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African Americans on the Great Plains

An Anthology

Bruce A. Glasrud

Publication Year: 2009

Until recently, histories of the American West gave little evidence of the presence—let alone importance—of African Americans in the unfolding of the western frontier. There might have been a mention of Estevan, slavery, or the Dred Scott decision, but the rich and varied experience of African Americans on the Great Plains went largely unnoted. This book, the first of its kind, supplies that critical missing chapter in American history.
Originally published over the span of twenty-five years in Great Plains Quarterly, the essays collected here describe the part African Americans played in the frontier army and as homesteaders, community builders, and activists. The authors address race relations, discrimination, and violence. They tell of the struggle for civil rights and against Jim Crow, and they examine African American cultural growth and contributions as well as economic and political aspects of black life on the Great Plains. From individuals such as “Pap” Singleton, Era Bell Thompson, Aaron Douglas, and Alphonso Trent; to incidents at Fort Hays, Brownsville, and Topeka; to defining moments in government, education, and the arts—this collection offers the first comprehensive overview of the black experience on the Plains.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii

We received considerable help in preparing and publishing this book, and for that assistance we wish to thank a number of people. We are grateful for the cooperation of the fourteen authors whose studies are featured here. Without their scholarship and abilities, of course, this book would not have been feasible. We acknowledge members...

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pp. 1-23

Prior to the late twentieth century, the predominant histories of the West and the Great Plains included little evidence of the presence of African Americans. Nevertheless, African Americans have a long history of living in the West and evidence of this could be found in the works of two pioneering historians: Kenneth...

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1. Black Soldiers at Fort Hays, Kansas, 1867–1869: A Study in Civilian and Military Violence

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pp. 24-46

Historians of the western army contend with many romanticized myths. Few of those myths, in recent years, have held the popular consciousness as has that of the army’s first black regulars, known as “buffalo soldiers.” By now, the origins of the segregated regiments are quite familiar. In 1866, with the nation’s...

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2. “Pap” Singleton’s Dunlap Colony: Relief Agencies and the Failure of a Black Settlement in Eastern Kansas

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pp. 47-70

So wrote the Topeka Daily Capital on October 19, 1882, describing the Dunlap Colony, one of more than a dozen “exoduster” settlements that blacks established in Kansas following the collapse of Reconstruction. In the 1880s the Dunlap Colony may have represented one of the best chances for blacks to succeed as yeoman...

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3. Vengeance without Justice, Injustice without Retribution: The Afro-American Council’s Struggle against Racial Violence

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pp. 71-102

"The Negro’s friend has dwindled to a Smith & Wesson pistol, a Repeating Rifle, 50 rounds of ammunition for each, a good, strong nerve, a lesson in good marksmanship, and then use.” That was the call from the editors of the Wichita Searchlight on January 19, 1901, just one week after the streets of Leavenworth, Kansas...

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4. Prelude to Brownsville: The Twenty-Fifth Infantry at Fort Niobrara, Nebraska, 1902–1906

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pp. 103-123

Around midnight on August 13, 1906, gunshots suddenly rang out on the deserted streets of Brownsville, Texas. Unknown parties indiscriminately fired at a number of private residences, severely wounding a police officer, and into a nearby saloon, killing a bartender and slightly wounding a patron. Apparently all...

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5. Black Enclaves of Violence: Race and Homicide in Great Plains Cities, 1890–1920

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pp. 124-143

These killings, occurring three years apart in Coffeyville, Kansas, offer bookend images of interracial homicides in the Great Plains. In the first shooting, Charles Vann, a black man and the victim, had been drinking at Walnut and Eleventh Streets in the “tenderloin” district, a black neighborhood in Coffeyville. This region, near the...

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6. A Socioeconomic Portrait of Prince Hall Masonry in Nebraska, 1900–1920

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pp. 144-161

On March 6, 1775, a British military lodge of Freemasons initiated Prince Hall (his name, not a title) and fourteen other African Americans after the white colonial lodge at Boston had rejected their petition. Independence did not alter the attitude of white American Masons; thus, a separate black Masons organization evolved. Hall secured...

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7. Diplomatic Racism: Canadian Government and Black Migration from Oklahoma, 1905–1912

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pp. 162-183

From the turn of the century until World War I, hundreds of thousands of American farmers migrated to western Canada. Not all of them were welcomed. Between 1905 and 1912, more than one thousand black men, women, and children joined the trek. They came mainly from Oklahoma, and they settled in Saskatchewan and...

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8. “This Strange White World”: Race and Place in Era Bell Thompson’s American Daughter

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pp. 184-203

Aboard a train heading out of Minneapolis toward frontier North Dakota, Era Bell Thompson in her autobiography American Daughter (1946) describes a landscape that grows steadily bleaker with each mile farther west: “Suddenly there was snow-miles and miles of dull, white snow, stretching out to meet the heavy, gray...

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9. The New Negro Arts and Letters Movement among Black University Students in the Midwest, 1914–1940

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pp. 204-232

The 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s were an exciting time for black artists and writers in the United States. Much of the historical literature highlights the so-called Harlem Renaissance or its successor, the Black Chicago Renaissance. Few studies, however, document the influence of these artistic movements outside major urban cities such...

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10. Great Plains Pragmatist: Aaron Douglas and the Art of Social Protest

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pp. 233-255

Like most of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, its leading visual artist, Aaron Douglas, was not himself a product of Harlem. Although Winold Reiss and Alain Locke were to guide Douglas in the development of his artistic vision once he arrived in Harlem, his early years in Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska gave rise...

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11. Frompin’ in the Great Plains: Listening and Dancing to the Jazz Orchestras of Alphonso Trent, 1925–1944

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pp. 256-272

During the 1920s and 1930s, dozens of African American dance bands of various sizes crisscrossed the Midwest and Southwest United States. These organizations are called “territory bands” by jazz historians because they typically maintained a city such as Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Omaha, or Tulsa as a home base, from which they...

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12. Early Civil Rights Activism in Topeka, Kansas, Prior to the 1954 Brown Case

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pp. 273-301

On an early spring day in the city of Topeka, Kansas, a father walked his child to their neighborhood school. His child was refused admission and was instructed to attend one reserved for “colored children.” The parent filed a lawsuit and sued the Topeka Board of Education, demanding that his child be received and instructed...

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13. The Great Plains Sit-In Movement, 1958–1960

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pp. 302-319

In 1960 black youths conducted a “sit-in” in Greensboro, North Carolina, to obtain the right to eat at a segregated lunch counter. Others quickly replicated sit-ins throughout the South and, just as quickly, the press labeled Greensboro the “first” sit-in. Historian David Levering Lewis, for instance, said: “There were not a few...

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14. The Omaha Gospel Complex in Historical Perspective

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pp. 320-338

In this article, I document the introduction and development of gospel music within the African-American Christian community of Omaha, Nebraska. The 116 predominantly black congregations in Omaha represent twenty-five percent of the churches in a city where African-Americans comprise thirteen percent of the overall...

Source Acknowledgments

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pp. 339-340

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 341-373


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pp. 375-378


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pp. 379-395

E-ISBN-13: 9780803226890
E-ISBN-10: 0803226896

Publication Year: 2009