History professor explores complex history of African-Americans in the West

Most of us don't have a clue about the African-American experience in the West. Quintard Taylor's goal is to set us straight.

When Quintard Taylor was a brash 22-year-old teaching in the Black Studies Program at Washington State University, he thought he knew everything-and he wasn't afraid to tell everyone. The brand-new professor pounded home the fate of African Americans in America-slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Great Migration to the North, the Civil Rights Movement.

But in the middle of one lecture, a student interrupted him. “Why do you people only talk about the South and the cities of the East?” his student asked.

“Because there is no black history in the West,” Taylor snapped back.

That retort wasn’t good enough for Taylor’s student, an African American from Oregon. “He challenged me on this,” Taylor recalls. “He told me his own family came to Portland in 1854-that was only a few years after the city was founded. I asked him some more questions. I was so fascinated by this, I thought that maybe there is something to this story.”

That “something” turned out to be Taylor’s lifelong obsession-the African American experience in the American West.

Some 25 years later, Taylor is perhaps the foremost authority on blacks in the West and an esteemed historian on the overall history of the American West. Last fall he was lured away from the University of Oregon with the UW’s Bullitt Chair in American History, the oldest endowed chair at Washington.

Taylor says blacks and whites today hold the same misconceptions he did when it comes to African Americans in the West: Most are unaware of contributions going back to the 16th century. And this summer’s hit movie Wild Wild West, starring Will Smith as a black Secret Service agent, isn’t much help.

“It does raise people’s consciousness about African Americans in the West,” Taylor says, but fiction overpowers any historical facts. While there were African-American cowboys and gunslingers, “in the 19th century most black folk were going to the cities, where there was great freedom and greater opportunities.”

Despite Hollywood distortions and historical omissions, the truth is that blacks have been in the West since the beginning of European exploration, he notes. The Spanish slave Esteban was one of only four survivors of an ill-fated expedition to Florida and Texas. The four faced a 1,500-mile, eight-year ordeal before reaching Mexico City in 1536. Later Esteban was the guide for the first Spanish expedition to what is now Arizona and New Mexico, where he died in 1539.

George Washington Bush

Closer to home, a farm owned by black settler George Washington Bush was one of the first permanent residences north of the Columbia River. That move prompted others to migrate north of the river, leading to the organization of Washington Territory. Today Bush’s name graces the nearby town of Bush Prairie.

Blacks have been part of Seattle’s history since the arrival of the first African American settler in 1858-three years before the founding of the University of Washington. In addition to the menial jobs of porter, cook and waiter, blacks in early Seattle were also hotel owners, businessmen and newspaper editors. White Seattleites even grew accustomed to the sight of of African American soldiers who were stationed at Fort Lawton during hostilities such as the Boxer Rebellion.

This history was a revelation to Taylor, who grew up in a small, segregated community in Tennessee and was trained as a urban historian. Classic histories of Detroit, Chicago, New York and the South centered on the conflict between blacks and whites. His early study of blacks in the West was “a rude awakening,” he admits. “I began to realize that the real story in the West is not a black versus white issue. It is the story of African Americans making their way in a multicultural setting,” he explains.

When he began his research at WSU, Taylor found the Pacific Northwest particularly fascinating. From the founding of Seattle and Portland, African Americans were not the largest group among peoples of color-it was Asian Americans. “That changed the racial dynamics,” he says, “It complicated matters.”

During the 1880s and ’90s, when the gains from Reconstruction were crushed in the South, blacks told their friends and relatives “how free the air is” in the Northwest. Black newspaper editor Horace Clayton Sr. wrote, “We are the new frontier and thousands of negroes come to this part of the country and stand up like men and compete with their white brothers.”

While conditions were certainly better than in Mississippi, blacks suffered from what Taylor calls “racial myopia.” An 1879 editorial in the Daily Intelligencer (forerunner to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) stated, “There is room for only a limited number of colored people here. Overstep that limit and there comes a clash in which the colored man must suffer.”

Taylor also faults the African Americans of that time for failing to criticize the treatment of the Chinese population-including the expulsion of all Chinese from Seattle in 1886.

Black folk had nearly as much fear and prejudice of the Chinese as the whites.

Quintard Taylor

“Black folk had nearly as much fear and prejudice of the Chinese as the whites,” Taylor says. In his research on Seattle’s Central District, he even came across a local African American who was a member of a “nativist” society aimed at keeping Asians out of the United States.

His research into Seattle’s past resulted in a groundbreaking history of Seattle’s Central District, The Forging of a Black Community, published by UW Press in 1994.

What these stories illustrate, Taylor says, is that racism and prejudice in the West were “extremely malleable. There was a tremendous amount of fluidity in the West,” he notes. “Everyone was reinventing oneself.”

Taylor explores these multicultural interactions in his next works. His is the co-editor of anthologies coming out next year on African Americans in California and on African-American women in the West. He is also writing the first historical text on African Americans in the West during the 20th century. Yet another project in the planning stages is a series of anthologies, Peoples of Color in the Pacific Northwest, co-edited by UW Professor Erasmo Gamboa.

As the United States evolves in the new century, it will become even more of a multicultural society, Taylor notes. In his view, there are two paths to the future, both found in the Western experience. “Seattle is on one path, where there is a shared sense of community. In Los Angeles, we see the other path, where there are four or more separate groups competing for power.

I don't want us to pat ourselves on the back because Seattle is so much better.

Quintard Taylor

“I don’t want us to pat ourselves on the back because Seattle is so much better,” he adds. “It’s just different. It’s not like New York, Chicago or Washington, D.C. Demographics is everything. I would like to suggest that Seattle’s liberalism would not have existed had the African-American community been 10 times as large as it was.”

Taylor is finally living in the city he has studied since the early 1970s. His first encounter with Seattle’s Central District came shortly after his WSU student’s challenge to learn more about blacks in the West. He began to gather oral histories of blacks living in the West and came to do some Seattle interviews.

He gathered 40 to 50 interviews and realized that “this is a story that needs to be told.” Two years later he helped win a quarter-million-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to produce a five-part “docudrama” about the black experience in the Pacific Northwest.

“It was called South by Northwest, and it came out a year before Roots would popularize African-American history on TV. In fact, our director, Joseph M. Wilcots, was later one of the directors of photography on Roots,” recalls Taylor, who was historical adviser and assistant director.

Taylor’s personal history was a Roots-like experience. He was born and raised in Brownsville, Tenn., about 60 miles northeast of Memphis. Because it had some of the best soil in Tennessee for cotton, the area was part of the cotton culture prior to the Civil War, a classic, slave-based plantation society. “It looked more like the delta region of Mississippi than it did west Tennessee,” he says.

After the Civil War urban blacks in Memphis gained the right to vote and never lost it. But African Americans in the Brownsville region were disenfranchised at the end of Reconstruction. Since blacks were in the majority in that region, whites forcibly kept them out of the voting booth.

“One of my second cousins was lynched for attempting to vote in the year of my birth-1948,” Taylor says.

His father worked on a cotton plantation-“there was even a big white house right in the middle of it”-and the future college professor used to pick cotton in the summer. Growing up in the segregated society, Taylor recalls that he didn’t have much interaction with whites.

Courts didn’t force integration of the school system until he was graduating from high school in 1965. “Some counselors told me I should repeat my senior year in the white school-that I’d get a better degree, but I wasn’t interested. I wanted to get out of there,” Taylor says.

Taylor was always one of the smartest kids in school-so bright that he jumped a grade level and ended up graduating when he was 16. At an early age he says he was interested in history. “I remember my mother forcing me to sit down to watch the news and discuss what we saw. We talked about issues of race, but we also talked about other things-the Cold War, Sputnik, you name it.”

History came alive in a personal way in 1960. “The most dramatic change for me was watching my parents vote for the first time in 1960. I knew something momentous was happening,” he says.

He wanted to be part of the momentous happenings himself in 1963, when he begged his mom to let him attend the famous March on Washington. Even though there were charter buses from Brownsville making the trip, the 15-year-old Taylor had to stay behind. “My mom vetoed the trip. She said I was too young to go alone,” he says.

Two years later Taylor was ready for college and once again, his parents vetoed his travel plans. “I wanted to go to Los Angeles. I guess the pull of the West was already on me. But my parents decided I was going the other way. I went to live with my sister in Raleigh, N.C., and attended St. Augustine’s College,” he remembers.

If I have learned anything in my study of history, I've learned that you can't reverse time. America will not go back to the 1950s.

Quintard Taylor

 

The college is a historically black institution founded by the Episcopalian Church. “It was a fairly urban environment with all these great institutions in the area-UNC and Duke. There was a real intellectual ferment.” One of St. Augustine’s greatest claims to fame is that the Delany sisters, centenarian authors of Having Our Say, taught there. “I had Julia B., who was younger than Sadie and Bessie. She taught speech and never got the attention the others did.”

The year before Taylor’s graduation, Martin Luther King was assassinated and many cities were in flames. The University of Minnesota made an effort to recruit African-American graduate students for its history department, sending a recruiter to St. Augustine’s who talked to Taylor.

“Out of 750 graduate students in the Minnesota history department, they reserved four slots for African Americans. Well, three actually showed up and only two of us stayed,” he recalls.

In Minneapolis, Taylor was trained as an urban historian. His mentor, Alan Spear, had done a classic study of black history in Chicago. “We hoped to achieve an understanding of contemporary black urban society by looking at the past,” he says.

But the pull of the West again hit Taylor. After getting his master’s in 1971, there was an opening in Pullman in the Black Studies Program. “Even at that point, I wanted to be in the West. It intrigued me,” he says. Ironically, it was because of his Eastern degree that he was hired. “Talmadge Anderson, the director of the program, was a graduate of St. Augustine’s. I think he hired me primarily because I was one, too.”

Taylor spent four years in the Palouse, and the last one he was on leave making South by Northwest. He then returned to Minneapolis and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. After graduation, he went West again to the California Polytechnical State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

“Cal Poly attracted mostly technical types of students. They were very proud of the fact that they never had a demonstration there during the entire Vietnam War,” Taylor says.

Taylor might have been reluctant to go, but he says he wasn’t ready yet for an intense research institution. “It was a teaching institution. I ended up writing a lot, even though it wasn’t required for tenure and promotion,” he recalls.

Another western institution, the University of Oregon, lured him away in 1990. His rise in the history department was swift; he became chair in 1997 but made his decision to leave just a year later.

“There were many advantages for Washington over Oregon. There are far greater resources here, and I’m not just talking abut the salary. For the first time in my career, I have a more or less permanent research assistant,” he explains.

“Also, there are four specialists who study black history including me. For the first time in my professional career, I will be in a department with other people doing African-American history.”

Ironically Taylor’s decision to come to Washington came just weeks after the state’s voters passed Initiative 200, which dismantled affirmative action programs in state agencies, including the UW.

Did he hesitate at all after the vote? “No, what we need now are different strategies for access to higher education,” he responds. Pointing to a newspaper headline announcing a $1 billion gift by Bill and Melinda Gates to three minority scholarship funds, Taylor adds. “What Bill Gates did today is as important as the rise of affirmative action decades ago.

“If I have learned anything in my study of history, I’ve learned that you can’t reverse time. America will not go back to the 1950s.”