America's Multicultural Migration West
Finding History's Forgotten People
story by Jill Moran
images courtesy of the Denver Public Library Western History Collection
The great early migration to America's Western Frontier readily conjures up images of white American pioneers traveling by covered wagon into perilous and unknown territory, relying on rugged individualism, persistence, and sacrifice in search of a new life.
Films, stories, and even history books perpetuate this image - often at the expense of the critical contributions made by the diverse groups who made settlement of the West possible. In particular, the role of African Americans has remained widely underreported. But thanks to efforts by the Bureau of Land Management and Coppin State University, this deficiency is being remedied.
Dozens of individual accounts of African Americans settling the West have been uncovered in a recent publication produced by Coppin State University working in partnership with the BLM Division of Cultural and Paleontological Resources and Tribal Consultation. Entitled Finding History's Forgotten People: The Presence of African Americans in the Settlement of Colorado, c. 1534 to 1954, the publication is the result of months of extensive research revealing vast amounts of little known, yet highly valuable information concerning the role of African Americans in the development of the American West.
From grueling duties as participants in the earliest Westward expeditionary parties in the 16th century to remarkable acts of ingenuity and entrepreneurship in the following centuries, the stories of African Americans, both enslaved and free, provide a rich and necessary addition to the complete national narrative.
Many African Americans sought opportunity and equality in the budding communities of the West, often looking to farming and ranching as a means to prosperity. Frequently found in small numbers, these new Westerners organized rich cultural lives and created extensive social networks and church groups that helped develop their communities.
Not limited to rural areas, many African Americans also recognized and capitalized on the labor demands of Western cities and towns. By 1870, Denver, Colorado, had attracted a sizable black middle class to include a number of physicians and lawyers. In fact, Denver's first black female physician, Dr. Justina Warren Ford, arrived as early as 1902. And Dr. Ford's achievements were paralleled by equally enterprising black men and women whose vast contributions to the advancement of the West included prospecting, land management, and community development.
American history has often overlooked the critical contributions of many groups in settling and cultivating the American West. But the Coppin State University research project hopes to rectify this hole in history by bringing to light the role of African Americans in areas such as homesteading, mining, cattle- ranching, and entrepreneurship. In this area, Coppin State has uncovered advancements made by early African Americans on the BLM's western public lands. And this research has done much to help the BLM create a more inclusive Western settlement narrative that includes the role of African Americans in the shaping of this country.
In its first phase, the Coppin State research team focused their attention on the State of Colorado. The team detailed the lives and struggles of individual African Americans who faced and overcame obstacles and, through successes as well as failures, contributed to early Colorado society.
In addition to uncovering our American history, Finding History's Forgotten People also outlines the commitment of the BLM's Diversity Executive Orders Program to advance equal opportunity in higher education, to enhance access to Federal programs, and to promote the development of new partnerships. Managed by the BLM Office of Civil Rights, this highly-lauded program encourages BLM managers and employees to identify products and services and to consider how their program may work with a Minority Serving Institution (MSI) such as Coppin State University to meet those needs.
Under the program, BLM managers and employees may submit proposals to the Office of Civil Rights providing a description of their project and the proposed partnership. More and more offices within the BLM are taking advantage of this momentous opportunity. And selection of these partnerships is fast becoming a competitive process where the Office of Civil Rights matches the requesting BLM office with a qualified MSI.
Finding History's Forgotten People has demonstrated that this arrangement creates a true "win-win" situation. After a proposal is approved, centrally-funded seed money may be awarded to launch the program.
Furthermore, this partnership supports professional development and curriculum at the MSIs while reaffirming the BLM's dedication to America's rich history of diversity.
More about diversity at the BLM.