Recognizing Montana's African-Americans
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Posted by Hal Neumann (+10255) 16 years ago
Recognizing Montana's African-Americans


I'm going to post the entire article. Sorry about that . . . I know it's long. But sometimes the Tribune restricts access to it's archives.

Larry, if you feel this is violates "fair use" practices and will result in copyright problems for you, by all means delete it.
--Hal


"Projects Work To Record, Recognize History Of State's African-Americans"
By Karen Ogden
GREAT FALLS TRIBUNE
February 5, 2006 http://www.greatfallstrib...50302/1002

Blind at age 51, Edward Simms used his ears to enjoy his favorite sport.

In the crack of a bat and the roar of the crowd he could hear a high fly, a bunt, a foul.

Give him "a nice warm day, a seat in the bleachers and a fast team to oppose our boys and I'd rather attend a ball game than eat," Simms told a Great Falls Tribune reporter in 1911. One of Great Falls' early black entrepreneurs, he first came to Montana with a steamboat crew in 1873.

Remarkable as Simms' story was, it faded when he died, as did those of scores of other African-Americans who shaped Montana's history.

Now, as the nation observes Black History Month, the state is launching its first coordinated effort to collect their stories and preserve them for future generations.

"Our history, not only in this state, but in most places, was not captured," said Bob Harris, a Great Falls Air Force retiree who, along with local historian Ken Robison, is a driving force behind the project. "It's something that's rather late, but we need to do it."

Aided by a $14,000 legislative appropriation, the Montana Historical Society is kicking off a two-year project to gather and catalogue all of its resources linked to African-American history - now uncatalogued and scattered throughout its collections - in a searchable computer database.

The project will fill a gaping void of information about a people who, although they remain a small minority, made a lasting impression on Montana.

"We haven't done justice to our own history here," Robison said.

Uncharted territory

Harris got to know Robison while working on the Vinegar Jones cabin restoration project at Gibson Park.

A Chouteau County farm boy turned Navy captain, Robison pursued a master's degree in history from George Mason University in Washington D.C. after he retired.

He now applies his information-gathering skills - he worked for more than 25 years in Navy intelligence - to the history of Chouteau County, where he is a volunteer for Fort Benton's Overholser Historical Research Center.

As Robison dug into the lives of Chouteau County's pioneers, he ran across references to African-Americans at every turn.

Blacks, such as freed slave James Beckwourth, were among the early mountain men to explore Montana. Later, many African-Americans steamed up the Missouri as crewmen on riverboats.

The staff of Fort Benton's famous Grand Union hotel was black when it opened in November 1882, with the exception of three white supervisors, according to Robison.

The peak of Fort Benton's black community was in 1880, when more than 80 African-Americans lived there. Only three people identified themselves as black in the 2,000 census.

"Whether it was the fur trade or the Cow Island fight or the whiskey trade - any part of Fort Benton history - there were blacks participating," Robison said. "And yet I found almost nothing that had been written about those participants."

It was uncharted territory on Montana's frontier - a historian's dream.

So he and Harris put their heads together and brought the concept of a large-scale black history research project to the Montana Historical Society, which embraced the idea.

Joining Harris and Robison as citizen members of a project advisory committee is Alan Thompson, nephew of the late Alma Jacobs. She was the driving force behind the construction of the current Great Falls Public Library building, where she was head librarian. One of Montana's most prominent black leaders, she later served as the state librarian.

The legislative grant, from the Montana Cultural Trust, is only half of the $28,000 the Historical Society asked for.

But Kate Hampton, who is heading up the effort with the State Historic Preservation Office, said it's a good start "to really understand and put African-American history where it belongs in the pantheon of great Montana stories."

History at your fingertips

No one knows how many artifacts or how much information pertaining to black history the Montana Historical Society has in its archives.

Much of it is contained in books and state records that aren't coded to show that they're relevant.

The goal is to catalogue it in a searchable database.

"One day we hope to have a Web site dedicated to it through the Historical Society so people could put in key words and pull up images," Hampton said.

For example, a student could type in the keyword "women" to view a collection of ribbons given to members of the "Colored Women's Society."

Or they could search for "politics" and bring up a biographical sketch of William M. Morgan, who in 1894 was elected as a constable in Great Falls.

Robison's research shows Morgan to be the first African-American elected to public office in Montana.

He and Harris want the stories of local black leaders like Morgan and Simms to be taught in Great Falls classrooms, along with the likes of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.

Robison's independent research is available in a computer database at the Overholser Research Center in Fort Benton, although he hopes to one day link up to the historical society's Web site.

Harris hopes information or collections gleaned from the project can be shared with the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

The Smithsonian announced Tuesday that it had chosen a site to build the museum.

The state plans to hire a project coordinator this month who will finish a basic annotated bibliography of the state's materials by summer.

The bibliography will bolster grant applications to expand the project to libraries and historical society archives statewide.

"I'm hoping this will begin to reach out to other towns in Montana that had substantial early black communities like Helena, Butte, Miles City ... and have others do something there," Robison said.

Materials scarce

As the Historical Society project gets under way, Robison is combing newspaper archives, cemetery records and other documents in a similar effort for Cascade and Chouteau counties.

In cooperation with the Great Falls Genealogy Society, he is writing biographical sketches of African-Americans who lived in the Great Falls area up through 1920.

So far he's finished roughly 300 sketches and expects to submit 200 more in the next few weeks.

People tracing their family tree can access the list at the Genealogy Society office in Great Falls. The African-American sketches are part of a 20,000-name "Early Settlers of Great Falls"database for all early residents of Great Falls.

The work, at least for Montana, is pioneering.

To be sure, black history is not in the forefront of Montana's social consciousness.

In fact, Montana was among the last states to make Martin Luther King Day an official holiday in 1992, six years after it was declared a federal holiday.

Until now, one of the biggest efforts to catalogue and compile black history resources was by Alma Jacobs, the Great Falls Public Library founder.

Jacobs and her sister, Lucille Smith Thompson, created a bibliography of newspaper articles called "The Negro in Montana: 1800-1945."

Though the 23-page document is invaluable for researchers, it is only a start.

To this day it is the state Historical Society's only bibliography of black history resources.

"It was pretty devastating to find o
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Posted by Ken Robison (+14) 16 years ago
Hal, thanks so much for posting our article on black history. The kick-off of the Montana Black Heritage Survey project is an important step in building our knowledge of the participation of Black Americans in our early history. Do you know of anyone researching the black community at Miles City and Fort Keogh? I would like to hear from anyone doing work in this area. Your Milescity.com website is terrific!
Ken Robison [[email protected]]
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Posted by Hal Neumann (+10255) 16 years ago
Hi Ken,

I'm not aware much research done on the history of Montana's African-Americans being done at all. Perhaps someone in Miles knows if anyone there has been working on the topic there Research in this area seems to come and go in spurts across state.

I've a little bit of source material I've gathered on the topic over the years, email if you want and I'll send some of it your way. Or (shameless plug), consider joining The Montana History Discussion List - I posted some of this material there this past Friday.
http://groups.yahoo.com/g...a_History/

More shameless plugging - the list/group is open to anyone with an interest in Montana, its people and its past. It's by no means an "academic" group - it's just a bunch of folks with an interest in Montana history.

And yes, our kind and generous webmaster does a great service in making this site and these forums available.
--Hal
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Posted by Johnnie Lockett Thomas (+397) 16 years ago
Ken,

I have been researching and writing about both the Black population and the general population in Custer County Montana for more than 50 years.

My late husband's greatgrandparents (a white soldier at Fort Keogh and a Black maid for General Miles) were among the area's first arrivals. I live in Miles City where I am currently working on a long overdue book called "Buffalo Soldiers and Other Stories of Growing Up Black in Montana." I have a cache of 19th and early 20th century photographs and 1960-1985 interviews that are pure gold.All of my research is backed up with primary sources. I also have some primary source material on Mary Fields that is contrary to some of the non-scholarly 20th century Montana writings about her. Some of this material can be seen in our Range Riders Museum. I have consulted with a number of people who have an academic interest in the subject.

Good Luck to you on your venture.

Johnnie Lockett Thomas
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Posted by Ken Robison (+14) 16 years ago
Hi Johnnie,

So good to hear of your long interest and research into the black history (as well as broader history) of the Custer County area. Congratulations for your focus on primary sources and doing the hard, but rewarding work, of oral histories. I hope that as we are able to expand the Montana Black Heritage Resouces survey around the state you will be willing to help with the Custer County survey. I have found that photos and diaries or journals are especially scarce for pioneer blacks in Montana. The focus on Mary Fields has bothered me since it too often is done at the expense of attention to the many other early black Americans who may not have had the "mascot" flair of Mary Fields but have made greater contributions to their communities. I recently read a chapter on Mary Fields that is much the best article ever written about her. I'm traveling right now and don't have access to the book it appeared in, but if you'd like I will sent the refernce to you. This author used the St. Peter Mission records in the Ursuline Center archives in Great Falls to buid a much more balanced and sensible case about Mary and her life at both St. Peter and Cascade.

Ken
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Posted by Dona Stebbins (+820) 16 years ago
How nice when two friends meet! Ken is a wonderful asset to the historically minded here in Great Falls and has done a great deal to enlighten Great Falls residents, myself included.
Johnnie is a relatively new acquaintance of mine. I was fortunate enough to meet her during a brief visit to my old hometown last summer, and was so pleased with that opportunity.
Ken, I am pleased that you have found this forum. Johnnie, I am glad that you are still here! I thought that new love had stolen you away from us
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Posted by Hal Neumann (+10255) 16 years ago
It's great to learn that research is being done in this area of Montana's history. It's good to see that there will be more out there in the literature than just the four African-Americans who are usually associated with our state's history: York, with the Corps of Discovery; Edward Rose and Jim Beckwourth, the mountain men who were affiliated with the Crow Nation; and Mary Fields.

That being said, Ken I think it's great that you are working on more balanced and full presentation of Mary Fields' life.

Johnnie, the work you are doing sounds exciting and I very much look forward to reading your book when it comes out.

It's good that folks are working at giving a human face to the story and history of Montana's Black citizens - giving a face and voice to their story (to anyone's story for that matter) is what makes history come alive. It enables us to think of people as human beings and not abstracts.

One of the best sources I stumbled across for getting a glimpse of "faces'" and listening to "voices" are the three African-American owned newspapers that were published in Montana around the dawn of the 20th century:

- - The New Age, published in Butte, ca. 1902 - Publication Frequency: Weekly. Its masthead stated: "Published In The Interests Of The Colored People."
- - The Colored Citizen, published in Helena, ca. 1894 - - Publication Frequency: Weekly. Its masthead stated: "Devoted To The Interests Of Colored Americans."
- - The Montana Plaindealer, published in Helena between 1906 and 1911 - Publication Frequency: Weekly/Irregular. Its various mastheads stated: "We Unhesitatingly Subscribe To The Principles Of Republicanism and "A Complete Negro Newspaper."

All three are available on microfilm at the Mansfield Library, UM, Missoula; the Montana Historical Society, and quite possibly elsewhere. I believe the Plaindealer, might also be found in the library at MSU-Billings. A person sit down for a long, but interesting, afternoon and read through all of them cover to cover. Reading through these papers provides a glimpse into a part of Montana's history that has almost been lost. It's great to see that folks are working on preserving, documenting and making this history accessible.

JB Bass, the publisher of The Montana Plaindealer, was an outspoken advocate of the opportunities Montana offered to African-American at the dawn of the 20th century. He often penned editorials encouraging his readers to write to their friends and family in other states and urge them to move to Montana - a place where African-Americans could prosper. He and his wife, Charlotte, owned the Plaindealer - from what I can learn, they moved to Helena expressly for the purpose of starting up a paper. When they left Helena the paper ceased to exist. From the little I've learned about the Basses, Montana was the poorer for them having left the state.

The Basses owned and published The Plaindealer from 1906 until 1911.

Joseph Blackburn (JB) Bass was born in Jefferson City, Missouri, on August 2, 1863, he died in Los Angeles in 1934.

Charlotte Amanda Bass was born in Sumpter, South Carolina, on February 14, 1874, she died in Los Angeles in 1969.

JB Bass taught school in Jefferson City for seven years until 1894 when he went to work for the Topeka Call as a newspaperman. In 1896, Bass took over the Call and operated it as both owner and publisher. He sold the paper in 1898, it was renamed The Topeka Plain Dealer - Bass continued to work at the Plain Dealer until 1906 when he and Charlotte moved to Helena, Montana, to found The Montana Plaindealer.

From 1906 to 1911, The Montana Plaindealer served as the voice of Helena's African-American community. In fact, as the only African-American paper in the state, The Plaindealer served as a voice for the state's Black community. The JB and Charlotte played a large role in promoting the interest's of Montana's African-American citizens, campaigning against discrimination and for their community.

In 1911 Charlotte and JB moved left Helena and in 1913 arrived at in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angles in 1910. There they purchased and published the The California Eagle - Charlotte continued to published the Eagle long after JB's death in 1934. Together Charlotte and JB used the Eagle as a platform for to speak out on behalf of African-Americans. They combated the derogatory images rampant in D.W. Griffith's film, "Birth of a Nation"; discriminatory hiring practices on the part of Los Angeles municipal and county government; they were outspoken opponents of the Klu Klux Klan; decried and publicized acts of police brutality against the minority community; and campaigned against housing segregation.

Given her active role in the Civil Rights movement, Charlotte was, of course, branded a Communist and placed under FBI surveillance. And she was, of course, the subject of numerous death threats through her later life as she assumed a prominent role in politics and the Civil Rights movement. In 1952, she became the first African American woman to run for national office as the vice presidential candidate on the Progressive Party ticket. She died on April 12, 1969.
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Posted by Johnnie Lockett Thomas (+397) 16 years ago
Dona,

I return to Montana on the 4th of March. It's been a luxurious vacation, but I'm going crazy with too little to do. I am applying to return to the Montana Committee for the Humanities Speakers Bureau with "Big Nose" George, a current events piece related to post 911 and perhaps a piece on Mary Fields or the Black population in Montana.

As to the guy, I think I'll continue to make periodic visits and maintain my home spot here in Miles City. I'm hooked.

Johnnie
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Posted by Ted Schmidt (+63) 16 years ago
Back in the 1930s to 1950s era there was an African-American that worked at Ed Love's Ford here in Miles City. He was fondly known as "nigger" Bill. I believe his last name was Connor or something similar. He was a general handyman around the garage, doing anything that needed done from sweeping to driving wrecker. He had a brother Francis that also worked there at times. The last time I saw Bill was in Dec. of 1950 while I was in the US Air Force. Bill had a son that at the time was also in the Air Force and I recall how proud of him that he was. I think that Bill Jr. was in Korea at the time, and I was enroute to the west coast for shipment to the Far East, however never made it that far. Bill and I had a discussion about the "police action" taking place at the time. I was hoping that some one else remembers "Nigger" Bill and can add some of antics pulled by him and his brother. For the "younger" set the term "Nigger" was not as offensive as it is now, and I do not mean to be offensive as I considered the family to be a valuable asset to Miles City. I am not a native of Miles City, but rather grew up and lived in Garfield County. Ted Schmidt
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Posted by Hal Neumann (+10255) 16 years ago
>> For the "younger" set the term "Nigger" was not as offensive as it is now.

It was not as offensive offense to whom back then?
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Posted by William S. (+73) 16 years ago
I second that Hal. It probably was not as offensive to the person speaking the word back then, but was certainly as offensive, if not more so, to the person it was being spoken to. I would venture a guess that most people being insulted just didn't feel comfortable and powerful enough at that time to voice their displeasure.

A brief excerpt taken from an article written by Randall Kennedy, Professor of Law at Harvard University:

Leading etymologists believe that "nigger" was derived from an English word "neger" that was itself derived from "Negro", the Spanish word for black. Precisely when the term became a slur is unknown. We do know, however, that by early in the 19th century "nigger" had already become a familiar insult. In 1837, in The Condition of the Colored People of the United States; and the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them, Hosea Easton observed that "nigger" "is an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race.The term itself would be perfectly harmless were it used only to distinguish one class from another; but it is not used with that intent.it flows from the fountain of purpose to injure."

Some observers object even to reproducing historical artifacts, such as books or cartoons, that contain the term "nigger." This total, unbending objection to printing the word under any circumstance is by no means new. Writing in 1940 in his memoir The Big Sea, Langston Hughes remarked that "[t]he word nigger to colored people is like a red rag to a bull. Used rightly or wrongly, ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn't matter. Negroes do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic in its treatment of the basic problems of the race. Even though the book or play is written by a Negro, they still do not like it. The word nigger, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America."

This was all certainly before "Nigger" Bill in Miles City in 1950.
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Posted by Ted Schmidt (+63) 16 years ago
Hal,William S., as I am not a politician nor speaker, I find it a bit hard to get my thoughts across in the way I actually feel. I meant no offense to Bill or any other color, race, or creed. The word "nigger" was widely used in the west and this area as I was growing up. There were several negroes that had the term used as a reference to their color. I realize that it is now politically incorrect to use the term and hesitated to do so, but Bill was known to me and I believe most people in this area as "Nigger" Bill. This still doesn't answer my question, does anyone recall Bill when he worked at Ed Love's Ford garage. Ted Schmidt
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Posted by Hal Neumann (+10255) 16 years ago
Mr. Schmidt,

I spoke up because I have concerns when I see this word (and others like it) used in a gratuitous and egregious fashion. I did not speak up to give you a hard time.

Speaking generally and directed at no one in particular . . .

Yes, it is possible if one tries very, very hard to turn the use of this word (in certain settings) into an exercise in "political correctness" ran amok. But that doesn't mean that the bugaboo of "political correctness" should be used as an excuse to continue with past wrongs.

While it's true that we should not pretend that the word (and all that was associated with it) never existed. It's also true that we should not pretend that just because the word was at one time in (relatively) common use, it was acceptable and did not cause offense.

I do not advocate expunging the historical record of this word. I think it's important for us to recognize and remember the "darker" side of our history . . . just as I think it's important for us to cherish and celebrate the "bright" spots in our history.

I just think we need to take care when use certain words and to remember that not everyone's shared past and history is exactly the same.
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Posted by Johnnie Lockett Thomas (+397) 16 years ago
Mr. Schmidt,

I do not usually engage in dialogue with those who express such words and opinions as you recounted in your initial post, but I am not having a good day and I am bone weary of hearing "nigger" stories whether they come from you, our U.S. Senator or an occasional local. I am tired too of hearing the usual excuses for such bad behavior.

I found your comments both odious and factually erroneous.

1. Bill Conner did not tell you about his son "Bill" being in the Air Force. Bill Conner had no children.

2. Bill Conner did not talk to you in 1950 because Bill Conner was dead.

3. The only African-American from Miles City who was in the service in 1950 was a nephew of the dead Bill Conner. His name was William Broveaur Thomas, his father was in Miles City and nobody called him Bill. He was "Bunky."

I see no relevance between your posting and the subject of this forum "Recognizing Montana's African-Americans," but allow me to share some of the facts of this remarkable man's life.

Bunky Thomas went to California where he enlisted in the army with the hope of emulating his Great-great-grandfather Moses Hunter who served in the Civil War and for 18 years on the plains as a Buffalo Soldier. Bunky Thomas never got to Korea. After 2 years as an enlisted man, after OCS and jump school at Fort Benning Georgia he was discharged "for the convenience of the army" and reinstated as an airborn officer at Fort Campbell, KY and then as the only Black officer in the 350th Infantry Regiment of America's newly integrated army.

Bunky Thomas was a Miles City hero who was the subject of the infamous "Glendive" Incident. From the age of 13 he supported his disabled grandfather, his terminally ill sister (whom he sent to Nurse's School), his incorrigible younger brother and his paralyzed, multiple sclerosis stricken mother with a multitude of part-time jobs and, from the age of 16, by shoveling coal on the railroad at night while playing football, basketball, boxing, running track, being a top student, a member of the debate team, serving on the student council and being a friend to almost everybody.

He was an army hero to his men and his fellow officers, many of who remain friends. He was a hero to most of his 5500 employees. He was a hero to his children. As our son once confided to me, "You love your Mom, but you worship your Dad."

In the early days of his marriage, he worked a full-time job and 2 part-time jobs while earning his BA from Cal State LA. Later on, when he had reached the executive ranks in his company, his employer sent him to graduate school for his master's degree in public administration. When the Range Rider's Museum honored him in 1996 it was in recognition of a lifetime of heroic achievements.

William Broveaur Thomas was the ultimate gentleman, a scholar, a moral man, an ethical man. He was my husband, and my friend. He was the
great love of my life.

Sir, in spite of your prostestations to the contrary, I find your posts scurrilous and unwarranted.

Yours most respectfully,

Johnnie Lockett Thomas
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Posted by Hal Neumann (+10255) 16 years ago
For a while this morning I was beginning to regret having started this thread. But thanks to Mrs. Thomas the thread has come back to where it started - recognition of Montanans of African-American ancestry and their contributions to our state.

Thank you for sharing this with us.
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Posted by Bob L. (+5096) 16 years ago
Johnnie:

*Hug*

Bob
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Posted by Tucker Bolton (+3857) 16 years ago
Johnnie, welcome home, I've missed your face.
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Posted by Holly (+23) 16 years ago
[DELETED BY WEBMASTER]
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Posted by Dona Stebbins (+820) 16 years ago
Johnnie, what a beautiful and loving tribute to a remarkable man! It is nice to hear your eloquent voice and hear the story of your wonderful husband.
So glad you are back in MC.
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Posted by Hal Neumann (+10255) 16 years ago
"State To Examine History Of Blacks"
By Gazette News Services
BILLINGS GAZETTE
June 14, 2006
http://www.billingsgazett...blacks.txt
"HELENA -- The Montana Historical Society is beginning an effort to help chronicle the history of blacks in the state.

The "Identifying African-American History Resources Project," will identify African-American history material in the state and prepare that information for public access and use. . . ."
- - - - - - - -

Contact info:

Montana Historical Society
PO Box 201201
225 North Roberts
Helena MT 59620-1201
Phone: 406 444 2694 or 406 444 4710
http://www.his.state.mt.us/
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