Black Pioneers in Montana: The Stories You Didn’t Hear in School
June 19th we celebrate "Juneteenth" when African-Americans learned of their emancipation. I feel like many Montanans are painfully unaware of the history of black pioneers that came to our own state. Sure, you're probably familiar with Mary Fields, aka "Stagecoach Mary" who lived in the Cascade area from the 1890s to 1914 and was a strong woman who feared no man, but there are so many more.
Fans of Lewis and Clark's history are probably familiar with York, the young African American slave that made the Expedition journey through Montana in 1805. York's parents and siblings were slaves owned by Clark's parents, who gave York to William as his "manservant", wrote BlackPast.org. Few members of the Lewis and Clark party could swim... Young could, and Clark noted his swimming skills were quite helpful to the expedition.
Some Black Montana pioneers came to homestead or start businesses.
The 1870 census reported Montana's population at 20,595 of which just 183 were Black. The first Black mayor in Montana was likely a gentleman named E.T. Johnson, a barber by trade who arrived in Helena in the late 1860s, according to the Helena Weekly Herald, and won the election in 1870.
The Montana Historical Society shares the story of Charles "Smokey" Wilson who came to Bozeman in the 1860s and worked as a horse wrangler for Nelson Story, before serving as a Crow language interpreter in the US Army.
Interracial marriage was illegal in Montana until 1953.
According to the Montana Historical Society, the Montana legislature passed a bill in 1909 that made interracial marriage illegal. While not against the law, pre-1909, it was apparently not welcomed. The MHS noted that John Orr married an African American woman named Emma Wall in Glendive in 1893. It did not end well.
On their wedding night they were forcibly “alabastined” and “ebonized” by a mob, and given 24-hour notice to leave town.
The KKK came to Montana in 1921.
According to Kluxer Blues (Christine K. Erickson) the Klan reached a peak of 5,100 members in Montana, although they seemed to be more preoccupied with Irish Catholic immigrants in Butte, than Black pioneers in the Treasure State.
Racism in the workplace.
In 1942, the United States military stationed a battalion of Southern Black miner-soldiers (between 400 and 1,200 men) to Butte, to help mine copper for the war effort. 8,000 white employees walked off the job in protest, claiming that the Black miners created unsafe work conditions.
The construction of Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls the same year brought many African Americans to Montana, with many positive cultural impacts. The Ozark Club, owned by African American Leo LaMar was a popular establishment known for its live music, exotic dancing, and interracial crowd. It burned down in 1962 (source: Montana Historical Society).
If you have a moment, I encourage you to read the timeline of African American History in Montana. While it includes numerous tragedies, there are also many accounts of success and inspiration.
LOOK: 28 Modern Black History Makers & Moments