Pioneers shaped East Valley's diverse story - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Voices

Pioneers shaped East Valley's diverse story

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Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at

Posted: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 12:45 pm | Updated: 2:42 pm, Tue Feb 21, 2012.

The sun shone magnificently through the trees at the Mesa City Cemetery last Saturday as I stood with Pat Pomeroy.

Why? I asked him. Why is it important?

"I think the community needs to know," he answered standing next to his great-grandfather and Mesa founder Francis Martin Pomeroy's new gravestone. "It's part of our history. They sacrificed in order to found a community."


I asked filmmaker Bruce Nelson the same question after viewing an early cut of the documentary he is producing on North Town, as Mesa's Washington Park-Escobedo neighborhood was once known. Why?

"If you weren't from here, you would not know that positive things came out of the area," he replied. "Black people actually contributed to the development and growth of Mesa. I want people to remember."


I started pestering Susie Ishikawa Sato's family to learn about her past at the suggestion of admirer and long-time Mesa resident Susan Tibshraeny.


"We had such a diverse community. And the hardships they went through during the war need to be remembered," she answered.

The Ishikawa family immigrated from Hiroshima, Japan and began farming in the Lehi section of Mesa shortly before Arizona was admitted to the union.

I visited Sato in her Lehi home in December, but I didn't stay long.

Age had taken its toll, shuttering the memory of the woman born in Mesa on Aug. 5, 1917, of the teen called "Peaches" by her Mesa High classmates and of the farm wife who reared her family then turned her intellect to Arizona and Mesa history.


So why is it important to know something about the past of the instant cities of the East Valley?

I know history mattered to Pat Pomeroy when he was introduced to me following a ceremony commemorating new plaques on Mesa's Heritage Wall on Main Street in front of City Hall.

He and his brother, former Mayor Wayne Pomeroy, spearheaded a family effort to place a new marker on Francis Martin Pomeroy's grave, but efforts to engage the media in their ceremony last week was generating little interest.

It is said there's nothing older than yesterday's news, and the Pomeroy story is a string of yesterdays going back 134 years.

Pomeroy was among the Mormon pioneers sent by Brigham Young to Arizona. The marker proudly identifies Pomeroy as a "Founder - City of Mesa."

Pomeroy died just four years after having settled in a place where the summer sun was oppressively hot and water scarce. I doubt that any of us can even imagine the hardships.

Francis Martin Pomeroy had three wives. One died in Utah, the other two outlived him and are buried in the Mesa cemetery.

Pat Pomeroy hopes the descendents of other Mormon founders of Mesa will follow his family's example with new cemetery markers.

He has a right to be proud. To this day, the city is indebted to the continuous community stewardship of members of the LDS church.

Bruce Nelson is proud, too, of his Mesa and African American heritage.

Alexander McPherson brought his wife and four children to Mesa in 1905 to become Mesa's first black family.

Others followed. Jeanett Lawrence, who grew up in the Washington Park neighborhood (bounded by Center on the west and University on the south), told me members of her family came to Mesa from Texas in a covered wagon in the early 1920s.

There were hardships once they got here. There was taunting, minstrel shows, and an annual celebration of the area's cotton farming wealth.

Nelson discovered in researching old newspaper clips the celebration was called King Kotton Karnival. KKK. Now that's in your face.

No wonder members of the old Washington Park-Escobedo neighborhood grew close.

One of the saddest moments in Nelson's documentary is when Brenda Gowdy talked about her experience leaving the all black Booker T. Washington elementary school for a predominantly white school.

No one would touch her, she said. The teacher would not come sit next to her. She was black and she was shunned.

I was relieved to find out that Jeanett Lawrence had a different experience.

I found Lawrence while I was scouting out Mount Calvary Baptist Church. According to the City of Mesa website, the black church traces its Mesa roots and ministry back 92 years

Lawrence also began her education at segregated Booker T. Washington School.

Integration took her to a predominantly white school where she fondly recalled Mrs. Sullivan, her first white teacher.

She said it wasn't until she was 18 or 19 that she experienced blatant racism when she was turned down in Mesa for a job because, "We don't hire you people."

She filed a complaint, the company relented and hired her to work at its Phoenix office.

We've all heard about the internment camps during World War II, but the 1920s were also tough times for Japanese immigrants.

Anti-Japanese immigrant mobs broke out in California. Arizona followed California in passing a law to prevent Japanese immigrants from owning land.

One way to get around the law was for their American-born children to own the land. And so in Mesa, Susie Sato's parents were helped by neighbor George Rogers.

According to a 1997 article in the "Journal of Arizona History," Rogers offered to purchase in the name of the Ishikawas' oldest son the land they were farming and act as guardian until their son came of age.

Susie Sato believes her family members were the only non-Mormons in the Lehi farming community. She told a researcher in 1997 that their Mormon neighbors were wonderful to them.

But the Great Depression had stirred white farmers elsewhere in Maricopa County who saw the Japanese farmers as competitors. Gun shots were fired. Japanese property was burned.

I asked Susie Sato's son, C.K. Sato, if he knew of any such attacks against his family.

He said he heard talk of cherry bombs being thrown at their house, but it ended with the death of Zedo Ishikawa in 1932.

Zedo was Susie Sato's brother and a star football player at Mesa High. An accidental gunshot wound ended his life on Sept. 22. But before he died he sent a message to his coach: "Go ahead and play the game tomorrow. Tell the boys to carry on..."

That's how "Carry On" became Mesa High's motto.

Susie Sato had married a Japanese American from California and probably would have stayed in California had war not broken out.

To avoid internment, an eight-months pregnant Susie Sato got on a train in March of 1942 and headed to Mesa to live on the family farm. Even then, the Mesa Police Department had to go to the FBI for permission for her to cross "the military zone" on the south side of Main St. so that she could deliver her baby at Southside Hospital.

Her return to Mesa turned out to be a good thing for Arizona. Sato will be remembered as someone who loved Arizona history. She worked 17 years on the Barry Goldwater collection at Arizona State University as a staff member and volunteered for another 10. She was also a volunteer board member of the Mesa Historical Society.

Pat Pomeroy said he doubts Mesa's founders could have imagined the city would become so large.

No doubt. But in one respect, that's created a challenge for today's New West pioneers.

Mesa and its neighboring East Valley cities to the south have grown into large cities fast - so fast that the spirit of community hasn't been able to catch up.

Will it? I hope so.

Is it important? If you've read this far, you know it is. And I know you've figured out that it's up to you to write a story of your own that will matter to our East Valley.

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