In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990

In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990

In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990

In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990


A groundbreaking history of African Americans' role in the development of the American West.

The American West is mistakenly known as a region with few African Americans and virtually no black history. In Search of the Racial Frontier challenges that view in a rich, complex chronicle of western African Americans that begins in 1528 with the Spanish explorer Esteban's arrival in Texas, followed by hundreds of Spanish-speaking blacks.

In 1848 English-speaking blacks arrived -- as slaves -- creating the nucleus of post-Civil War communities. Thousands of African Americans thereafter migrated to the high plains while others drove cattle up the Chisholm Trail or served on remote army outposts. Mormon slave Bridget "Biddy" Mason reached Utah in 1847, gained freedom in California, and in 1872 founded Los Angeles's first black church. The West's black civil rights movement began in San Francisco during the Civil War when women challenged the city's streetcar segregation.

This richly peopled story carries forward to the twentieth century when World War II migration increased black populations in western cities tenfold and intensified the region's civil rights movement during the 1960s, paving the way for black success in Western politics and a surging interest in multiculturalism.


There is room for only a limited number of colored people here. Overstep that limit and there comes a clash in which the colored many must suffer.... The few that are here do vastly better than they would do if their number were increased a hundredfold.

Seattle Daily Intelligencer, May 28, 1879

Your West is giving the Negro a better deal than any other section of the country. I cannot attempt to analyze the reasons for this, but the fact remains that there is more opportunity for my race, and less prejudice against it in this section of the country than anywhere else in the United States.

JAMES WELDON JOHNSON, NAACP national secretary,
quoted in the Denver Post, June 24, 1925

The two statements above frame the central paradigm in the history of African Americans in the American West. Did the West represent the last best hope for nineteenth- and twentieth-century African Americans? Was it a racial frontier beyond which lay the potential for an egalitarian society? Or did the region fail to match the unobtainable promise imposed upon it by legions of boosters, to provide both political freedom and economic opportunity? Perhaps black Americans, in their desire to escape the repression of the East and South, simply exaggerated the possibilities in the region. Did western distinctiveness apply to race? Such questions defy easy, immediate answers.

Certainly evidence can be assembled that directs us to either conclusion suggested in the newspaper quotations. Colonial elites in seventeenth-century New Spain erected an elaborate racial classification system that was designed to ensure the maintenance of caste but that quickly disintegrated on its northern frontier, allowing persons of African ancestry remarkable social fluidity. African Americans in California and Oregon challenged antebellum discriminatory legislation. Often they received the support of promi-

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