Every February, the contributions of black Americans are recognized during Black History Month. Since I’m black and work for the Bureau of Land Management, a mostly white federal agency, I appreciate that. But I also have a complaint: Why has its observance become so predictable?
By now, I am sure that everybody knows that black Americans were enslaved and some were lynched; that Rosa Parks helped spark and Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights movement that changed America. We usually hear tell of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Buffalo Soldiers, and the black musicians that created America’s great new music – the blues and jazz. All were heroes by any measure.
But by singling out the same black heroes – again and again -- we ignore another reality: Blacks have been a silent part of American history from the beginning. There has been no glory and no shame that was not shared by both whites and blacks.
Nowhere is this truer than in the West, where black Americans fought in all of the Indian wars, drove cattle from Texas to Kansas and beyond, led wagon trains over mountain passes, trapped beaver, formed cavalry units, founded entire towns, parachuted into raging wildfires, been among the most notorious of outlaws and, conversely, some of the bravest U.S marshals, and even owned slaves and profited from slavery. Like every other American throughout our brief history, blacks have been among the good, the bad and the ugly. Some examples:
*When Bass Reeves, a legendary deputy U.S marshal, died in 1910, the Oklahoma Muskogee Phoenix eulogized him in surprising and revealing words: “Bass Reeves was absolutely fearless and knowing no master but duty... Reeves faced death a hundred times. Many desperate characters sought his life, yet the old man even on the brink of the grave went along the path of duty…Black-skinned, illiterate, offspring of slaves whose ancestors were savages, this simple old man’s life stands white and pure alongside some of our present-day officials… it is lamentable that we as white people must go to this poor, simple old negro to learn a lesson in courage, honesty and faithfulness to official duty.” Reeves has been called one of the bravest men this country has ever known; he was honored posthumously with the National Cowboy Hall of Fame’s “Great Westerner” award.
*The Seminole-Negro Indian scouts were descendants of escaped slaves who had settled among the Seminole Indians of Florida. In the late 1830s, they were relocated to the Indian Territories, and when slave hunters continued to persecute them there, a band fled to Mexico. Drawing on survival skills learned in Florida and adapted to the barren terrain of the Mexico borderlands, they became known for their skills, toughness and courage. During the 1870s, the U.S Army recruited some of these men into the cavalry to form a highly mobile strike force during the Indian wars. The Seminole-Negroes never numbered more than 50 at a time, yet they distinguished themselves to such an extent that they received four Congressional Medals of Honor while never losing a single scout. Though the scouts were promised their own land in return for their service, the country never made good on that promise.
*Not many know it, but the first armed “rangers” of any national park were black -- the 24th Mounted Infantry, who rode from the Presidio in San Francisco to Yosemite National Park in 1899. Their service was discovered not long ago by Shelton Johnson, a ranger at Yosemite, who happened upon an old photograph in the park’s archives. Now, old diaries have also come to light that confirm their pioneering work.
*The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion was formed of black men in 1943, who trained as combat paratroopers but who never made it overseas. Instead, the men were sent to the Northwest to combat blazes that might be started by incendiary balloons sent by the Japanese. The balloon threat fizzled, but the men fought forest fires and were among the nation’s first “smoke jumpers.”
*Isaiah Dorman, the only black man to fight and die at the Battle of Little Big Horn, was also the only soldier whose dying words have been preserved. Dorman spoke the Sioux language perfectly, and while mortally wounded, tried unsuccessfully to talk the Indians out of maiming his already bloody body. The first known account of Dorman was as a courier for the Army in the Dakota Territory. In 1871, the Army hired him to guide the Northern Pacific Railroad survey team, then later that same year as a Sioux interpreter. In 1876, Custer ordered him to accompany the Little Big Horn expedition. Dorman refused, having had a family by this time, so Custer sweetened the pot by raising his pay from $50 to $75 a month. Dorman never lived to collect his increased pay. To this day, he or his heirs are still owed $102.50 back pay, plus more than a 130 years’ interest.
Black history, American history -- aren’t they the same thing? Somewhere along the way, the notion that we have different values and different cultures has been fostered and believed. But in spite of the ugliness and distance that we maintain to this day, our histories have always been intertwined. Let us celebrate black heroes this month, but someday, I hope, we can become one community of non-hyphenated Americans, solving all the problems that we all share.
Wayne Hare is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He works for the Bureau of Land Management in western Colorado.