Taylor will serve as president of the Western History Association from October 2010 to October 2011 in that organization’s 50th year. Representing more than 1,200 professional and amateur historians, the WHA is the third largest historical organization in the United States and one of the few to research, present and promote the history of the North American West. “Like many of its counterparts, the WHA is constantly evolving to meet the needs of scholars, researchers and the general public,” said Taylor. “Our 50th anniversary meeting in Oakland in 2011 will provide an opportunity to look back at the remarkable accomplishments of the organization…. Despite our differing backgrounds, we all share a deep affection for the region we call home. We also carry the awesome responsibility of helping to interpret that region and its history to the wider world.” Taylor recently took time to speak with Wild West.
‘I would love to see more histories that discuss the interactions—the cooperation, conflict and accommodation—between groups of color in the West’
What was life like for black women in the 19th-century West.
In most respects, the lives of African-American women in the West were similar to those of white women and probably Latino women, since all were “settlers” on the frontier in some regard. Native American women, of course, had occupied the region far longer than other groups, and they had a lifestyle wholly different. Nineteenth-century black women differed from most white or Latino women in most of the West in one regard—they were overwhelmingly urban in every state and territory except Texas, Indian/Oklahoma Territory and Kansas. Black women were also particularly concerned about civil rights and especially voting rights. Since Wyoming Territory was the first Western state or territory to grant women the right to vote in the post–Civil war period, black women in Wyoming were actually ahead of black women elsewhere in the region and the nation.
Black women had a breakthrough in the workforce during World War II, correct?
Yes, primarily in the workplace, when for the first time in Western history they had access to industrial jobs and were no longer relegated almost entirely to domestic service. One Los Angeles woman who worked in one of the city’s aircraft plants in 1945 said it best, “It was Hitler who got us out of white folks’ kitchens.” This work opportunity would have intended and unintended consequences. This work would provide far more household income, which in turn led to far more independence from domineering black husbands or white employers.
What accounted for the continued segregation in the workplace?
The entire United States remained a segregated society in World War II. The armed forces were segregated, the schools were segregated, people lived in segregated communities, and even the churches were segregated. It is not surprising that there were calls for segregated workplaces. What is surprising is the level of resistance to that segregation on the part of all workers. Part of this came from the national unity calls orchestrated by the federal government during World War II, but a larger part stemmed from changing attitudes, particularly on the part of white workers. By the end of World War II, a substantial minority of white workers for the first time joined with black workers and other workers of color to condemn workplace (and labor union) segregation. Their calls in this period, I believe, led directly to the eventually successful challenge of segregation throughout the nation and particularly in the South in the 1960s.
What explains the perception that the Pacific Northwest offered greater freedom to blacks than other regions?
Because virtually all perceptions are based in some degree on reality. Up through the 1960s, Washington and Oregon, and to a lesser extent Montana and Idaho, were much “freer” from anti-black prejudice than the Deep South. Blacks who migrated to the region, and especially to Oregon and Washington, did not have to worry about racially motivated lynchings. They could own land. They lived in integrated neighborhoods. In most places they could use public accommodations without fear of being turned away. Their children attended integrated schools. Most important, they could vote. Moreover, in Washington these rights were enshrined in the 1890 state constitution. This idea of freedom began to fade somewhat after World War II, as race relations in the South improved and as racial prejudice seemed to increase with the growth of the black population in this region. Black and white residents reported far more racial tension and far more incidents of racial discrimination in the Pacific Northwest after World War II than before the conflict.
What drew so many blacks to Texas?
The black migration to Texas in the late 19th century does at first glance appear strange. Texas probably had more anti-black violence during Reconstruction than any other state in the nation. Yet, during the same period Texas also had the most rapidly growing areas of cotton production. Thousands of black (and white) sharecroppers who were unable to own land in the Old South moved to Texas to work in its burgeoning agricultural economy, which by the way also drew thousands of workers north from Mexico. A smaller but still significant number of blacks moved to Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio, which even then were among the fastest growing cities in the Southwest.
And to the California Gold Rush?
Very few black miners struck it rich, but many were like Peter Brown, the miner from Missouri who wrote to his wife in 1851: “California is the best country in the world to make money. It is also the best place for black folks on the globe.” With those comments, Brown expressed an optimism rare at the time that African Americans would be allowed to prosper somewhere in the United States. This optimism was shared by many of the 4,000 blacks who came to California in the 1850s. In fact, by 1860 California had by far the wealthiest black population in North America. One of those people, Mary Ellen Pleasant, was one of the founders of the Bank of California and eventually became one the wealthiest women in the entire West. The optimism, however, was driven not only by economic prosperity but also by the ability of African Americans to challenge successfully for their rights in the 1860s and 1870s. While blacks were never completely free of racial bias in California or anywhere in the nation for that matter, certainly those who resided in the Golden State considered themselves luckier than most blacks across the nation.
How has black history evolved?
Some form of black history has existed in the United States ever since the people of African ancestry arrived in what is now the U.S. West from central Mexico in the 1530s or the first blacks landed at Jamestown, Va., in 1619. That history has been carried forward informally in the stories of individuals or communities. By the mid–19th century that history was for the first time being recorded in books widely circulated among African Americans. It was also reproduced in thousands of pageants and plays held regularly in black church basements or clubhouses across the nation. By the middle of the 20th century, the history was now recorded in dozens of volumes by professional historians, those who had advanced degrees from the most prestigious universities and who often taught at the same institutions. Their target audience was no longer just African American readers; they now wrote histories that would be as eagerly read in classrooms and coffee shops or over kitchen tables by folks in Waterloo, Iowa or Casper, Wyo., as by people in southern Georgia or New York’s Harlem. Today African-American history is one of the most popular subject areas for graduate students of all racial backgrounds who attend institutions as diverse as Yale or the University of Washington. At least 1,000 new books appear on the subject annually. It is also the subject of numerous articles in a broad array of magazines, including Wild West. Your interest in this article attests to the growing desire not just to know African-American history but to see how it fits in the wider world.
What stories remain to be told?
I don’t believe one can have or read too much history, but I will say we need more studies of black Western urbanites in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although Wyoming, for example, had buffalo soldiers and homesteaders, the history of the small communities in Cheyenne, Casper and Laramie have yet to be told. Those stories provide another dimension to black history in Wyoming. I think the same can be said of other Western states. Second, I would love to see more histories that discuss the interactions—the cooperation, conflict and accommodation—between groups of color in the West. For example, how did 19th- and 20th-century Native Americans in Wyoming interact with the small black population? What was the black reaction to the Chinese in Wyoming or later to the influx of Latino farm workers? Finally, we still know very little about gender in the region as it impacts black women. Did the experience of black women on the frontier differ significantly from that of men? Did black women find common cause with white women or Native American women in Wyoming and other Western states on specific issues? Did their racial attitudes vary from those of black men? I think these and similar questions should be explored in detail.
What is the HistoryLine Interactive History Project?
HistoryLink is an online encyclopedia for the state of Washington. Their mission is similar to that of BlackPast.org in that they want to make that historical data available to a broad audience that uses the Internet. I sit on the board of HistoryLink, and a number of our volunteer contributors also write for that Web site.
How did BlackPast.org start?
BackPast.org was officially launched on February 1, 2007. As of this writing, its 3,000-plus pages comprise the largest free online reference center on African-American history on the Internet. It features timelines, major speeches and links to major African-American newspapers, museums, genealogy Web sites and digital archives. The Web site’s seven bibliographies list more than 3,000 books. The heart of BlackPast.org, however, is the online encyclopedia, with over 2,500 entries that describe historical figures, events and places in African-American history. These entries were written by nearly 400 contributors from three continents. Many entries describe well-known individuals such as Harriett Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois, and President Barack Obama, but the site also profiles little known but significant people in African-American history such as Freedom’s Journal, the first African-American newspaper, Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler, the first African-American woman to receive a medical degree (New England Medical College, 1864) and Elijah Abel, the last 19th-century black priest in the Mormon Church.
You serve on the board of the Idaho Black History Museum. What drew you to that position?
First, I have some very good friends in Idaho who are quite persuasive. I was also drawn to the museum because Idaho has a relatively small African-American population, leading many people to quickly dismiss the state as having no African-American history. The leaders of the museum are out to remind Idahoans and others across the nation that such an assumption is incorrect. People of African ancestry have traversed or lived in Idaho since York first walked across its northern panhandle during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Few people probably know that Dr. Les Purce, currently the president of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., was two decades ago the first African-American mayor of Pocatello, Idaho, the second largest city in the state, or that his grandfather Tracy Thompson was a leading rodeo star there in the late 19th century. Idaho’s black history (and its historical museum) serves as a powerful reminder that African-American history exists in every Western state and, indeed, every state in the nation.
What areas of Western history deserve more study?
My comments here would be similar to those made regarding African-American history in the region. I’d like to see more urban history (few people realize that the West is the most urbanized region of the nation). I would certainly like to see more history that relates to gender, race and social class. I would also like to see more history that reflects on the momentous transformation taking place in the West as the old extractive economy gives way to technology and service-related industries. I think historians are often well positioned to provide the public with perspective on the changes and perhaps to allay fears that this transition represents the worst of times and a dire future. The West has experienced these transitions before and emerged even stronger. Historians of the region can remind the public of these past times as we chart a new roadmap into the future.