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Reading the West 12-7-09

Candy Moulton
Encampment, Wyo.

University of Washington professor Quintard Taylor is one of the leading scholars in the area of African American history in the American West. He teaches the subject, he has written about the subject, and he manages a web site called BlackPast.org which is dedicated to gathering and disseminating African American history. Over 1.8 million visitors have come to the Web site in 2009 from more than 100 nations around the world seeking knowledge about black history. As Taylor notes, “by voting with their keystrokes they ratify the global interest in black history.”

Taylor notes that since its launch in February 2007, the website has attracted nearly 4 million visitors. It now averages 8,000 visitors per day. Its various features are useful to multiple audiences ranging from junior high students to graduate students and professional historians. As a Web site, it brings the resources of African American history into every classroom in the world and makes every computer, regardless of its location, a classroom in African American history.

A leader in the academic community, Taylor serves in the Western History Association and will take over as president next year serving through the 50th anniversary of the WHA. The Western History Association is the third largest historian’s organization in the United States and the only one dedicated to researching, presenting, and promoting the history of the North American West.

As the professor noted in a recent interview, “The Western History Association, like many of its counterparts, is constantly evolving to meet the needs of scholars, researchers, and the general public. Our 50th Anniversary meeting in Oakland in 2011 will provide an opportunity to look back at the remarkable accomplishments of the organization which grew from a founding membership of a dozen professional historians and history ‘buffs’ to now over 1,200 professional and amateur historians as well as lovers of western history. Despite our differing backgrounds we all share a deep affection for the region we call home. We also carry the awesome responsibility of helping to interpret that region and its history to the wider world.”

In addition to the BlackPast.org web site, Taylor is co-editor with Shirley Ann Wilson Moore of “African American Women Confront the West, 1600-2000.” This book, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, includes essays on various aspect of black history related to the “Spanish-Mexican Period,” “The Antebellum West,” “The Post-Civil War Era,” “The Early Twentieth Century,” “World War II,” and “the Civil Rights Era.”

Among the writers are Glenda Riley, a past president of the Western History Association, and Susan Armitage, one of the best known scholars of the “Women’s West” in general.

Taylor says in most respects the lives of African American women in the West were similar to those of white women and probably Latino women since all were “settlers” on the frontier in some regard. But he notes that a difference for black women in the West is that they were overwhelmingly urban in every state and territory except Texas, IndianOklahoma Territory, and Kansas. Black women were also particularly concerned about civil rights and especially voting rights. Since Wyoming Territory was the first western (or national) state or territory to grant women the right to vote in the post-civil war period, black women in Wyoming were actually ahead of black women elsewhere in the region and the nation.

I recently asked Taylor his view of how black history has evolved and he responded, “Some form of black history has existed in the United States ever since the people of African ancestry arrived in what is now the U.S. West from central Mexico in the 1530s or the first blacks landed at Jamestown, Va., in 1619. That history has been carried forward informally in the stories of individuals or communities. By the mid-19th Century that history was for the first time being recorded in books that were widely circulated among African Americans. It was also reproduced in thousands of pageants and plays held regularly in black church basements or clubhouses across the nation.

“By the middle of the 20th Century the history was recorded in dozens of volumes by ‘professional’ historians [whose] target audience was no longer just African American readers; they now wrote histories that would be as eagerly read in classrooms and coffee shops or over kitchen tables by folks in Waterloo, Iowa or Casper, Wyo., as by people in southern Georgia or New York’s Harlem.”

Today, he says, African American history is one of the most popular subject areas for graduate students of all racial backgrounds. And that means there is a growing volume of literature and nonfiction books related to black history.


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