Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


There has long been an important African American presence in the Great Plains. African Americans were there in the early years of exploration, through the conflicts over slavery in Kansas, on the cattle drives, and in the celebrated black frontier regiments. As "Exodusters" they were part of the pioneer settlement of the region, and in the twentieth century they moved to new urban frontiers in Plains cities. As elsewhere in the country, African Americans have been victimized on the Plains, most drastically in the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. But the Great Plains has also seen some of their greatest triumphs, such as the victory in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, which set in process the desegregation of schools. African Americans' triumphs have also been expressed in the people–Malcolm X, Gordon Parks, and Charlie Parker, to mention only a few–who have risen from the Great Plains to make their mark on history.


African Americans were not a major presence in the Great Plains until after the end of Reconstruction in 1877, but that does not mean they played an insignificant role in shaping the early history of the region. As early as the 1530s Esteban (Estevanico), an African slave, was a member of the ill-fated expedition of Cabeza de Vaca across the Texas plains. From 1804 to 1806, York, William Clark's slave, was part of the celebrated Lewis and Clark expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific and back. The fur trapper Jim Beckwourth, son of a Virginia plantation owner and a slave woman, first crossed the Great Plains in 1824 heading for the beaver streams of the Rocky Mountains. Beckwourth spent the remaining forty-two years of his life in the Great Plains and elsewhere in the West, living as a trapper, adopted Crow Indian, and guide. Edward Rose was also an African American fur trapper. Rose first went up the Missouri River in 1807, and he remained a key figure in the fur trade until his death at the hands of Arikaras in 1832.

"Aunt" Clara Brown was another African American pioneer. Brown was born a slave in Virginia around 1800 and lived as a slave in Kentucky until she bought her freedom in 1857. Two years later she joined a wagon train of gold prospectors and headed to Denver, where she opened a laundry and established a Sunday school. She was also instrumental in bringing other African Americans to Denver and establishing one of the first black communities on the Plains.

Bleeding Kansas

Still, there were few African Americans, slave or free, in the Great Plains at the onset of the Civil War. Nebraska, for example, reported eighty-two African Americans in 1860, mainly free, and an 1856 count in Kansas listed 400 African American slaves. Despite these relatively small numbers, slavery was the crucial conflict in the initial development of these territories. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act was intended to be a compromise between southern and northern interests, leaving the population of each territory to vote to permit, or prohibit, slavery. But by allowing the extension of slavery to be decided by a few thousand voters at the eastern edge of the Great Plains, Congress upset the balance between North and South and precipitated the Civil War.

The conflict centered on Kansas. Many of the early residents were from the Midwest. They were antislavery Free Soilers, but they were often also antiblack; they wanted neither enslaved nor free African Americans in their prospective state. They were mobilized by the results of the 1854 territorial election that sent a proslavery representative to Congress and elected a proslavery governor, largely because advocates of slavery had poured across the border from Missouri to vote. In retaliation, two antislavery factions united to form the Topeka Movement (or Free State Party), in effect creating two competing governments in Kansas. The Topeka Movement uneasily contained genuine abolitionists as well as those who sought a general exclusion of all African Americans from Kansas. The abolitionists triumphed in 1861 when, after the secession of the South, Kansas was admitted into the Union as a free state.

The antislavery debate was not limited to politics but raged among ordinary citizens across the land. Free Soilers, centered in Lawrence, raided slave auctions, while rampaging Missourians attacked that city on May 21, 1856, burning the Free State governor's house to the ground. John Brown was the most widely known figure to emerge from "Bleeding Kansas." Brown was an abolitionist who believed in the liberation of slaves at all costs, and his violent raids on slavers in Kansas and elsewhere brought him to national prominence as a hero in the North and a pariah in the South.

The Civil War raged mainly to the east of the Great Plains, although a brutal, desultory guerrilla war between proslavery raiders from Missouri and Free State militia from Kansas reprised the terror of the 1850s in that border zone. Meanwhile, many African Americans from Kansas fought for their freedom in the East, a freedom attained through the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

Cowboys, Soldiers, and Settlers

The end of the Civil War marked the beginning of a growing African American population in the Great Plains, as emancipated slaves moved out of the South. Black cowboys worked the trail drives north from Texas, African American army regiments were assigned to the Plains, and in the late 1870s African American settlers–known as Exodusters–homesteaded in the region.

It is estimated that in the decades following the Civil War about 9,000 African Americans rode the cattle trails north from Texas to the railheads in Kansas and Nebraska and to the military posts and Indian reservations on the Northern Great Plains. This accounts for about one-quarter of all the trail hands during the open-range era. Some worked in all all-black outfits, but nearly all outfits had at least one African American. They were employed mainly as wranglers (the toughest job on the trail) but also as cowhands and cooks. Rarely, except in outfits that were all African American, were they foremen or bosses. There is no evidence, however, that they faced wage discrimination. In fact, African Americans probably faced less discrimination on the trail drive, where they ate and slept alongside European Americans and Hispanic Americans, than in any other context in the nation at that time. Once in town, however, segregation in separate hotels, restaurants, and brothels was the norm.

In 1866 Congress authorized the creation of six African American regiments to patrol the Great Plains. The most renowned was the Tenth Cavalry Regiment, formed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and given authority over Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona. Called "buffalo soldiers" by Plains Indians because of the color and texture of their hair, the African American soldiers accepted the name as a badge of respect and adopted the buffalo as the main character of their coat of arms. The all-black Ninth Cavalry and Twentyfourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiments also served throughout the Plains, engaging in campaigns against Native Americans, building military posts, erecting telegraph lines, and corralling horse thieves. These regiments earned respect for future generations of African Americans in the military. The four regiments had the lowest desertion rates in the Army of the West, and from their ranks eventually came eighteen congressional Medal of Honor winners. Nevertheless, at the places where they were garrisoned–Fort Hays, Kansas, for example–they were frequently embroiled in violent clashes with local settlers, clashes prompted by the settlers' racism and by a more general animosity between soldiers and civilians.

The first substantial growth of the African American population in the Great Plains occurred after 1877 when the Democrats returned to power in the South and, with the acquiescence of Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes, set about reversing the gains that Southern blacks had made during Reconstruction. Repressive laws curtailed African American political, civil, and economic rights and reduced many blacks to landlessness as they labored as sharecroppers, often on the same plantations where they or their parents had been slaves. Here, indeed, was a pool for migration.

Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, from Tennessee, realized that emigration was the solution to the problem of landlessness and that the Great Plains beckoned. In 1879 Singleton and his Edgefield Real Estate and Homestead Association began recruiting African Americans to move to the Singleton Colony in Dunlap, Kansas. By 1880, through the efforts of Singleton and other individuals, 9,500 Exodusters had moved to Kansas, mainly from Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Nicodemus, perhaps the best known of the African American towns in Kansas, was founded on the semiarid plains of western Kansas in 1877. The first settlers were from Kentucky. By 1880 the African American population of the town had swelled to 452, and it boasted three general stores, a post office, three churches, and three hotels. Nicodemus actually worked well as an interracial settlement, with businesses and associations being run by both European Americans and African Americans. After an early boom, however, the town's fate was sealed in 1888 when it failed to land a rail connection, and many of its residents moved elsewhere. Nicodemus remains a small town, but it continues to function as a focal point for African Americans in western Kansas.

Oklahoma Territory was another attractive destination for the Exodusters in the late nineteenth century. The opening of the unassigned portion of Oklahoma Territory to homesteaders on April 22, 1889, created a land rush in which African Americans fully participated. At least thirty predominantly African American towns were established from 1889 to 1916 in what would become the state of Oklahoma in 1907. One of these was Langston in western Oklahoma. Langston was established in 1890 by Edward P. McCabe, who had previously been one of the founders of Nicodemus. By 1892 Langston had become the site of the Colored Agricultural and Normal School, and soon the town had the highest literacy rate in the territory. Like Nicodemus, Langston's growth stalled when the railroads chose to go elsewhere, but it is still the site of Langston University, Oklahoma's only predominantly African American university.

Smaller numbers of African American settlers moved to Nebraska and points north. These areas were simply too far from the source of migration in the South. North Dakota, for example, had only 113 black settlers in 1880 and 617 by 1910.

Farther north, the Exoduster wave of immigration reached the Prairie Provinces of Canada in 1908. These settlers were again fleeing persecution, this time from the racist government that came to power with statehood in Oklahoma in 1907. In the years before statehood, African Americans in Oklahoma Territory had been relatively few–about 8 percent of the population–but many were successful farmers, businessmen, and community leaders. Their very success bred opposition in the European American community. Against a backdrop of increasing violence, including lynchings, the Democratic Party gained power in 1907 by campaigning against racial equality. Subsequently, Oklahoma segregated railroads and other facilities and restricted sffrage. Within a period of three years, approximately 1,300 African Americans migrated from Oklahoma to Canada, settling primarily around Edmonton. They were mainly skilled farmers who settled in rural areas, but by 1911 there were also 72 African Americans in Calgary and 208 in Edmonton. However, their reception in Canada was no better than it had been in Oklahoma. In fact, the Canadian government actively opposed the immigration and even sent agents to Oklahoma to stop it. These efforts essentially halted African American immigration to the Prairie Provinces in 1911.

Urban Migration and Racial Violence

At the beginning of the twentieth century, almost 90 percent of African Americans lived in the South, a distribution extending from Virginia to East Texas and largely reflecting the geography of plantation crops, especially cotton. They lived mainly in rural areas. By 1970 only 50 percent of African Americans remained in the South. In one of the great migrations in U.S. history, African Americans left the rural South for the cities of the Northeast, Midwest, and, after 1945, the West. They were pulled by job opportunities, direct recruitment, and the promise of a better future. They were pushed by disenfranchisement and persecution in the South, as well as by the mechanization of agriculture. The Great Plains, with its predominantly agricultural economy, was generally marginal to this migration, but Plains cities in particular saw significant increases in black population over the course of the twentieth century.

World War I, with its increased industrial production and labor demands, was the initial stimulus for the movement of African Americans out of the South. Viewed at the state level, the Great Plains was not greatly affected. No Plains state kept up with the national average of black population increase from 1910 to 1920. At the city level, however, the population composition of the Great Plains was changing. Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Kansas City, Denver, and Omaha all saw rapid increases in their African American populations. From these populations, increasingly concentrated in segregated neighborhoods, came vibrant cultural achievements and long-lasting community institutions, but they were also targets for discrimination and racial violence, particularly when the job market contracted.

This was the situation in Omaha in September 1919. Omaha's African American population had doubled during the previous decade, climbing to more than 10,000. Many were recent migrants from the South, attracted by jobs on the Union Pacific Railroad or in the Union Stock Yards and, initially at least, by the absence of Jim Crow laws that had plagued them in their previous home. But increased visibility brought discrimination. In 1916, for example, the Union Pacific replaced its black janitors with Japanese, and separate rental listings for African Americans restricted their housing choices to the downtown, in the thriving and violent red-light district. Crimes by African Americans soared, and the Omaha Bee seemed to take a delight in publicizing them.

In this atmosphere of racial tension, an atmosphere further heated by returning servicemen who could not find jobs, an African American named Will Brown was jailed at the Douglas County courthouse, allegedly for raping a white woman. On September 26 and 27, 1919, the Omaha Daily Bee ran incendiary headlines accusing Brown of the crime. On September 28 a mob of more than 4,000 men and women pulled Brown from the courthouse, hung him from a lamppost, riddled his body with bullets, then burned him on a bonfire while posing for the cameras. This was one of eighteen lynchings of African Americans in Nebraska from 1889 to 1919.

One of the reasons African Americans had left the South was to flee "southern justice," but in Omaha in 1919–and in Tulsa in 1921–they encountered treatment that was no better. It is worth noting that on May 19, 1923, Malcolm Little was born in Omaha. Little's family moved on within the year, to Milwaukee, then to Lansing, Michigan, but it was Omaha that was the birthplace of the great black nationalist Malcolm X.

Achievements in the Arts

Fortunately, racial violence was not the only outcome of African American migration to the Great Plains. The concentration of African Americans in Plains cities encouraged the formation of institutions that would contribute significantly to the future drive for civil rights. The Lincoln (Nebraska) Urban League, for example, provided social services to the city's African American population from 1932 to 1954 and fought for equal opportunity in employment and integration in housing. And it was the Great Plains, specifically Kansas City, that produced the most influential strains of that purely American art form, jazz.

Kansas City jazz was influenced by southern blues, ragtime, and the small band ensembles of New Orleans. Its immediate predecessor was the territory bands that flourished in the Great Plains during the 1920s. Many Kansas City jazz musicians of the 1930s, including Bill "Count" Basie, learned their art in territory bands. Basie's band, including Lester Young on tenor saxophone and Walter Page on bass, remains an influence on contemporary big bands. Kansas City jazz had its fluorescence in the 1940s, with Charlie Parker as its greatest native son.

The Great Plains was also home for fourteen years to the African American novelist and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux homesteaded in Gregory County, South Dakota, in 1904, and his first novel, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913), was virtually an autobiography of this experience. After writing two other novels, Micheaux moved into filmmaking. He wrote, directed, and produced more than forty-four films. He continued making low-budget films until 1948, often returning to the Great Plains setting. Micheaux's work was largely unappreciated in his lifetime (he died in 1951), but he has since been honored for being a pioneer in African American cinema.

The painter and muralist Aaron Douglas and the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks are also major figures in the heritage of the arts on the Plains. Both were born in Topeka, Kansas; Douglas in 1899 and Brooks in 1950. Gordon Parks, the acclaimed photographer, filmmaker, composer, and writer, is also a native of Kansas. Born in Fort Scott in 1912, the largely self-educated Parks was a photographer for Life magazine for two decades and was the first African American to direct Hollywood movies. The writers Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison were also products of the Great Plains.

Civil Rights

During the decades of the 1920s through the 1950s, the Plains African American population as a whole continued to grow but at a rate lower than the national average. In Texas, African Americans followed cotton out onto the High Plains. Throughout the Central and Southern Great Plains, major cities experienced a significant increase in the total number, and percentage, of African American residents. By 1960 Denver's African American population had risen to 35,261, or just over 7 percent of the city's total population. More than 95 percent of Colorado's African American population lived in that city. Other Plains cities with major African American concentrations in 1960 included Fort Worth, with 56,922 African Americans, or 16 percent of the total population; Oklahoma City with 42,282, or 13 percent of the population; and Kansas City, Missouri, with 84,191, or almost 18 percent of the city's population. In general, the number and percentage of African Americans in each Plains state declined with distance from the South. North Dakota had only 777 African Americans in 1960, barely one-tenth of a percent of the total population.

As elsewhere in the nation, African Americans in Great Plains cities were relegated to overcrowded ghettos and segregated in underequipped schools. While such institutional racism did not lead to riots, such as those seen in Chicago and Detroit, growing African American dissatisfaction was expressed in significant ways in the Great Plains. The Plains was the setting for one of the most celebrated cases in the history of American jurisprudence and for two of the earliest sit-ins that sparked the civil rights movement. The United States Supreme Court's May 17, 1954, decision in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka set forth the legal justification for the end of Jim Crow segregation. The case was actually a fusion of separate cases from South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Washington DC as well as Kansas. The Kansas case was on appeal from federal district court on behalf of twelve African American parents and their nineteen children who were denied access to white schools in Topeka. Thurgood Marshall successfully argued that separate school facilities were a detriment to African American children and were therefore unequal, contradicting the guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment. Chief Justice Earl Warren guided the decision. Even after this decision, however, school desegregation was a battle fought state by state, but the case inspired the eventual dismantling of segregated practices in American restaurants, buses, and parks.

Although overshadowed by the 1960 sit-in by African American youths at a Greensboro, North Carolina, segregated lunch counter, two earlier sit-ins in Oklahoma City and Wichita were important actions in the movement for African American social justice. Wichita was a booming city in 1958, with a developing aircraft industry that created jobs and attracted workers, including African Americans. But Wichita was also a segregated city where African Americans were not welcome in white elementary schools, restaurants, and other public places. In the spring of 1958 the Wichita Youth Council of the NAACP decided to integrate downtown lunch counters, beginning with the Dockum Drug Store. The nonviolent sit-in began on July 12 and continued until August 7, when the manager of the Dockum Drug Store capitulated and opened service to everyone regardless of race. Just two weeks later, the Oklahoma City Youth Council successfully staged a lunch-counter sit-in at the Katz Drug Store. There can be little doubt that these actions in the Great Plains, news of which diffused widely through the NAACP youth network, inspired later sitins in St. Louis, Chicago, and Greensboro.

The Brown decision and the Wichita and Oklahoma City sit-ins are landmarks in the civil rights movement in the Great Plains, but in the decades since, in every community that has a substantial African American population, leaders have striven to achieve social justice, economic gains, and political representation. Their efforts have met with success. In 1991, for example, Wellington Webb, a staunch civil rights advocate, was elected mayor of Denver. Yet despite the gains, African Americans remain one of the poorest segments of the Plains population. In 1990, for example, in Kansas and Nebraska, almost one-third of African Americans lived below the poverty level.

Population Geography

African American population in the U.S. Great Plains as a percentage of total population, by county, in 2000

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The population of African Americans in Great Plains states continued to increase during the latter half of the twentieth century. In 2000 the African American population of Texas stood at 2.4 million, an increase of 102 percent since 1960. Corresponding totals and percentage increases for other Plains states in 2000 are Oklahoma with 261,000, a 70 percent increase; Kansas with 154,000, a 68 percent increase; Nebraska with 69,000, a 136 percent increase; South Dakota with 4,700, a 322 percent increase; and North Dakota with 3,900, a 402 percent increase. Only in Texas did African Americans make up more than 10 percent of the total population in 2000, and in that case most were located to the east of the Great Plains.

An analysis of the map drawn from 2000 census data reveals that the African American population in the U.S. Great Plains, as a percentage of county population, declines with distance from the South, the original source region. In the Great Plains proper, counties where African Americans account for more than 10 percent of the total population are either large cities, such as Kansas City, Kansas, and Omaha, or are near military bases, such as Fort Sill in southwestern Oklahoma. The African American concentration in north-central Oklahoma includes large city populations in Tulsa and Oklahoma City but is also an inheritance from nineteenth-century slave and free-black settlement in Indian Territory. In recent years, smaller cities such as Lincoln and Topeka have also seen sizable increases in their African American populations. The Northern Great Plains remains an area of few African Americans. In the Prairie Provinces of Canada, African Americans, including immigrants from the Caribbean, are only a fraction of a percent of the total population. More than 80 percent of them live in the large cities, especially Calgary and Edmonton.

Viewed at the national scale, the Great Plains, along with the intermontane West, have the lowest populations of African Americans. Nevertheless, African Americans, from fur trappers to contemporary musicians and politicians, have played an important role in shaping the culture of the Great Plains, and this contribution will certainly continue to be made in the future.

See also LAW: Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka ; Jim Crow Laws / LITERARY TRADITIONS: Ellison, Ralph / MUSIC: Parker, Charlie / PROTEST AND DISSENT: Malcolm X.

Malcolm Young

Evelyn Hu-DeHart University of Colorado at Boulder

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