January 18, 2021 — Today is Martin Luther King Day.
There’s never been a significantly large population of African Americans in North Dakota. But there have been Black people in the state as long as there have been white people. Early records indicate that the earliest Black people came as slaves of explorers and traders. In fact, they were the first non-Native child born here.
Many also came of their own accord to follow the American dream. One of our most famous North Dakotans was Era Bell Thompson, who became the international editor of Ebony Magazine. She was the daughter of a homesteader near Driscoll who moved to Bismarck in 1919 to run a secondhand store.
Ironically, African Americans had a major advantage over European immigrants — they spoke English. Many had fought in the Civil War, and most had seen enough of the world to know they had a choice of whether to stay here or not; European settlers, on the other hand, were not as aware of their alternatives.
Many African Americans who came to the state were associated with the steamboat trade from St. Louis. Others were in the Army. After the Civil War, many regiments were being relocated out West to provide protection for the railroads, homesteaders and gold-seekers. Many thought that the soldiers wouldn’t be able to withstand the harsh Dakota winters, but General William Sherman, military commander of the West, insisted that troupes sent here be of both races.
In July 1891, two companies of Black soldiers from the 25th Infantry Regiment arrived at Fort Buford on the Upper Missouri, quickly followed by a third. The next summer, two companies from the 10th Cavalry joined them, and by 1893, Fort Buford was made up entirely of these enlisted men; the only whites at the fort were commissioned officers. Native Americans called them buffalo soldiers because their hair reminded them of curly buffalo hair.
They also worked as cowboys. Twenty-two-year-old James Williams worked cattle in the Medora area in 1886, and it’s told that he was such a good roper that he once lassoed a goose right out of midair. Another well-known cowboy was John Tyler, a friend to Teddy Roosevelt.
Of those who came to homestead, William Montgomery is noted for his 1,000-acre bonanza farm south of Fargo. In the Mouse River area, Frank Taylor was a highly respected horse dealer; he had a ranch near Towner where he specialized in raising and trading Percherons and Belgians.
And in sports, North Dakota had integrated baseball teams already in the 1930s. Long before Jackie Robinson broke into the majors, baseball teams all across North Dakota lured, from the Negro Leagues, some of the best players in the world, including legendary pitcher, Satchel Paige.
In short, African Americans may not have settled here in large numbers ... but their contributions have certainly been noteworthy.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.