Wednesday, February 13, 2013

African Americans in Great Falls

Great Falls’ African American community and its prominent black citizens have amply contributed to the state’s history. African Americans established the Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1890. The small 40-member congregation raised funds door to door to build the current church in 1917. It became the religious and social heart of Great Falls’ black community. The church offered institutional support for those who took leading roles in the fight against segregation.

Union Bethel Church today. Photo courtesy State Historic Preservation Office.

In 1953, the Cascade County Community Council appointed a committee to study discrimination against black soldiers stationed at nearby Malmstrom Air Force Base. Although Montana had no Whites Only signs as there were in some places, blacks were not allowed in most businesses. An exception was Great Falls’ far-famed Ozark Club. From the 1940s until it burned in 1962, the Ozark Club was Montana’s only social club that employed integrated jazz bands and welcomed an interracial clientele. Great Falls’ black community made other important contributions. Among them, Alma Jacobs was elected the first black president of the Pacific Northwest Library Association in 1957. She was a founder of the Montana Committee for the Humanities, helped build the modern Great Falls Library, and became Montana’s State Librarian in 1974. Geraldine Travis of Great Falls was elected to the Montana House of Representatives, the first black person to serve in the legislature. Currently Great Falls has Montana’s largest African American population, partly because many black soldiers are stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base. And after a period of declining membership, the Union Bethel Church—listed in the National Register of Historic Places—is now a vital part of the interracial community.

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