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AfriGeneas Western Frontier Forum

The Black West and Civil Rights

From Africa to the American West Nov. 2005

The Black West and Civil Rights

In an attempt to honor the loss of one of America's greatest bellwethers of Civil Rights, Rosa Parks, I'm writing this small piece on the West and Civil Rights. It's my belief that the American Civil War was not fought to preserve or eliminate slavery in the southeastern states, but to decide if the economic benefits of slavery would be extended into the American Western frontier. From Pottowatamie, Kansas to California's Constitutional Convention of 1849, this conflict was ten years in the making, millions of acres of land and millions of dollars in future earning was at stake by this decision and the international community played both sides of the conflict realizing what was at stake. Furthermore, Manifest Destiny had produced a breed of people who saw the opportunity of being rulers of their own new country and the vast western part of the continent was ideal real estate.

Prior to the Civil War, the argument over whether a state was free or slave was misleading in that several "free states" voted for Negro exclusion clauses. The status of African-Americans, former Mexican citizens, Native Americans, Asian and under-privileged White European immigrants became the hot button issue in the American West after the Civil War. Although the amendments adopted for freed slaves after the war provided some status for African-Americans, states and individuals often ignored federal statutes, and the ultimate collapse of reconstruction in the late 1870's is a testament to this fact. Just as there was African complicity in the slave trade, there was African-American complicity in racial segregation. Black companies were formed to create all-Black towns and universities with the support of liberal-minded Whites who admired the self-help philosophy of ex-slaves and Black activists. Thus Civil Rights was muddled between African-American calls for self-determination in their own communities and the movement for equal enfranchisement with the predominant White population. I've chosen three western states to demonstrate this event, California, Kansas, and, Wyoming.

In California there was an African-American woman known as the “Mother of Civil Rights” well before the birth of Rosa Parks. In fact, Mary Ellen Pleasant gained greater notoriety for doing something very similar to the deed Rosa Parks did when she refused to surrender her seat on a bus, this next excerpt from an article by Hank Donat of San Francisco explains:
Notorious SF: Mary Ellen Pleasant
"...In 1868, a full 83 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of the bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, Pleasant successfully sued the City after she was kicked off a streetcar for being black."
www.mistersf.com/notorious/notpleasant.htm

Mary Ellen Pleasant lived in San Francisco in the 1850's while American California was still struggling with African-American citizenship and the proposal that slavery be permitted south of Salinas, California. California had at least two towns started as African-American communities; one was Allensworth and the other Victorville. I also recall an attempt to establish an African-American University in California similar to Tuskegee, but activists felt they did not want to provide an excuse for exclusion of African-American students to the University of California if an African-American University were established.

Kansas is what I call a vortex for Civil Rights, not only in the West, but all of the U.S. The ironic link between Kansas and California deserves mention in the relationship between Mary Ellen Pleasant and Abolitionist John Brown. There is mounting evidence that suggests that Mary Ellen Pleasant, estimated to be worth millions in her days of Gold Rush, California, assisted in the planning and execution of John Browns insurrection at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.. To bring an association between old west Kansas and the days of Rosa Parks, The Kansas State Historical Society has an excellent article that can be visited at: (www.kshs.org/research/collections/documents/personalpapers/findingaids/brownvboard/BrownFi...). It addresses the school desegregation decision of Brown vs. Board of Ed, Topeka. What is less known about this famous court decision is that Kansas African-Americans had made several attempts to desegregate their schools using court cases that stretch back to the 1800’s. The Elijah Tinnon v. the Board of Education of Ottawa (1881) case began with a concerned parent in 1876. Seventy-eight years later and one year before Rosa Parks’ belligerence on the bus, the U.S. Supreme court decided for the nation what Kansas Civil Rights activists had been fighting for, desegregated schools.

I chose Wyoming, known as the “Equality State,” because of its early approval of Women's Rights. Wyoming is heralded as the first government in the world to grant female suffrage in 1869, certainly earlier than the Federal 19th amendment women’s right to vote in the 1920’s. This is one case where states rights worked as an advantage for an underprivileged population. It is noted that women's suffrage did not become an inter-racial idea in the U.S. until the 1960's. At the time of the passage of the 19th amendment, women activists resisted the participation of African-American women for fear powerful Southern White women would not agree to equality with African-American women.

Wyoming slipped in it's championing of Civil Rights in 1913 when it approved a miscegenation (race marriage restriction) law that wasn’t repealed until 1965. According to Carl V. Hallberg’s article “African-Americans in Wyoming,” Wyoming had several vibrant African-American communities in Casper, Cheyenne, Hanna, Laramie, Rawlins, Rock Springs, Sheridan, and Thermopolis. It’s residents including “...single men and women, families, miners, barbers, bartenders, cowboys, businessmen, railroaders and laborers of all kinds. Law-abiding individuals lived alongside criminals and the down and out. ...fraternal and social organizations included Masonic lodges and Elks clubs for men and a Southwestern Federation of Colored Women Clubs for women.”
www.wyomingcompanion.com/history/wchh5.html

Even though Wyoming was one of the last Western states to adopt Civil Rights as a policy, it had it’s activists who came from several ethnic backgrounds. An article by Kim Ibach and William Howard Moore titled, “ The Emerging Civil Rights Movement:
The 1957 Wyoming Public Accommodations Statute as a Case Study,” discusses how two men, one an Italian-American Democrat named Teno Roncalio and a Anglo-American named Dr. Francis Barrett, son of Republican U.S. Senator Frank A. Barrett, spearheaded the Wyoming Civil Rights movement after witnessing the expulsion of an African-American service man and his wife from a small cafe in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1954.

Since I’m on the topic of Women as Civil Rights leaders and also in tribute to Rosa Parks, I will close by pasting an excerpt from this article that discusses an incident where two African-American women were forced to withdraw their children from a beauty contest:

“...Meanwhile, jarring episodes of racial discrimination continued, revealing the ambivalence of white attitudes in the Equality State. In their sponsorship of a 1947 “beautiful baby” contest, the Women of the Moose in Casper apparently encouraged two African-American women to enter their small sons, but then reneged and asked the two mothers to withdraw their children from the competition. When the two women contacted the Rocky Mountain News about the incident and wrote to popular white singer Kate Smith, the Moose chapters and Casper veteran organizations issued an apology and attempted to shift blame onto their out-of-state contractor. One of the mothers, however, remembered being told by a representative of the Women of the Moose that some chapter members had objected to the entry of the black children in the competition. At the same time, it is clear that one African-American mother had obtained substantial grass roots support for her child from white members in her local Seventh Day Adventist church as well as from other white neighbors. Certainly a strain of racism existed in Casper lodge circles, but so did an element of community embarrassment over that racism.25”
http://uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/RobertsHistory/civil_rights_movement.htm.

What I find as a constant in race laws is that they are not always telling of the way people actually lived. Some peoples and institutions violated the rights of others, even when there were laws in place prohibiting it, and some peoples and institutions ignored race restriction laws, even at the risk of fines and imprisonment, for people of which they held affection. This last article also contains information of how some African-American Baptists in Wyoming refused to integrate with White Baptists for fear of losing their culture, demonstrating my position that sometimes the issue of Civil Rights was muddled by mutually agreed upon segregation in the West. When I discuss mutually agreed segregation, I usually add that Affirmative Action was the compromise to end this mutual agreement, each party sacrificed a little to reach a common goal, but I’ll leave that for another article.

Thanks for reading,

Allen L. Lee

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The Black West and Civil Rights

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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