The Legacy of Black Pioneers
I saw a great exhibit on this subject at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg Florida recently. It told through contemporary quilts the stories of Black individuals and families who went west. I first learned that while these stories are seldom told they are plentiful. About 25% of cowboys, for example, were Black.
Four take-aways from the exhibit:
1. Quiltmaking makes for great story telling. Results1st calls attention to ways in which stories can be told to give them meaning beyond anecdote. This is a great way to do that. From the leader of Women of Color Quilters Network: Quilts and Quilt making are important to America and Black culture in particular, because the art from was historically one of the few mediums accessible to marginalized groups to tell their own story, to provide warmth to their families, and to empower them with a voice through cloth. These exhibit quilts were recently made as a form of history. They read with a presence that books or Kindle cannot.
2. The stories bring hidden figures to view. An example in the exhibit is York, the Black slave of William Clark. He interpreted and negotiated with the Native American tribes the Lewis and Clark expeditions encountered, most of whom had never seen a Black person. While he was invaluable, as a person of color he could not be included in Lewis’ final report to President Jefferson. As a slave he was not eligible for money or a land grant. His freedom came much later. Who knew? Historians have made York at best a footnote. Like the movie “Hidden Figures”, great talent from persons of color was so often kept behind the curtain.
3. More stories are about women as men. They were “cowboys” storekeepers, miners, farmers, and everything else. Invariably they more than held their own and were largely accepted as equal. No one seemed to think as much about gender as about capability in these stories. Life seemed far more determined by what a person did and achieved than on gender considerations or perhaps even awareness.
4. In many of the experiences, hardship both preceded and prompted success. Biddy Mason walked more than 2,000 miles from Mississippi to California along an ox-drawn wagon. In 1856 a California judge ruled that She and her daughters were “free forever.” She worked as a midwife, saving her money to buy real estate in what is now Los Angeles. She became very wealthy and founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Some focused on owning land, noting that this was a long-held dream. Others used a skill such as typesetting, horse-breaking, and mining that they honed with the help of mentors. Mattie Bost Bell Castner is one quilt. She was born a slave in North Carolina in 1848. She worked in St. Louis as a nanny and hotel maid until the Emancipation proclamation. She traveled to Ft. Benton, Montana and founded a successful laundry. In many such stories, the pioneers did not have a business plan, capital, or market studies. They simply observed a need that they knew how to meet with their own skills.
5. Most of the Black pioneers of both genders took major steps to help others. A number of the stories told in quilts reflected how Black pioneers used their wealth, inventions, or situations to help others in great need. The motivation seemed to come naturally from relationship and understanding that they had been there. Annie Box Neal was of Black and Cherokee descent. She owned with her husband the Mountain View Hotel in Oracle, Arizona which flourished into the 1920’s. She was considered a consummate host—not only for paying guests but for anyone who was hungry. She started a private school for those not likely to get an education and housed students at her hotel.
Sarah Breedlove headed west to Denver in 1905 with a dream to make and sell her own hair products. She was a self-made millionaire (a fortune then) who also wanted to uplift her race.
The conditioning from slavery had most Black women thinking their natural hair was unacceptable. While there was much push by white society to have Blacks assimilate after emancipation, so much focus fell on Black women’s hair texture and skin color. Sarah uplifted her race with pride in healthier scalps and hair in which women could take pride. This was her quest, not just a way to spend her money.
These and other wonderful passages are within the publication BLACK PIONEERS: Legacy in the American West by Carolyn L. Mazloomi, who organized the exhibit. It is published by the James Museum.
Results are conditioned by who we think is on the playing field. Visibility and accomplishment are very different.