Black Folks in the West and Old Newspapers

I really didn’t know much about the history of African Americans in the Mountain West and the Pacific Northwest. Of course, I knew black people lived out west, but I’d never really considered the lives they lived and the challenges they faced in the late 1800s to the early 1900s, the concerns they had for the black community, nor had I really the effects of the Civil Rights movement upon those states. My overall interest in the subject was sparked when a friend showed me Chronicling America.

Chronicling America is a joint project between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress that provides information about historic newspapers from 1789 to 1924, but the true treasure and my favorite thing are the searchable, digitized newspapers. Aside from date, you can also filter the newspapers by state, ethnicity, and language. On a whim, I selected Washington —> African American, and to my surprise, there were four results, including the Seattle Republican, the first successful black newspaper in Seattle. It was published by Horace R. Cayton, Sr, who was born into slavery (according to Wikipedia he was the son of a slave and a white plantation owner’s daughter which is…interesting. I’d like to know more), attained an education from a black college and later migrated to Seattle. There, he became a successful publisher and earned a very comfortable living for his family with the newspaper. He preached assimilation and saw the west as a land of opportunity. He was also heavily involved in community affairs.


Horace Cayton, Sr. Image is in the Public Domain

According the article Horace Cayton: Reflections on an Unfulfilled Sociological Career (which detailed the life of Cayton’s son, Horace Cayton, Jr.) the family lived in a wealthy white neighborhood and employed a full-time Japanese servant. They hosted Booker T. Washington at their home. Sadly, however, this wasn’t to last as the family lost their fortune in the changing economic and racial landscape of Seattle. It seems that things were fine when the Cayton’s were one of a few black families; it wasn’t so fine, when the Great Migration brought a huge influx blacks from the South. Unsurprisingly, tensions between blacks and whites flared. Cayton’s newspaper failed to attract readers from the expanding black demographic and lost its white readership, which subsequently led to its failure. While things were undoubtedly different in the northwest versus the south, racism was still very much alive and well even if it wasn’t as vicious.

Later on, I showed a co-worker who is a native of Montana, the website and after more searching, we found a black newspaper out of Butte, Montana (his hometown) called The New Age which began in 1902. It was aimed at the 250-odd African Americans who lived there at the time. My co-worker had fun finding familar street names while we both marvelled at the fact that this newspaper once existed for the short time that it did.

I didn’t have to look far to find gems in this newspaper. In the very first issue published in 1902, the editors, John W. Duncan and Chris Dorsey, utterly condemn Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina, a white supremacist, for his abusive language towards blacks. Referring to voter suppression and, here is a direct quote from Tillman that was used in the newspaper as an example of his virulent racism: “When we get ready to put a n*****’s face in the sand, we put his body there too!”

Duncan and Dorsey, in turn, had a strongly worded response. Presented without comment (mostly because I think it’s so awesome).

“There are, of course, thousands of black men in the South who are superior intellectually and morally to Tillman, and a little of the ‘Negro Domination,’ which he so greatly fears, if it could send him and men like him to the rear, would advance every material interest of the South.”

The newspaper printed for nine months from 1902 to 1903 before Dorsey left Montana for Honolulu, Hawaii to study law. Then, the New Age ultimately folded when the number of African-Americans in Butte declined.

If you haven’t already explored the website, do so! I don’t think I even need to explain what a treasure trove old newspapers are–especially the newspapers that catered to a minority population. Also, take advantage of the newspaper databases in your local library.

I’ve come across other great articles and encyclopedia entries about Horace Cayton and another about black cowboys. Feel free to recommend other articles or books about African-Americans in the moutain west or the Pacific Northwest. I’ll add any books to my ever-growing “to read” list on Goodreads.

The Lesser-Known History of African-American Cowboys

Horace R. Cayton, Sr., Autobiographical Writings

Cayton, Horace Roscoe (1859-1940)

Next short essay: I plan on getting my hands on a book about the history of Atlanta  for research for my novel. I’ll write-up a reflection after reading it!


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