The fight for accurate Western history is about inclusion in the present


Politicians, pundits, and historians are engaged in fierce and growing debates about the impact of race and racism on American development and, more generally, the value of meaningful, honest history to democracy.

Black history and Black studies were central to these “history wars.” In January, Florida rejected a new Advanced Placement course in African-American Studies on the grounds that it violated state law and lacked educational value — just the latest salvo in this escalating fight. In some ways, the intensity and coordination of the attacks appear to be unprecedented.

But for historians of the North American West, this moment feels like a precedent. The West has always been the scene of bitter struggles over historical fact and popular mythology, and this is particularly true of the region’s long history of black people.

In fact, one of the most persistent myths about American history is that the stories of black westerners are mostly minor, odd novelties or detached from “authentic” regional western histories. In our popular culture, black history is often portrayed as peripheral to the development of the American West before the rise of Western cities in the mid-20th century. This version of the western past uniquely involves white settlers and their goals.

Paramount’s hit “Yellowstone,” starring Kevin Costner, and its prequels, “1883” and “1923,” are just a few examples of a popular Western narrative that perpetuates this myth. Even though the Black West has emerged as a vibrant subfield of study, its insights usually clash with these popular narratives. Too often, black westerners are simply ignored or reduced to small parts of the “real” western drama.

But that’s historically inaccurate, and in a time of resurgent mythologies and “history wars,” correcting our understanding is essential for a fully honest exploration of America’s past and a more inclusive society in the present.

Consider the remarkable history of Cheyenne, Wyo.

Within a few years of the city’s founding in 1867, hundreds of blacks settled there. Many came as Union Pacific Railroad employees or sought work as laborers in other industries. They created a vibrant social life, organized to secure social and political recognition, and set about imagining and building a future in the West.

Black Cheyenne residents participated in every aspect of middle-class life. Numerous political clubs took advantage of black access to elections — in Wyoming, black men could vote before the 15th Amendment under the Territorial Suffrage Act of 1867, and Wyoming black women were the first in the nation to gain the right to vote in 1869 won. Residents founded Wyoming’s first African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1876, and during the 1870s and 1880s the town boasted several affluent black-owned businesses, such as Barney Ford’s lavish Inter-Ocean Hotel.

Black settlers continued to arrive throughout the late 19th century, enduring lean years, economic panics, and ongoing racism from white residents. By 1900 Black Cheyenne was well established thanks to immigrants from the East, South and nearby Denver.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Cheyenne’s population declined as hopeful men who had arrived in 1899 to work on the expanding railroads faced a high cost of living and a weak local economy. By 1910, thousands of workers had moved on. Nonetheless, Cheyenne’s black population actually grew, buoyed by the strength of the relatively dense community and its small, black-owned businesses such as barber shops, grocery stores, and restaurants.

As economic conditions improved in the 1910s, wealthy black residents managed to buy land outside of the Black Quarter to the west of the city. For example, Albert Taylor, a successful barber, bought several lots north of the main black neighborhood and established an enclave that eventually came to be known as Taylorsville.

By 1910, Cheyenne had 726 black residents, the largest black population per capita in the Mountain West (nearly 7 percent). Still, it wasn’t the only unexpected western city with a thriving black population. Large black communities existed in Montana, Butte, Great Falls, and Helena. In Idaho, Utah, and Colorado, cities like Pocatello, Ogden, Boulder, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo enjoyed steady black growth well before the 1920s. Many more thrived in the Southwest and along the West Coast.

All of this happened decades before the Second Great Migration brought hundreds of thousands of black migrants west to war industry hubs like Oakland and Los Angeles – after which popular depictions of the west began to include black experiences more regularly.

But the stories of black communities that grew in the West well before World War II, including those in Cheyenne, remained hidden. Why?

As Black Cheyenne grew in the early 20th century, debate arose in local newspapers, classrooms, museums, archives, libraries, and historical societies in the region about popular depictions of the West, particularly in literature and later in film. In the inaugural 1923 issue of Wyoming’s State History Journal, white historian Philip Rollins insisted that “the public is taught that the pictures are inaccurate, that the average Western pioneer is a constructive citizen, an empire-builder, and not a ‘two-guns’ man.” ‘ was ‘ killer.” Similarly, he feared that the nation’s infatuation with the “Old West” as an area infested with bandits and renegade vigilantes would inevitably lure the “wrong people” to Wyoming.

In Cheyenne, such voices insisted that Hollywood producers and dime novel writers—Easterners who wouldn’t know their boys from a covered wagon—smeared the “real” history of the Wyoming settlers. To this end, they wrote dozens of local history textbooks and even produced elaborate historical plays and pageants to correct the records.

But their vision of Western history was also flawed. It excluded black settlers – their own neighbors – from history entirely, disregarding them and their ancestors as insignificant Actors in the history of the past.

But anyone who knew the truth about Wyoming history could see something more sinister in her insistence on prioritizing white experiences. Rollins worried about the “wrong type” of settlers at a time when African Americans were flocking to Cheyenne and helping to revitalize it in the 1910s. Other writings and accounts of the past also suggested that to be a part of Wyoming’s future, one must know and conform to its peaceful and productive history White settlers.

Excluding Black Wyomingits from Cheyenne history—even though it was home to one of the largest black communities in the West with deep historical roots—was a way of defining who belonged to the community and who had the right to claim space and power because of their history .

This case shows why it is important to tell the full story of our past. It’s not just about inserting black stories into narratives of the past they left out. It is about understanding that the struggles over our history—whose history is excluded and who shapes the narratives—are destined to shape our communities in the present. The Battle of Cheyenne in the 1920s was not about Wyoming’s past. It was about Wyoming’s present and who could claim membership in its civic and political fabric.

This is precisely why reinserting Black West history is about so much more than historical accuracy. It is a tool to reject exclusion in the present and empower Black Westerners to see themselves as belonging, while rejecting the harmful mythologies that implicitly argue they don’t.

Understanding how black settlements in places like Cheyenne came to fly under the radar helps explain the role race played in creating the enduring mythologies and other narratives that define who belongs to a community and nation “belongs”. The West has always been a place of contested historical memory. Black Cheyenne rejection therefore has a history.

This essay is the first in the Black Western Conversations series sponsored by Clara Luper Institute for African & African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, which highlights diverse regional histories across the United States.

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