The Color of Night
Max G. Geier
On an unusually cold January night in 1943, Martha James was murdered on a train in rural Oregon, near the Willamette Valley town of Albany. She was white, southern, and newly-married to a Navy pilot. Despite inconsistent and contradictory eyewitness accounts, a young black cook by the name of Robert Folkes, a trainman from South Central Los Angeles, was charged with the crime. The ensuing investigation and sensational murder trial captured national attention during a period of intense wartime fervor and extensive black domestic migration. Folkes’s trial and controversial conviction—resulting in his execution by the state of Oregon—reshaped how Oregonians and others in the West thought about race, class, and privilege.
In this deeply researched and detailed account, Geier explores the attitudes of local town-folk, law officers, and courtroom jurors toward black trainmen on the West Coast, at a time when militarization skewed perceptions of virtue, status, and authority. He delves into the working conditions and experiences of unionized black trainmen in their “home and away” lives in Los Angeles and Portland, while illuminating the different ways that they, and other residents of Oregon and southern California, responded to sensationalized reports of “Oregon’s murdered war bride.” Prosecutors, police, and reporters colluded, in Wartime, to stage the trial as a moralizing ritual for a public purpose that had little to do with justice.
The investigation, trial, and conviction of Robert Folkes galvanized civil rights activists, labor organizers, and community leaders into challenging the flawed judicial process and ultimately the death penalty in Oregon, serving as a catalyst for civil rights activism that bridged rural and urban divides. The Color of Night will appeal to “true crime” aficionados, and to anyone interested in the history of race and labor relations, working conditions, community priorities, and attitudes toward the death penalty in the first half of the 20th century.
About the author
Max G. Geier is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Western Oregon University, specializing in 19th and 20th century history with a focus on community development in the western U.S. and Canada. A native of rural Minnesota, he lived and worked for many years near downtown Los Angeles, where much of his book is set. He has written two previous books on the history of forest science research in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and is currently working on a study of John Ellis Wool’s role policing nineteenth-century borderlands conflicts. He lives in Seattle.
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"In The Color of Night, Max Geier weaves a fascinating and intricate tale of race, class, labor, and murder in the Pacific Northwest during World War II. Geier tells a compelling story that transports readers from rural Oregon to Portland to Los Angeles during the tense and highly charged wartime atmosphere. [I]t makes a real contribution to our understanding of race and labor in the wartime Pacific Northwest. Geier's book is an important and compelling exploration of race, class, and privilege in the wartime Northwest. Historians of race, labor, and the Pacific Northwest will find this book useful and stimulating." -- Robert Bauman, Oregon Historical Quarterly