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North Dakota Black History


February is Black History Month. In North Dakota, the African American population has grown, though historically the numbers were few. But there have been African Americans in the state as long as there have been white people. Early records indicate that the earliest came as slaves of explorers and traders. In fact, the first non-Native born here was an African American baby.

Aside from slaves, others came of their own accord to follow the American dream. One of our most famous North Dakotans was Era Bell Thompson, who became the international editor of Ebony Magazine. She was the daughter of a homesteader near Driscoll who then moved to Bismarck in 1919 to run a secondhand store.

Ironically, blacks had an advantage over the Scandinavians and the Germans — they spoke English. Some were associated with the steamboat trade from St. Louis, but many came as soldiers. They had fought in the Civil War, serving in regiments that later came out west to provide protection for railroads, homesteaders and gold-seekers.

In July 1891, two companies of African Americans from the 25th Infantry Regiment arrived at Fort Buford on the upper Missouri, quickly followed by a third. The next summer, two companies from the 10th Cavalry joined them, and by 1893, Fort Buford was made up entirely of black enlisted men; the only whites at the fort were commissioned officers. Native Americans called these buffalo soldiers because their hair reminded them of curly buffalo hair.

And there were also African Americans working as cowboys. Twenty-two year old James Williams worked cattle in the Medora area in 1886, and it’s told that he was such a good roper that he once lassoed a goose right out of midair. Another well-known black cowboy was John Tyler, a friend to Teddy Roosevelt.

Of those who came to homestead, William Montgomery is noted for his 1000-acre bonanza farm south of Fargo. In the Mouse River area, Frank Taylor was a highly respected horse dealer; he had a ranch near Towner where he specialized in raising and trading Percherons and Belgians.

And in sports, North Dakota had integrated baseball teams in the 1930s, long before Jackie Robinson broke into the majors. Baseball teams all across North Dakota lured some of the best players in the world from the Negro Leagues, including legendary pitcher, Satchel Paige.

In short, African Americans may not have settled here in large numbers, but their contributions have certainly been noteworthy.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm