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Preparation Update: T-minus 11 Days

Updated: Jul 21, 2018

The image of the Old West and the frontier that most Americans have isn't the same one I was raised with.

"Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry, some wearing buffalo robes, Ft. Keogh, Montana" / Chr. Barthelmess, photographer, Fort Keogh, Montana, 1890. Library of Congress.

When I was a kid, my mom tried (and failed) to instill in me her love of the Old West. She did, however, manage to give me a love of history and culture. As a result, from an early age, I developed a curiosity for the history that wasn't being taught to us at school or in the many documentaries we used to watch. Dred Scott, The Buffalo Soldiers, Nat Love (aka "Deadwood Dick"), "Stagecoach" Mary Fields, and Bass Reeves were all heroes and legends of the Old West that I have stumbled across over the years whose stories illuminate a much more diverse and complex Old West than the corny "Cowboys & Indians" stories most people have been raised on. Estimates put the number of African Americans at 30% of all settlers in the Old West. As my mom used to say: "when Mr. Lincoln said that they could get up and go, they got up and went".

But this was before the Great Migration.

Chased out of the South by Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and a lack of economic opportunity, more than 6 million African Americans left the South between 1915 and 1970. In several waves, the Gold Rush, the promise of farmland, work on the railroad, work in factories supplying war materials, and various other opportunities drew African Americans not only to urban centers in northern industrial cities such as Detroit, Kansas City, Chicago, and Pittsburgh but to the Western United States and cities such as Los Angeles.

I've read quite a number of those stories, but this motorcycle trip will be my opportunity to see and touch that history for myself. Below is a list of the various African American museums and historic points of interest that I plan to visit along the way:

South Dakota Dakota Territorial Museum 610 Summit Street

Yankton, SD 57078

My father's family settled in this area back int he mid-1800s. This repository for local history features quite a bit of his family history. I've already been in touch with the curators, and I plan to meet with them the afternoon of the first day of my trip.



Great Plains Black History Museum

2221 N 24th St, Omaha, NE 68110

Just before I complete my first day on the road, I'll stop off briefly at the Great Plains Black History Museum. They have some interesting interactive displays that will save me the time I would need to look through boxes of archives materials. This should make digging onto the regional contributions of African Americans a bit easier.



42468 US-34, Orchard, CO 80649

Now a ghost town with a few ruined buildings remaining, this historically black settlement in Weld County, Colorado, is located about an hour and a half east of Denver. I'll stop by here to snap a few pictures of the ruins and the historical marker, as well as another official historical marker erected further west along Highway 34 in the town of Evans, Colorado.


659 14th St, Oakland, CA 94612

This branch of the Oakland Public Library system began in 1946 as a separate, privately held entity dedicated to collecting and preserving artifacts, oral histories, and documents detailing the lives and experiences of African Americans living in the Bay Area in particular and the state of California in general. Today it features an extensive African American-focused archive and reference library, which includes microfilm and digitalized records, such as military service and genealogy data.

Concord, CA 94520

Visiting this memorial will quite possibly be the highlight of my trip back through African American western history.

For those of you who do not know the story, on July 17, 1944, an accident at the naval magazine in Port Chicago, California created an explosion that killed 320 sailors and civilians and injured 390 others, most of them African American sailors. When the Navy refused to do anything to improve safety and working conditions for the sailors, they essentially decided to go on strike. Their refusal of a direct order to resume loading munitions was considered mutiny, and while most of the striking sailors resumed work after being threatened with summary execution, 50 of them continued refusing the order. They were eventually tried and convicted of mutiny but saw their sentences first reduced then commuted after then-chief counsel for the NAACP and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall worked to bring about a new trial and helped publicize the plight of the sailors.

This incident was a catalyst in the post-war Navy for change and equality. Having come from a family full of military veterans, this particular precursor to the Civil Right Movement hold a special place for me.

685 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94105

The Museum of the African Diaspora a Smithsonian Affiliate museum, meaning that they maintain an official partnership with Smithsonian Museum in order to share collections, exhibitions, and educational strategies and conduct joint research. In addition to a unique collection of slavery narratives, this particular library also houses an exhibition that explores the community of African Americans that formed in the Bay Area as a result of the Great Migration. The Bayview Project features oral histories from former residents of the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, located in the southeastern portion of San Francisco near the Mission District.

1 Gate 5 Rd C, Sausalito, CA 94965

One of many marinas along Richardson Bay near Sausalito, Waldo Point Harbor stands out among music aficionados as the location of a houseboat rented by Otis Redding during a series of concerts in the autumn of 1967. It was here that Redding wrote the classic song "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay".

8731 International Blvd, Oakland, CA 94621

Most people who know anything about American motorcycle culture have heard of the Hell's Angels and their violent criminal history. Fewer people know that the charter of that organization specifies that member ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles and that no African Americans are accepted as full patch members. This is not to say that all Hells Angels are racist per se. As it happens, Sonny Barger, the founder of the Hells Angels, was directly responsible for helping to turn a group of car enthusiasts in Oakland, California into one of the first African American outlaw motorcycle clubs: the East Bay Dragons.

I am currently working to arranging an interview with the Dragons.

San Quentin Newspaper and gift shop

San Quentin, CA 94964


The Golden West Hotel (Golden West Building) 707 NW Everett St, Portland, OR 97209

In 1857, as Oregon sought to become a state, it wrote the exclusion of blacks into its constitution:

“No free negro or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall ever come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate, or make any contract, or maintain any suit therein; and the Legislative Assembly shall provide by penal laws for the removal by public officers of all such free negroes and mulattoes, and for their effectual exclusion from the State, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the State, or employ or harbor them therein.”

When Oregon entered the Union in 1859 — it did so as a “whites-only” state. The original state constitution banned slavery but also excluded nonwhites from living there and later amendments still banned African Americans from owning land.

In the midst of this hostile environment, African Americans still managed to build a thriving community in Portland's Pearl District and managed to build business enterprises such as the Golden West Hotel. The building that housed the hotel now features an exhibit that tells a social and ethnic story of the vibrant African-American community in Portland in the early 1900s and the successes and challenges of its residents.


KeyBank Building

201 W Main St, Centralia, WA 98531

The city of Centralia, Washington was founded by the son of a slave who was placed in foster care with a White family in 1850 in order to keep him from being sold into slavery. To honor and remember him, the KeyBank building in downtown Centralia features a mural of the city's founder on one exterior wall.

Mural of George Washington, founder of Centralia, WA

2300 S Massachusetts St, Seattle, WA 98144

Located in Seattle's historically African American Central District, the NAAM focuses on presenting and preserving the connections between the Pacific Northwest and people of African descent.

Jimi Hendrix Memorial (Greenwood Memorial Park)

350 Monroe Ave NE, Renton, WA 98056

A memorial and the final resting place one of the greatest musicians the world has ever seen. There are many notable Rock guitarists, but they're all still trying to figure out how Jimi Hendrix -- left-handed, guitar strung upside-down -- managed to do what he was able to do. How can I miss an opportunity to stop here?


Mary Fields gravestone (Hillside Cemetery)

Cascade, MT 59421

As I wrote in my Mother's Day post "My Mother Was Born 100 Years Too Late", the legend of Mary "Stagecoach" Fields is a reminder of the kind of woman my own mother was before her death in 2010. I promised to lay some flowers at her grave in memory of my mother's love of the lifestyle Mary Fields embodied. I intend to keep that promise.

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