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Multimedia: LECTURE SERIES: The African American West, 1528 to 2000

To view lectures online go to University of Washington Television Website

Antebellum Slavery and Freedom, 1528-1865: The Paradox of Race and Liberty in the West

Black Gold Mining Widow, 1851

Throughout the history of the United States, The American West or “the frontier” as it has popularly been known, has always symbolized both freedom and opportunity, a place where one’s past could be forgotten and supposedly where race, gender, ethnicity, or class were removed as barriers to individual success. Yet viewing western history through the eyes of African Americans renders a different history. Race mattered, even in the West. Ultimately the paradox of race and liberty could be found in the institution of slavery which existed legally not only in Texas, Utah and the Indian Territory but illegally in much of the rest of the region including California and Oregon. This lecture will explore the contradiction between the carefully crafted image of freedom in the West and the reality of human bondage across much of the region.

To the Frontier, 1866-1900: Homesteaders, Cowboys & Buffalo Soldiers Search for Freedom in the West

Black Family in Front of their Dugout Home
Oklahoma Territory, 1899

The Civil War freed the slaves. It also opened vast tracts of land to settlement through the Homestead Act. Consequently on a thousand mile frontier stretching from North Dakota to Oklahoma Territory, tens of thousands of African Americans sought the High Plains and regions beyond as homesteaders. They, like their white counterparts from the East sought riches in tilled soil. But they also sought an area where they believed they could “rest from mob law and be secure from every ill of the Southern practices.” Some found success and security. For others such goals remained painfully elusive. This lecture will describe these western settlers. It will also discuss the cowboys and buffalo soldiers who made the region their home as well. Finally, it will also explore the various encounters of black westerners with Asian Americans, Native Americans and Latinos who also had dreams of success and freedom in the region.

The Urban Frontier, 1875-1940: African Americans in the Cities of the West

Albert Smith and Lester Catlett
Shore Leave Tokyo 1936

In 1885, as black cowboys trailed cattle from Texas to Dodge City, or Buffalo soldiers stood guard on lonely outposts in New Mexico and Montana, far more African American women and men moved to Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle in search of the jobs available in the urban economy. These contrasting images of buffalo soldiers, cowboys and urban workers reminds us that multiple wests often existed side by side. This lecture will explore the urban west which was home to the vast majority of blacks in Colorado, California, Utah, Montana, Oregon and Washington. The communities these African American women and men created, the campaigns they waged and the troubles they endured helped forge the contemporary African American urban enclaves in all of the major cities of the West.

The World War II Era, 1941-1950: Migration and Transformation

Black Family in Carver Park Las Vegas 1943

World War II was a period of profound transformation for the 1.3 million African Americans in the West on the eve of the conflict as well as the half million newcomers who would join them by the end of the decade. Old residents and newcomers often suspiciously eyed each other across a huge cultural divide. However both old residents and newcomers confronted the much greater challenge of racism as they sought to make the West live up to its oft-proclaimed image as a bastion of economic opportunity and individual freedom. This lecture will explore the campaign for racial justice and assess its impact on all westerners. It will also assess how the World War II era quest for housing crafted residential and ultimately social and political patterns that would impact both city and suburb throughout the region to this day.

Into the 21st Century, 1951-2000: The Black West in the Modern Era
Ten Thousand Seattleites in Memorial March for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr April, 1968

By 1963 the direct action protests of the civil rights campaigns in the South had as Seattle minister, Rev. John H. Adams proclaimed, “finally leaped the Cascade Mountains.” By that he meant that even the far West was caught up in the massive struggle to eliminated racial discrimination throughout the nation. The story of the western campaign, which remains rarely told, will be recounted here. The lecture, however, will explore the consequences of that struggle in the 1960s and 1970s to determine if indeed the imagined “beloved community” so often proclaimed by civil rights activists in Seattle as well as Selma actually emerged in the West.

For Recommended Readings for the Lecture Series, click here.

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