Black re-enactors evoke lives too often left out of Wild West history

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When Eleise Clark set out to research her genealogy, she ran into a brick wall: the Civil War.

“I thought we were people,” Clark said. “But my grandfather was born as property.”

As Clark rummaged through sales receipts for scraps of information about her slave ancestors, including her grandfather born to slave parents in the early 1860s, she developed a deeper appreciation for her cultural heritage. Now she embodies it.

Clark, 67, leads the Jane Taylor Reenactors Guild, associated with the Black American West Museum in Denver, which for decades has kept black stories alive in Western history. The guild has had few engagements since the pandemic began, but Clark hopes that as in-person events pick up steam, she and her five fellow re-enactors can resume interpreting history through the lives of those who made it.

In classrooms and in tents at outdoor festivals, Clark and his fellow re-enactors don period costumes and portray captivating characters from Western history, including Bass Reeves, a U.S. Marshal, Pony Express riders and OT Jackson, who founded the predominantly agricultural settlement Black Dearfield in County Weld.

Clara Brown came to Colorado during the Gold Rush, but never stopped searching for the children stolen from her during her years of slavery. (Denver Public Library)

Clark primarily portrays three black women, all of whom were born into slavery but have found new lives in the West. Their lives hold lessons for people facing adversity today, she said.

The first, Clara Brown, a former slave, was probably the first black woman to come to Colorado during the Pikes Peak Gold Rush in 1859. She became prosperous through investments in real estate and was given the nickname “Angel of the Rockies”. for her work as a midwife and community philanthropist. But she has spent much of her life searching for her four children, who were taken from her during her years of slavery. She was reunited with her only surviving child at age 82, shortly before her death in 1885.

Mary Fields was one of only two women to operate a “Star Route”, a contracted mail route, in remote Montana. A rugged frontier, it sometimes delivered the mail on snowshoes. (Public domain)

The next, Mary Fields, came west in the 1880s as a laborer for a group of Catholic nuns. At age 60, she became one of only two women to hold a “Star Route”, a Postal Service contract route, delivering mail by stagecoach in remote areas of Montana. A frontier cigar-smoker, whiskey-drinker, and armed with guns, she was known for her fearlessness. When the snow got too deep for her diligence, she delivered the mail on snowshoes.

The third is Cathay Williams, a former slave who was smuggled by the Union Army during the Civil War and commissioned as a washerwoman for General Philip Sheridan. After the war, she used her knowledge of soldiering to pose as a man named William Cathay, and enlisted in the regiment of all-Black Buffalo Soldiers and served on the New Frontier. Mexico. Her gender was discovered by an Army doctor, and she was released and later denied a pension, but earned respect as a seamstress and boarder owner in Trinidad.

Cathay Williams, a former slave, enlisted in the U.S. Army’s Buffalo Soldiers regiment as William Cathay. (National Park Service)

For Clark, the three women carry lessons that resonate today.

“They learned to operate in a world that told them ‘no’ all the time,” Clark said. “These stories testify to human determination. These women happen to be black, but everyone struggles in one way or another. They teach us not to doubt what we are capable of. If someone tries to stop you, find a way around them.

When Clark portrays the women, she says she “calls on the spirits of the ancestors” to help her tell their stories. Speaking as Brown, Fields and Williams gave him insight into their experiences.

“I can feel them,” Clark said. “With Clara, I can feel the pain of seeing your babies stolen and sold. But she didn’t lay down and die. She stayed determined. Cathay Williams, she saw a chance for a life better as a soldier, and she went in. And Mary Fields, she looked at the world and said, ‘I know I’m tall, I know I’m not the prettiest woman, but give me a kiss ass. Get out of my way. What are you going to do about it?'”

Stories of women who endured atrocities like having their children stolen can help modern audiences connect with current events, said Terry Nelson, community resource manager at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Denver.

“Look at the Hispanic families whose children were taken across the border,” Nelson said. “Right now there will be separated families in Ukraine. There are people who lose their children today who will spend their lives looking for them, as Clara Brown did. We learn from these re-enactors that people who have endured untold hardships have found ways to preserve their souls.

Guild reenactments also breathe dignity into black genealogy, Nelson said.

“The study of black heritage is the study of people who were considered possessions,” Nelson said. “The intention was to prevent slaves from having an individual identity except through their master. But the guild takes people who started life as property and shows us their humanity.

The guild became a mainstay of the Higher Ground Fair, an annual celebration of Western culture and art in Laramie, Wyoming. Although the fair has been on hiatus for the past two years, organizer Gayle Woodsum said she was delighted to invite the guild to when the fair resumes in September.

The guild has an electric presence, Woodsum said.

“Not only do they bring the story to life, but this live performance with someone who embodies so much of a real person just breaks down the barriers,” Woodsum said. “The fear of not understanding the story, of asking a dumb question, it fades away when the audience interacts with them.”

Eleise Clark performs at the Higher Ground Fair in Laramie, Wyoming in 2019 (Supplied by Gayle Woodsum)

The guild performances are a “radical act,” Woodsum said.

“These are stories that have been silenced and erased from our way of thinking about the Old West,” she said. “The passion of the performers is a refusal to let this history fade away. We all benefit from hearing the whole story of the West.

Some of the guild’s histories push beyond the 19th century into the now fading history.

Another guild re-enactor, John Thomas, portrays a Tuskegee Airman, a member of a group of black airmen who distinguished themselves in combat during World War II.

To research his role, Thomas was able to interview three surviving Tuskegee Airmen, two of whom have since died.

“They did amazing things,” Thomas said. “They were some of the best aces in the war. They put their lives on the line for their country, but the minute they walked down the catwalk on their way home, they were back to segregation and Jim Crow.

By interviewing surviving pilots, Thomas was able to add complexity to their story.

“They met hate, but they also met those who embraced them and recognized their bravery,” he said. “This recognition has helped move the civil rights movement forward and shows what can be accomplished when people come together.”

John Thomas portrays a Tuskegee Airman at the Higher Ground Fair in Laramie, Wyoming in 2019 (Supplied by Gayle Woodsum)

Clark said her performances at the Higher Ground Fair moved people to tears and stunned those unaware of the contributions and experiences of black people in the West.

Then there are those who repel.

“You get people who don’t like our presentations,” Clark said. “They want Manifest Destiny, and they want it to belong to a group of people. They don’t want to accept that there were black cowboys. They don’t want to think about it or believe it. It is the same mentality behind the banning of books that we see in some schools today.

Clark had a unique perspective on black history in the West. She grew up in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver, which for decades was the heart of black culture in Colorado. But he thrived with a variety of cultures.

“I grew up speaking Spanish and knew Japanese Americans who had been in the internment camps,” she said. “I learned how to make tortillas, tempuras and cutlets.”

When she was young, Clark said she didn’t feel the weight of race.

“I was just Eleise,” she said.

But coming of age in the civil rights era, through news reporting, she saw the barbarism black people endured in their fight for equality.

She remembers attending speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his four visits to Denver in the 1950s and 1960s. to do,” where segregation and prejudice were imposed more by social custom than by force of law.

Clark said she thinks the historical figures she portrays, who emerged from slavery, would likely view modern people as whiners.

“They’d be amazed at how badly our stomachs hurt today,” Clark said. “They said, ‘You mean you don’t have to milk a cow to get milk or get pecked by a rooster to get eggs?’ They would think we have it. But what we have lost is a part of the love, of the common sense that they had.

Eleise Clark on the deck of the Black American West Museum in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. (David Gilbert, The Colorado Sun)

Clark said in many ways, life has gotten better for black people in America, but the insidious racism persists.

“We can go to college now,” she said. “We can get better jobs. But we still have to navigate Blackness. As a black woman, I can’t hide who I am. Those in power do not want to share that power. The game has not changed. »

That’s why the guild’s message of perseverance is so vital, she said. The big task for the re-enactors guild going forward is to recruit younger members to pick up the stories of aging members.

“We can’t keep doing this forever,” she said. “We need young people to embrace their heritage and maintain it. These stories, these lives, which they need to survive.


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