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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Another Elan Repost - Black Women of the Old West

Here's another Elan interview I did with William Katz, an authority on African-Americans in the west who at the time had written extensively on the subject. The topic was fascinating to me because I had never known about these extraordinary people and they were rarely or barely depicted in the media and movies, and when we did see them, they were basically stereotypes or just flat characters. We never got true depictions of these pioneers and what they contributed to the west, so I set about to overhaul the myths and get at the truth.

"If you believe people have no history worth mentioning, it is easy to believe they have no humanity worth defending."

This profound quote, featured prominantly on historian and author William Loren Katz's website, explains a little why we as African-Americans have had to fight so hard to prove our contributions to this country. It seems the only time we ever hear about African-Americans in history is during Black History Month in February. But our presence in America dates back to pre-Columbus days, and since then we have been present for every major event and war chronicled about America. Yet, when we look in the history books, there is barely a mention of us as contributors, as soldiers, as inventors, as builders.

This is truly the case when it comes to narratives about the Old West. Books and films have romanticized the stories of white adventure seekers setting out for lands unknown, daring to tame the wild west and make their fortunes. But Black men and women were there also, right beside them, staking their own claims, building their own communities, taming the west and making it the place it is today. Not only did the Black pioneers have to fight hostile lands and natives, but they also had to endure the racism they thought they had escaped fleeing the South.

Diane Fletcher lived with the Kiowa Nation

Thankfully, someone cared enough to set the record straight, to tell the tale of these brave and courageous African-Americans. Mr. Katz has written over 40 books on Blacks in America, including Black Women of the West. Elan was fortunate enough to catch up with him to ask a few questions. The exchange is below.

First, tell us how you became interested in the tale of the Old West from the perspective of African-Americans?

As a secondary school teacher for fourteen years in New York public schools I had been appalled by the omission of African-Americans -- except as willing slaves -- and knew from the books I had read in my home that this was a gross lie. When I found that Africans were among the earliest explorers and pathfinders, I felt an obligation to see this story enter the American mainstream because the pioneers are pictured as the quintessential citizens, and they are always shown as lily-white. Black Pioneers had to ride across the pages of textbooks and movies the way they rode across the prairies and scaled the mountains.

Of the many stories that you have researched about Blacks in the Old West, which ones stand out the most?

I have written about a half a dozen books on Black western heroes, women and men, and it is hard to pick out specific ones.

Do you know of cases where history books or the media have actually "whitewashed" Black historical figures, showing Black heroes or "sheroes" as White?

James Beckwourth was an African-American who became a famous mountain man and trapper on a par with Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and Daniel Boone, but was dropped from the pages of history though he discovered a famous pass through the Sierra Nevada range that was crucial to gold-seekers travelling to California during the Gold Rush. He also became a chief of the Crow Indian nation. But in 1951, when Hollywood made the technicolor western "Tomahawk", Beckwourth was there, but he was played by Jack Oakie, a white actor. Everyone learned Beckwourth was important but not that he was a man of color.

Barney Ford a runaway slave reached Colorado where he built hotels and other commercial establishments, fought for civil rights and became one of the richest men in the West. But when he appeared in history books of Colorado a picture of a white man was inserted to represent him. These are two of many other examples.

How and why did Black women come to settle in the Old West during the 1800s?

African-American women and men moved with each migration to the frontier, often in large family and friendship groups from the southern states. This was particularly important in that these groups provided support for Black women, and also meant that they had a ready-made community when they settled down and did not have to wait for people with special skills as did white communities. Some African-American women did go west alone such as Elvira Conley, an ex-slave, who settled in Marshall, Kansas, a shoot-im-up railroad town. She opened a laundry and (wisely) made friends with two of her best customers, Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill. This is only one story I detail in Black Women of the Old West.

Mary Davenport, early pioneer

Describe the relationship between Blacks and Native Americans in the West?

The relationship between people of African descent and Native American people is the vital third part of the American triangle, and my book Black Indians has opened a wide scholarly debate on the subject. They were allies, they intermarried and they were seen as deadly enemies by white colonists and governments. But they persisted, stood by one another and often developed their own alternative settlements beyond the European outposts that dotted the coastlines. It is an incredible story, too long to detail here, but well worth reading about and learning from.

Ute Kitty Cloud, wife of cow puncher

How did Black women survive the loneliness and oppressiveness of the West?

African-American women helped build homes, schools and churches and developed societies to help the indigent and ill in their communities. They built a social life that was quite strong and served them well in many places, particularly in all-Black towns of which the West had many. Oklahoma had more than thirty all-Black communities between 1890 and 1910, and women were the base of their power. They particularly focused on education so much so that in some Oklahoma towns the literacy rate for women between 16 and 40 was about 95% -- far greater than for white women in their communities. Once again this is a fascinating tale I go into in Black Women of the Old West.

Unidentified early Wyoming pioneer

In Black Women of the Old West, there are several other examples of extraordinary Black women including Biddy Mason and Stagecoach Mary Fields. Could you tell us a little about these women?

The African-American women who went west were an extraordinary group who saw themselves as an elite determined to see their families got their share of the American dream. Biddy Mason walked all the way to California from Mississippi, a slave in charge of the cattle behind her master's wagon caravan. Once in California she put up a legal fight, went to court, and won liberty for herself and her three daughters. In Los Angeles she saved and invested her money wisely and became a wealthy women -- but one who donated to charities for her people.

Mary Fields

Stagecoach Mary was a rootin'-tootin', gun-tottin' six-foot two-hundred pound woman who would not let anyone mess with her. In her sixties, she drove a stage-coach and delivered the U.S. mail in Missoula, Montana where the temperature in winter was always below freezing. She also ran a laundry, and one story goes dealt harshly with a white man who refused to pay his bill -- she knocked him out with a right cross to the jaw.

In the book, there is mention of a Black woman named Cathy Williams who disguised herself as a man and fought along with the famous Buffalo soldiers. What is her story?

Cathy Williams did join the U.S. Army after the Civil War in 1866 as William Cathy and served for two years, did what was required and was only discovered when she had to report to the base hospital for an injury in 1868. Then she was discharged, but few had a bad word to say about her as a soldier. More is still coming out about this daring woman, so stay tuned to the internet.

Just like their White counterparts, many Black women answered ads asking for mail order brides to relocate to the West. Tell us how this form of migration came about.

Mail order brides were quite necessary in the West for several reasons. Life was so hard and childbirth so unsanitary that many women died, and their husbands were left with families to care for when they also needed to make money. Both white and black western people used newspapers and churches in the east to recruit young women (of their own race) as brides and many a young woman boarded trains in Philadelphia, Boston and New York to marry some one who paid their one-way fare and they had never met. Some women were very young, barely teens, and married men old enough to be their fathers. I have some startling photographs of them in Black Women of the Old West -- startling because you can see how young they were and how frightened on their wedding day.

Eula Rose, early pioneer woman

In addition to your books, what other sources are out there that detail the lives of Blacks, particularly Black women, in the Old West?

At the end of each of my books I include a bibliography of other sources readers can use to trace specific individuals or movements that interest them. I began writing on this subject in the 1960s, but now others also have brought a great of information on the subject. It should become material for Hollywood movies, but let us see if this happens.

To read more information about William Loren Katz's books, visit his website at


Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 6/19/2007 06:47:00 PM Permanent Link     | | Home


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