Monday, January 20, 2014

African Americans in Montana

Several instances of the presence of African Americans in the territory before the major gold rushes are known. William Clark’s slave, York, traveled with the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805–1806, Henry “Negro Henry” Mills worked for the American Fur Company in Fort Benton from the late 1850s, James Beckwourth was a well-known trapper of the 1820s and 1830s whose life has been the subject of some interest, and Isaiah Dorman served as a Sioux interpreter for the army who fell with Custer at Little Bighorn. Blacks also often worked on the steamboats that traveled widely up and down the Missouri River and docked at Fort Benton.

James Beckwourth. Photo courtesy Nevada Historical Society.
With Emancipation in 1865, African Americans realized new opportunities and joined the westward migrations. While small in numbers, these pioneers contributed significantly to their communities. In 1870, the federal census counted 183 black people in Montana. The number doubled in 1880, reached 1,490 in 1890, and peaked in 1910 at 1,834. Western blacks, many of whom carried the burden of slavery, tended to settle in Montana’s larger urban areas and founded communities within a sometimes hostile and discriminatory larger society. Against the backdrop of the Civil War, blacks often found themselves caught in the bitter struggle between Democrats and Republicans who in theory supported African American equality, but did so in varying degrees. School segregation, black suffrage (achieved in 1867), and anti-miscegenation laws were controversial racial issues in Montana’s early territorial period. Finding consolation and community together, black citizens often established their own churches, benevolent societies, newspapers, and social clubs.

The Montana Federation of Negro Women's Clubs meets in Butte, August 3, 1921.
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 96-25.2
Despite the proportionately small numbers, the 1870 census shows that blacks on the Montana frontier engaged in diverse occupations and mostly concentrated in towns, especially Fort Benton and Helena. More than half of males listed their occupation as laborers, domestics, servants, or cooks, and twenty-seven percent represented themselves as barbers. A smaller percentage proffered their occupation as ranch hands, cowboys, and miners, with one listed as a saloon keeper. A decade later in 1880, blacks still clustered in the larger communities of Helena and Butte where mining activities necessarily attracted service providers and laborers. Fort Benton’s African American population jumped from twenty in 1870 to fifty in 1880 because of the steamboat travel that brought in population from diverse places and because of the employment opportunities steamboats offered.

Canyon Hotel waiters, Yellowstone National Park, 1901. Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, H-4873.
African Americans who came to Montana in the nineteenth century include William Taylor, a teamster, Samuel Lewis, a highly successful Bozeman barber, John Gordon, a trained chef, and James Crump who worked as a miner. African American women also came to Montana with the first settlers and some assumed non-traditional roles. For example, sisters Parthenia Sneed and Minerva Coggswell ran a Virginia City restaurant, Sarah Bickford eventually owned the Virginia City Water Company, Mary Gordon owned a restaurant in White Sulphur Springs, and Mary Fields drove the stage and held the mail route between Cascade and St. Peter’s Mission.

Mary Fields. Photo courtesy Ursuline Convent Archives, Toledo, Ohio.
In an interview in 1979 for the Helena Independent Record, Norman Howard, grandson of James Crump, reflected on what it was like to be black in Montana. He believed that discrimination was tougher for blacks than for Indians. While Montana never posted signs for “Whites Only” as in the South, the same rules applied and most blacks found menial employment as waiters, janitors, and hotel workers. Blacks were excluded from restaurants, bars, and barber shops. By virtue of such exclusion, tightly knit black communities formed; however, as the civil rights movement brought changes for the better, these communities slowly disappeared. Maintaining a strong black community also proved difficult as the lack of job opportunities in the state drew second and third generation blacks elsewhere.
Although Montana has made small gains in the last decade, 2012 statistics show this ethnic group makes up only 0.6% of the state’s population compared to 13.1% nationally.

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