Days Past: Black Cherokee entrepreneur
The music floated in on a soft summer breeze. The two schoolteachers rocking on the porch of their Oracle home caught the refrain and smiled at each other. “That Annie sure knows how to throw a party.” “Sure does,” replied the other woman, whose foot was tapping along with the beat. “Never met a guest that didn’t enjoy himself.”
And enjoy is exactly what Annie Neal’s guests did at the Mountain View Hotel. In fact, they came from all over the world to enjoy Annie Neal’s hotel. It wasn’t only with dancing and music that Annie entertained. She offered horse rides along the Santa Catalina Mountain trails, shooting matches, races, dances and some of the finest food and wine available this side of California. Moreover, Annie’s hotel had been acclaimed “The Most Luxurious Hotel in the Southwest” by California newspapers.
Although the hotel offered guests such rare amenities as hot and cold running water, gold and black marble fireplaces, and indoor bathrooms, its popularity was due to Annie Neal.
Annie Neal, imposing at six feet tall, was part Cherokee and part Black, with a bit of white thrown in. Annie’s Cherokee mother, Hannah, fondly called her a “Cherokee Princess,” honoring the daughter she loved dearly. Willey and Hannah Box arrived in Tucson in 1879 when Annie was nine. Her parents sent her to St. Joseph’s Academy and it was there that Annie learned how to cook gourmet meals. Her love of music was encouraged and refined, and before she was out of her teens, she had two musical compositions published.
After several failed marriages Annie married family friend William Curly Neal. Curly and Annie were two of only 59 Blacks in Tucson, and part of a group of just 150 Black men and women in Arizona Territory. Curly had more than enough money to keep Annie in a grand style. He had made his fortune in freighting. He had a contract to supply wood to the smelters, deliver US mail and to haul ore and bullion from the mines and smelters to Tucson. Annie would sometimes ride shotgun on his wagon.
When he built the Mountain View Hotel, Annie really came into her own. Her extraordinary cooking skills, her love of music, and her congenial personality brought guests from as far away as China and Europe, and as near as California and the East Coast. Three Italian Countesses signed the register, two Russian Princes made the Mountain View their home and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was a frequent visitor. It was always good entertainment to watch Annie and Buffalo Bill face off in a shooting match. Invariably Annie won. She learned her shooting skills the hard way, on the frontier where, for many, a shot meant eat or go hungry, live or die.
Annie and Curly Neal had everything going for them in 1895 when the Mountain View Hotel opened to great acclaim. Forty years later, it was a different story. Curly was no longer rich, the Neals were shunned by the townspeople, and the Mountain View had become a ghost of itself. Contributing factors included the opening in 1929 of the luxurious Phoenix Biltmore Hotel, Curly’s stubbornness, and increasing discrimination against non-Whites. Annie’s gentle and generous heart, her talents in cooking and music, her sense of humor, and her delightful personality could not save the Mountain View. Annie was Black, and worse, she was Black and Indian.
Europeans and white Americans chose to look upon the Neals as inferiors. At best, they regarded them with condescending kindness; at worst they vilified them in word and deed.
Curly took to fighting it all by trying to use legal methods to regain his livelihood. Annie, ever gracious and somewhat unrealistic, used kindness. Neither worked and the Neals found their wealth disappearing. When Curly was killed in a freak accident in 1936, Annie struggled on. However, by 1950, the date of Annie’s death, the Mountain View was nothing more than a dilapidated structure, ridden with termites and sadly abandoned.
Annie is buried at Holy Hope in Tucson. Her gravestone reads merely, “Native American, Annie M. Neal, 1870-1950.” There is nothing there that tells the story of a beautiful, intelligent, regal Black Cherokee woman who successfully owned and ran the “Southwest’s most luxurious hotel” in a time when women were thought to be incapable of handling any business.
This article is a summary of a presentation that will be given by the author at the 13th annual Western History Symposium, to be held at the Prescott Centennial Center on August 6, 2016. For more information visit the Sharlot Hall Museum’s website at www.sharlot.org, or call 928-443-5580.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org).