AfriGeneas Western Frontier Forum
AfriAm History in the West
ESSAY: FIVE CENTURIES OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY IN THE WEST
Quintard Taylor - University of Washington
African American history in the American West comprises the systematic study of people of African ancestry in what are now the nineteen states of the United States on or west of the 100th meridian. This history emerged in the early 1500s with the Spanish-speaking explorers and settlers who moved north from what is now central Mexico. African American history in the West introduces the reader to the rich, diverse, complex ideas and values which black westerners have evolved over five centuries and supports our growing awareness of the existence of multiple historical traditions among African Americans in the United States.
Western African American history illuminates a number of particular historical themes including the presence of black women and men in settings atypical in most standard accounts of black life in America. They include Afro-Spanish settlement from Texas to California, slavery in the West, which followed patterns that differed from those of the antebellum South, black rural and urban settlement in the post-Civil War West, and the rise of African American urban communities and cultures in cities as diverse as Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle, and Honolulu.
While much of the scholarship which underlay this history appeared in the first decades of the 20th century, the vast majority of writing on the black West has evolved since the 1980s with a corresponding reconceptualization of regional history, which is generally called “The New Western History.” Since that history incorporated race, gender, and ethnicity for the first time as central themes, African American history has assumed an unprecedented importance in this scholarship. African American history in the West thus provides both new stories of black life in the United States and the lens through which we can better understand the entire black historical odyssey in America.