The United States is one land that was discovered by explorers and settled on by almost every people of every color. The US’s population is largely composed of white people of Anglo Saxon origin, Black Americans and people of Hispanic origin.
People of African origin popularly referred to as African Americans have the most painful history about their arrival and eventual settlement in the US. Brought in as slaves from Africa, they faced many hurdles in their fight for survival and recognition as normal human beings in the face of brutal slavery, poverty and segregation (Savage, 1977, p. 2).
Slave labor was in demand and was widely utilized in the US. Large scale agricultural plantations like the corn, cotton and wheat belts required intensive human labor which was cheaply supplied by black people. Besides the agricultural southern states, labor was also requited in the industrial northern states which slaves supplied. There were also other household jobs and jobs in the military that African Americans did with little or no pay.
African Americans have been the subject of stereotypes that seek to explain their lives, activities and way of thinking. They range from the colonial and slave mentalities to media bias. However, some of them are due to the conduct of black people themselves in their personal and public lives (Savage, 1977, p. 7). In the west of the US, the situation is not very different. Black people carry the same negative stereotypes and positive accolades that characterize African Americans.
After the antislavery activism increased, black people migrated with ease and settled in all places in the US. However some areas like Washington D.C, New York and California recorded big migrant populations of black people. The west of US where California largely dominates has been the subject of many books detailing the history and development of the area.
However, most of the literature existing on the American West overlooks the contribution of the black community to the development of these areas. Their history, as well as their migration and their leadership are overlooked too (Savage, 1977, p. 1). The current study of the west by most scholars has largely excluded slave states. In the slave states, black contribution was more felt than the non slave states hence any analysis of the African Americans in the west must include them.
Migration to the west
African Americans and their migration to the West make up an important part of history of the making of the Old West. Most of the documented history is now resurfacing indicating the role African Americans played in the making of the West as it is known today (Savage, 1977, p. 5). Their participation in the Westward movement shows a determined people who wanted to move away form the hostile conditions that they were experiencing and also, a people seeking peaceful existence for their families.
Though African Americans migrated to the larger western US area, their numbers were not as many as they were on eastern side. Absence of staple crops and great distance from the center of black populations in the US discouraged a good number of Americans from making the journey westward.
States that lie to the West in the US include Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Missouri where black labor had contributed to considerable development and progress. These states make up part of the cotton kingdom where black presence was prominent.
They are part of the seventeen states that formed the Old West which was as a result of the Manifest Destiny (Savage, 1977, p. 2). The US government at the time was urging people to take up land and own homes in the new western states and African Americans saw it as a perfect chance to escape the harsh racist conditions they were subjected to in the South.
Black historians have therefore explored it intensively to shed light how it happened and the aftermath. According to Savage, any analysis of the west must include Texas whose black population contributed immensely to the cattle industry. It also includes Wisconsin and Minnesota who reported black populations from as early as 1840.
Migration to the west started after the year 1830 and the earliest census reports indicating black population in the West date from 1840. According to Savage many blacks moved to the West because of the Solace it accorded them. This is because some states had laws barring the introduction of slaves and the growing anti-slavery movements.
After the civil war, reconstruction began and during the time the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments took place which guaranteed African Americans freedom from slavery, right to citizenship and the right to vote. Southern states could not do without slave labor which led to bad treatment of freed black people (Savage, 1977, p. 2). The harsh conditions in the south greatly contributed to the westward migration of African Americans.
Researchers however are quick to point that the movement of black people to the West was by and large influenced by the westward movement in America. States with large populations happened to have big black populations indicating common factors in attracting migrant populations. Blacks also moved to the west looking for political, social and economic emancipation. Acquisition of land and starting businesses was easy for blacks in the period succeeding 1900 hence the surge in their population in the west the 20th century.
Many people in America including blacks moved to the west excited by its newness and eager to acquire land and improve their economic conditions. African Americans moved too both as slaves and freed slave laborers. The blacks proved their worth as cattlemen and protectors of their masters from hostile native tribes.
They farmed the land and produced enough food for themselves and their masters. Blacks could easily keep at bay hostile native Indians as they moved westward earning many of them freedom from their masters. Because owning property was a little easier, many black people acquired large land properties in the West especially in the city of Oklahoma (Sylvester, 2001).
In the West many of the now emancipated blacks would work as cattle drivers, miners, cooks, soldiers and fur traders. They would also work as unskilled laborers and service workers. Black women too worked as domestic servants, farm workers, seamstress school teachers, operators and nurses.
Creativity ensured black people survived in the West. They had to use their skills to make furniture and feed their families. They also had to make their own houses.
Close-knit black communities developed through sizable numbers of black people gathering to form their own general store, church, a mill factory a bank and a hotel. By 1920 the small communities had settled in over 50 towns where more political organization was born. One such town is Langston Oklahoma. In such towns blacks could easily vote, develop business and easily live in peace.
Prominent people in the West
The old west brought out all kinds of people who inspired and represented the black agenda in their territories (Sylvester, 2001). Many black people did daring acts that endeared them to their masters and the general population which somehow helped in fostering the belief that all people are equal.
Among the many prominent people was Bass Reeves. He was a US marshal assigned to the expansive Old West where he was to maintain law and order in an area infested by all kinds of outlaws. Though he was born a slave, he learnt to use arms in an early age and that came in handy when executing his duties as a US marshal.
Reeves, was apparently so good at his job that he was never wounded in his thirty year career. The position required tenacity and good skills all of which he demonstrated and in some instances did better than his masters. Though he wasn’t much of a leader, his exploits inspired and encouraged many blacks to hang on to their course in striving for better treatment. There were also women in the old West whose contribution to the wellbeing of the black community stands out.
Mary Ellen Pleasant
She was a free woman of color whose work in championing freedom of slaves is still revered. She presented numerous cases in Californian courts which she won and managed to gain compensation for numerous black people. She was also instrumental in helping many runaways escape from bondage (Sylvester, 2001). Her work to rescue slaves was widely acknowledged and often received unwavering support from both white and black populations.
Henry Ossian Flipper
He is one of the most celebrated blacks in the US military. Ossian Flipper was the first black commissioned officer in the regular US army and was the first black man to graduate from WestPoint College (Lutz & Tong, 2002, p. 83).
His immigration to the West and the connections that he had through his father, a successful businessman in the post war era helped him make history as the first black man from the west to achieve the above in the military. After he was dismissed from the military in the 1880’s, he pursued engineering and later became an editor for one of the leading white owned newspaper in the US.
Black people in the west went through a lot in the course of the westward migration that changed their view of the world and also changed them forever. The characters that they exhibit today are as a result of the adaptations they had to make to survive in the then harsh environment.
The artistic nature that they exhibit was born out of the creativity that they needed when they were deprived of any means of survival. Similarly, the lowly education status does not necessarily mean black people of the West or the entire US for that matter are generally lowly uneducated. Some of the injustices they had to go through included denial by authorities of the same level of education that white people had.
However, the segregation and discrimination that existed at the time is not entirely to blame for the current condition of blacks in the west and US as a whole (Junne, 2000, p. 478). Many of them did carry for a long time (others still do) the mentality that the discrimination they underwent is to blame for their problems. To a considerable level however, black people squandered the chance to progress in the same speed as other minority groups in the US after the constitutional amendments.
The west by and large represent the situation of black people in the United States. While there may be a misrepresentation of facts about their situation, the old west can be summed as a crucially unjust environment with limited positives but a place where sheer determination and survival spirit thrived.
Junne, H.G. (2000). Blacks in the American West and beyond–America, Canada, and Mexico: A selectively Annotated Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Publishing.
Lutz, A.R. & Tong, B. (2002).The human tradition in the American West. NJ: Rowman & Littlefield
Sylvester, M. (2001). African Americans and the Old West. Retrieved 9 November 2010 from: http://www2.liu.edu/cwis/cwp/library/african/west/west.htm
Savage, S.W. (1977). Blacks in the West. Westport: Greenwood Publishing.