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ELECTION: Was University Place's First Mayor African American?

Former City Councilwoman Lorna Smith says Stan Flemming is part African American, and Census data from the early 20th century proves it. The Pierce County Councilman says she is wrong and attributes the records to inaccurate racial data.

Call it University Place’s version of the birther debate.

Only this controversy has nothing to do with President Barack Obama. It’s about a former member of the University Place City Council who isn’t in office anymore.

And it involves his ethnicity, not his place of birth.

With two incumbents deciding not to seek re-election this year, Tuesday’s election will produce new faces on the University Place City Council. The race for Position No. 2 features council newcomers and both of whom are African American.

No matter who wins, University Place will get its first African American on the City Council dais. It’s a milestone that’s been highlighted by the on Patch and The News Tribune.

But one former University Place City Councilwoman says she’s convinced that voters have already elected a person of African American descent into office.

In fact, Lorna Smith says, he was University Place’s first mayor.

Smith claims that – an original City Councilman after UP’s incorporation in 1995 and former state legislator who now sits on the Pierce County Council – is of African American descent.

Only problem is Flemming - one of two finalists whom the Clinton administration considered for U.S. Surgeon General in 1995 - says he’s of Native American and East Indian descent. He was born on an Indian reservation. His family members never once indicated they were part black.

So how can a woman who isn’t related to Flemming claim that she knows his bloodline?

Well, Smith says, not only did she know his parents – Homer and Evelyn Flemming worked with her at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which was then called Fort Lewis – but records from the U.S. Census and the Kansas State Census Collection prove that Flemming is of African American descent.

According to records Smith says she obtained from the genealogical website Ancestry.com, Homer Flemming was born around 1919 in Kansas, to parents Frank and Josephine. His race, however, varies based on the document.

On the 1920 U.S. Census, his race was “mulatto.”

On the 1930 U.S. Census, it was “negro.”

On the Kansas State Census Collection, his race was “black.”

No matter which record you choose, she says, all three show that Stan Flemming is of African American descent.

“He was a very bright man,” Smith told Patch of Homer, whom state records show died in 2006, “as was Stan's mother, and Stan.”

“I know that Stan has a rich and diverse heritage, as do most Americans, however, he is part African American.”

But Stan Flemming says government documents from the early 1920’s don’t paint an accurate picture of his ethnicity.

The University Place resident insists that his father is of Native American descent.

“It is true, my mother was from India. My father, as it is shown on my birth certificate, his military documents and his death certificate, was Native American – Choctaw to be exact,” Flemming told Patch. “I’m not only from the reservation – the Rosebud to be exact - I’m Indian either way you slice it.”

Flemming added that to his understanding, the Census in the early part of the 20th century offered only three options to choose from as far as a person’s race – white, black and Chinese.

Patch did its own research on the U.S. Census site and found that the 1920 form, for example, offered more than three choices for a person’s race, including Indian and Japanese.

However, individuals didn't chose their race on the form – it was the enumerator, or counter who was filling out the form.

“The determination of race was based on the enumerator's impressions,” according to the Census Bureau.

So it’s possible that the counter mistook the elder Flemming’s race: “I had no idea that Census-takers were experts in identifying ethnicity, as Lorna alleges,” his son said.

But even after Patch presented Smith with Flemming’s explanation of the Census inaccuracy, she still appeared to have her doubts.

Smith said Flemming actually told her that he was African American and American Indian, which the Pierce County Councilman denies.

She also said that neither Homer Flemming nor his father are listed on U.S. Indian Census records between 1885 and 1940.

“Yes, Stan was born on an Indian reservation after his father took work there, but that doesn't make him an American Indian,” Smith said.

But Stan Flemming said that he grew up with his parents and knew them better than anyone else.

“I do hate to disappoint Lorna and her quest to make a point, but her facts are wrong,” he said. “If Kent Keel or Steve Smith are elected next week, they will become the first African American to serve on the City Council.  However, they will not be the first minority.”

So it appears that University Place’s birther debate has no definitive ending.

And whether UP gets its first African American on the City Council after Tuesday's election depends on whom you trust: government records or the word of the city’s first mayor.

Christie Anderson November 16, 2011 at 04:52 AM
As far as I'm concerned this is past....time to move on.
Stefanie Colbert-Stringfellow November 24, 2011 at 04:37 AM
The reality is that Jim Crow laws are alive and well in the US of A. African blood does not erase his status as an Indigenous person, nor does it "trump" his Native blood! He is what he claims to be and on Indian Reservations many Natives were classed as mulattos by ignorant census takers who felt they were too dark. This uppity woman should put her nose into her own business and heritage and stop meddling in the affairs of other people!
Christie Anderson November 24, 2011 at 07:15 AM
"The reality is that Jim Crow laws are alive and well in the US of A." Stephanie....what century are YOU living in? Jim Crow Laws?? What does that have to do with the fact that Former Mayor Lorna Smith was simply attempting to HONOR Former Mayor Stan Flemming by stating that he was the first person of African-American decent on the UP City Council based on information that HE himself gave her. If there was a misunderstanding, then that is what it is, a misunderstanding of the facts as told to her. You said "This uppity woman should put her nose into her own business and heritage and stop meddling in the affairs of other people!". I might say the same of you. Now get over it....this is now old news.
Sharon O'Hara November 26, 2011 at 07:25 PM
What isn't 'old news' is the current strong feelings of racial, ethnic and cultural conflict...or so it seems to me. "Uppity" is a word I've only seen written - never used in a conversation. Why?
Christie Anderson November 26, 2011 at 07:48 PM
Perhaps, it's because the word itself is "uppity", or mere that it is an archaic term used in a former century.

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