMMUNITY TODAY
Arbuckle, who also helped to bring the first public housing project to Chandler, remained active until the late 1970s.
She was known to spend hours fishing on the canal banks with a woman fishing buddy.
"They spun a lot of philosophy on those canal banks," Payne said.
Arbuckle passed away in 1988 at the age of 85.
"She had a long life of service to the community," Payne said. "We were very fortunate to have a person like her in the midst of the shacks we lived in."
The first black member of the Chandler City Council was Zora Folley, a former boxer who in 1967 fought heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, Payne said.
Folley "got knocked out," he said.
Folley had been appointed to fill the remainder of the term for a council member who had died. Folley, in turn, died in office in 1972 after striking his head while diving into a swimming pool, Payne said.
Payne was the first black resident elected to the City Council in 1983 after serving as a teacher and assistant principal in the Chandler Unified School District for 30 years. He served two four-year terms on the council, and was elected mayor for two two-year terms, beginning in 1990.
His support came from a cross-section of the community.
"Chandler's black population was just 3 percent," Payne said. "I couldn't get elected by just the black population."
Over the years, Chandler's black population has grown to about 5 percent, but it's more dispersed, and less in touch with the city's roots, he said.
"We don't know our culture anymore," he said. "I think it's important to know from whence you came."
But on the upside, today's black community is more middle class, attracted by jobs in Chandler's technology sector. "They move where the jobs are, and they can get these jobs because they have the qualifications," Payne said.
The relationship between Chandler's black and Hispanic communities traditionally has been at arm's length, and to an extent remains so today.
"We might have felt toward each other that one is better than the other," he said. "I have always been a supporter of pulling blacks and Hispanics together," Payne said.