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December 15: The Manifesto of Engine Company #21

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This week in 1882, the Virginia Star, a black newspaper in Richmond, Virginia reprinted an article from the Conservator, a black newspaper from Chicago, that read:

“A number of well-known colored men of this city have united to establish a colored colony in Dakotah. Their pronunciamento is as follows:

We, the undersigned colored men of Chicago, wishing to better our condition and all those who heretoafter join us, have formed ourselves into a colony to take up land in Dakota. We feel within ourselves that if the foreign element can come to our country ignorant of its usages, and in five years time become producers, we can do the same. Anyone wishing to join us, can get full information from any of the members at engine company No 21, Taylor St., where constitution and bylaws can be seen...”

Engine company Number 21 was Chicago's company of black firefighters. Their manifesto foreshadowed what Martin Luther King Jr. later said at Grosse Point High School in 1968:

“While America refused to do anything for the black man at that point, during that very period, the nation, through an act of Congress, was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the mid-west, which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.”

Although black people during the 1880s had as much right as anybody else to claim land under the Homestead Act, the lynching less than two months earlier of Charles Thurber, a black man rumored to have staked a land claim in the Devils Lake area, had sent a clear message that black people would not be welcome.

There is no known commentary from that era’s black newspapers about this deed. For example, the Huntsville Gazette, a historically black newspaper in Alabama, extensively reported on happenings in Grand Forks that fall, but did not mention the Thurber hanging..

Dozens, and probably hundreds, of white newspapers throughout the United States and Canada had reported the event, some even celebrating it.

So, it’s no wonder why black firefighters contemplating a move west was a rare thing.

Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel

See references here.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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