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AfriGeneas Western Frontier Forum

Organizing the Black West


June 2006

If the old game show, “Jeopardy” had a category for the African-American quotable, one of the questions might be, what is? “ Black people don’t have anything because they don’t know how to get along.” Most of us who have grown up in the African-American culture are familiar with that saying, but when examining African-American migration to the American West, this quotable falls to the challenge of “From Africa to the American West.” Whether it was railroad efforts to maintain a constant Black labor force as it moved west or Pap Singleton’s Exodusters, it appears that most of the migration and settlement of African Americans in the historic American West was an organized event. African-American settlement and mining companies were formed, benevolent societies like the African-American Prince Hall Masons organized newspapers and business ventures and the military as an organization was the vehicle for many through the Buffalo Soldiers. I’d like to discuss a few examples of how African-American organized actions resulted in early American West experiences. I‘ll begin with the Black towns.

The Tennessee Real Estate and Homestead Association is probably the most recognized organization in African-American history responsible for settlements in the West. Formed by “Pap” Singleton in 1869. Singleton originally intended to colonize in Tennessee, not the West, but adjusted his plans as resistance to all- Black towns in the South became harsher. Singleton personally took credit in 1881 in front of the U.S. Senate for steering over 7000, Blacks to Kansas. (

Nicodemus, Kansas is now a National Historic Landmark, accomplished with the support of Kansas’s presidential candidate Bob Dole. This town was also formed through deliberate organization of a White land developer named W.R. Hill and a Black Reverend named W.H. Smith, forming the Nicodemus Town Company. Though many of the early year narratives of town settlers sounds as if the town was doomed at inception, the settlers persevered and involved some of the biggest names in Black west settlements like Edwin Mc Cabe and “Pap” Singleton.

I chose this next town topic in Oklahoma because the author discusses an African-American cultural rift seldom talked about between Blacks who lived with Indians and those who did not. The difference between ex-slaves of Native Americans in the Indian territories and Blacks migrating into the territories from the states gave rise to a term addressing Blacks not from the Indian territories as “State Negroes.“ The town of Red Bird in Oklahoma was established as an all-Black town around the turn of the 19th and 20th century. Researcher Katherine Baber records that in the case of Red Bird, freed slaves of Native Americans and State Negroes were able to co-operate in the settlement of the town, the next excerpt explains:
“…The first two families credited for settling and building in Red Bird were the Barber and the Ruffin families. According to the census records, E. L. Barber, was born in Arkansas in 1875. Sources claim that he was a Southern Baptist minister, who came alone from Arkansas to Indian Territory sometime in the 1890s. He soon met and married LuLu Peters, a mixed Choctaw and Creek woman who lived across the Arkansas River from the site that would soon become the town of Red Bird. E. L. Barber helped form the Red Bird Investment Company in Muskogee, Oklahoma. It was the only company established by blacks to recruit black families to build in the town of Red Bird (Cook). Agents from the company traveled throughout Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas selling town lots (Johnson 2002) in Red Bird.”

Next I’d like to address the railroad and the military. These were clearly entities not run by African-Americans but had a great and deliberate impact on Black organizing in the West. That fact that Blacks were prohibited from joining White labor unions may have had some affect on the railroad’s decision to prefer Black laborers in an attempt to keep it‘s workforce union-free, but the railroads were heralded at one time as being the largest private employer of African-Americans. This next excerpt from an Amazon .com book review of “Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality by Eric Arnesen gives yet an earlier possible cause for the railroad to prefer Black laborers, slavery:

“…Early in their expansion, the railroads leased or owned slaves and contracted with southern states to use convicts as laborers. Arnesen shows that the "association of race and service proved remarkably strong and enduring" as the railroads persisted in using blacks exclusively as hard laborers or service workers. Arnesen recalls the fragmented efforts of black unions and men such as A. Philip Randolph to organize and fight the discriminatory treatment of the white unions as well as the railroad companies. Yet, the Pullman porter of earlier railroad history is also an enduring, positive figure in black history, for the porters worked in relatively well-paying, stable jobs, traveled the nation, and brought news about black people from around the country. Among those who worked as Pullman porters were Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes, and Roy Wilkins. Vanessa Bush.”
Another famous African-American porters was Nat Love, also known as former cowboy “Deadwood Dick.” who worked for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad around 1890.

The military downsized after the Civil War. The 24th and 25th infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry were but a fragment of the Black soldiers represented during the war. Black soldiers stationed at western forts were recruited from both newly freed slaves and free Black Civil War soldiers in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Arkansas and other regions. These recruitments brought Blacks into almost every corner of the American west.

Occasionally Buffalo soldiers had to engage in organized defense of themselves from American citizens. One such literary defense comes from a Private Thomas A. Ernest of the 24th infantry who wrote a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune in 1869 opposing the negative image the people in Utah had of Black soldiers who were to be stationed at Fort Douglas, Utah. The next excerpt is from Monroe Lee Billington’s “New Mexico’s Buffalo Soldiers - 1866-1900:”

“… There are as many gentlemen in the Twenty-fourth infantry as there are in any other regiment of like arm of service. The Twenty-fourth ranks as one of the cleanest, best drilled and best disciplined regiments in the United States Army…They are soldiers now, it is true, but they believe that they are engaged in an honorable calling. They have enlisted to uphold the honor and dignity of their country…
The Negro is known for his obedience to and respect for law and order, and we object to being classified as lawless barbarians.”
Billington, Monroe Lee. “New Mexico’s Buffalo Soldiers - 1866-1900” University of Colorado Press, 1991 (pg.186)

Mining companies were found in California and Arizona. The Horncut Mine and the Rare Ripe Gold and Silver Mining Company located in Brown's Valley were Black owned. Near Stockton, Mose Rodgers and other African-Americans owned several successful mining companies, including the Washington Mine Company formed in 1869.
This National Park Service article also discusses how Blacks were recruited to the California Lumber industry beginning in the 1920’s.

In 1912, J. W. Miller started the Afro-mining Company near Tucson, Arizona. This company had a mighty rise and a mighty fall, but in its day was supported by wealthy and influential African-Americans from throughout the country.
“The Negro of Tucson, Past and Present” by James Walter Yancy, 1933

Benevolent societies like The Prince Hall Masons, the African-American wing of the Freemasons, expanded into an international organization. Its earliest action in the Black community was to assist freed slaves and their families in the late 1700’s. Their presence in the West also focused on political and personal achievements of Black westerners. They started investment companies and newspapers from California to Kansas to Montana. Two Prince Hall Masons worthy of mention were Adolphus D. Griffin and James Pressley Ball. Adolphus D. Griffin (1868-1916) was a Prince Hall Mason whose publishing ventures stretched from the States of Washington, Oregon, and Kansas. James Pressely Ball, (1825-1904) was a renowned photographer from Ohio who photographed several events pertaining to the Black West in Montana and other territories. The Mason’s typically do not recruit people, but hope to gain followers by setting such a good example that admirers will ask to join them. Most people think of Watts or Oakland when they think of the Black West as communities, but places like Helena, Montana, Spokane, Washington, Portland, Oregon and Boise, Idaho also have old and established Black West histories largely do to the activities of organizations like the Prince Hall Masons.

Today’s aspects of African-American organization in the West are markedly different. Black fraternities still exist in the Universities of the West and entertainment industries like Death Row Records achieved values in the millions of dollars. Other African-Americans no longer see the need for race organizing as some institutions have become pro-active on the issue of diversity. Some early Black West pioneers probably didn’t need a flyer or recruitment to make the decision to head West, but many Black Westerners found their destinies as an open invitation on the cover of a flyer.
Thanks for reading, Allen L. Lee

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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