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The Problem with a Colorful History

The most prominent historian in the history of African Americans in the American West is Dr. Quintard Taylor, of the University of Washington. He is a revered--some might even say formidable--scholar. He is the empressario of the go-to website on black history in America, which is called Black Past.

When Quintard calls, you do what he says. When he said he wanted me to write something for Black Past about Second Baptist Church, the historic black church of Bismarck, I said, sure. In a previous essay here I have recounted much of what I have learned about the origins of the church, which, beginning in 1917, met in a converted bungalow at 305 South 8th Street. (You can find a picture of it in the online repository, Digital Horizons.)

Starting out, that photograph, along with some things Era Bell Thompson wrote in her 1946 memoir, American Daughter, was about all I knew of Second Baptist. Using city directories, census data, fire maps, and most of all, newspaper reportage accessed via the Library of Congress database, Chronicling America, I assembled a good amount of primary documentation about Bismarck’s black Baptist church, which operated from 1917 until sometime early in the 1930s.

This documentation, the establishment of basic facts about the church and its place in the community, was the main purpose of my research. Being a historian of a certain age, however, naturally, I got to thinking about those basic facts, and our memory of them, and how we recount that memory, and what it means.

To begin with, there is a reason why to this point, we have known little about Second Baptist Church: its history was hard to research--until the advent of internet-searchable databases, making it possible, if you know your way around, to mine innumerable fragments of data, which can be fitted together into a narrative hitherto nonexistent. Historians coming of age as so-called digital natives may not know how transformative this is.

I got some important insights, however, from a pre-internet book by Thomas P. Newgard, Father William C. Sherman, and the late John Guerrero--African Americans in North Dakota. These fellows did the hard yards searching print sources to compile a monumental archive of newspaper coverage of the activities of blacks in North Dakota--but they also reflected on the archive.

“If one were to rely solely on newspaper accounts,” they observe, “it would seem that a happy-go-lucky attitude, a certain lawlessness, dominated every neighborhood in which black people resided. But such an assessment would do injustice to a large segment of North Dakota’s black urban population. There is, in fact, abundant evidence that a serious-minded, law-abiding black population existed in the state.” In the history of Second Baptist of Bismarck, I found such evidence.

Which led me to be disappointed with the remembered narrative given by Era Bell Thompson, a hero of African American letters--journalist, memoirist, editor. She and her father attended Second Baptist, which she renames “Grace Baptist” in her memoir. I reread the memoir in light of newspaper accounts I had discovered emphasizing the fried chicken dinners and oldtime spiritual singing of the church--articles that partook of local color, black culture as white people wished to see it.

And as I reread Thompson, I perceived her depicting the church of her youth in self-deprecating, comic fashion. Its Christians were backsliders; its transactions were “colorful” and “volatile;” and its pastor was beset with “sister trouble.” Her account is at odds with my historical evidence. I am still thinking what to make of that.

~Tom Isern

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