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Scholar Details Rich History of South Dakota's African-Americans - 2002-08-21

The western state of South Dakota is steeped in history of the West. Gold prospectors and Native Americans like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, Red men and white men - they're the first images that come to mind, particularly when residents of the state think of South Dakota.

But black men and women made a life for themselves in this vast, beautiful, and often harsh land of the northern plains, from cowboys and the army's 'Buffalo Soldiers' to freed slaves. However there is no mention of them in the state's history textbooks, and most South Dakota school children and adults marvel when they learn that blacks were some of the earliest settlers in the state. One woman tells the story of the role her people played in helping carve a state out of the immense territory once known only as "Dakota."

On a warm summer night in the southern Black Hills, Joyce Jefferson sits before an audience of predominantly white Girl Scouts and tells the story of Katherine Reynolds, the first woman to homestead in Western South Dakota.

"I'd have a garden," she said, telling the story, "and a half-acre garden would be enough for my family and any boarders I'd have..."

Like Katherine Reynolds, Mrs. Jefferson is African-American. Dressed in period costume of the late 19th century American West, she 'becomes' Katherine Reynolds, a former Arkansas slave who moved on to the life of a miner, midwife and successful Black Hills landowner.

Joyce Jefferson has a closetfull of characters she brings to life as she tours the state telling people about the African-American experience in South Dakota. She began her dramatic mission in 1997, after she and her husband visited the Fort Meade Museum, in search of information about Buffalo Soldiers, the black U.S. Army cavalry and infantry units that were stationed at Fort Meade at the close of the 19th century.

"We were looking for Buffalo Soldiers, because we just knew that at the Fort Meade museum where Buffalo Soldiers had been [stationed] there needed to be some kind of memorabilia about Buffalo Soldiers," she recalled. "We walked through the entire museum and we were so disappointed that we didn't see anything."

That's because there wasn't anything to see. Curator Chuck Rambo says the Fort Meade Museum has very little information about the Buffalo Soldiers other than the dates that they were there.

"We don't have any specific information about the troopers or very little information about what they did here. We have a little information in a local historian's book, Fort Meade and the Black Hills. There's a little bit in there about the 25th Infantry," he said.

And there's also a small blurb that references the Buffalo Soldiers on a placard next to a display of a buffalo-hide coat. But Fort Meade isn't the only museum in the state that overlooks African-American history in South Dakota.

The Journey Museum, in Rapid City, promotes itself as four museums that tell the complete story of the Black Hills, from prehistoric times to the present. But it's not complete. Not only are African-Americans' contributions to the state's history absent from any display, even historic group photos of pioneers show only white faces. The black face of South Dakota's history is also absent from classrooms around the state, and as one girl scout said, "You really don't learn anything about that in our school." Added another, "I really wasn't aware that there was black people in our area."

The young girls attending Joyce Jefferson's performance say they've never heard of Katherine Reynolds, Ted Soldier, Lucretia March Banks and Norville Blair, African-Americans who came to their state after the American Civil War to become landowners, hotel proprietors, cowboys and soldiers.

According to South Dakota University History Professor Herbert Hoover, the problem lies with the way the state's history has been written. "I don't think the schoolteachers should be blamed, the people who should be blamed are the people who write the history books, who haven't tracked the information," he says. "We have a very multi-ethnic population in South Dakota, but the word simply hasn't reached people in middle and high school levels because the scholars like me, you see, haven't done their work in putting out the information."

Professor Hoover also points to what he calls the difficulty of writing an "all-inclusive" history of a state that has more than 300 ethnic groups, including Irish, Czechs and Russians. But with almost 89 percent of the population listed in the 2000 census as white, providing more documentation on most of those communities would still largely exclude African-Americans, who are members of a race, not an ethnic group.

But without such a comprehensive survey, Joyce Jefferson notes, South Dakota's students will not learn the rich and colorful history of African Americans in their state, and what brought them there in the first place.

The opportunity for freedom is what brought them to South Dakota," says Ms. Jefferson. "It was right after Reconstruction [after the Civil War] and many people did not like the idea of sharecropping and still being tied to the 'master' [slaveowner], so they struck out for wherever. I think they tried other places, like living in Kansas. It didn't work out for them in those locations, so they moved on further West. The majority of them came right after the gold rush in 1876, and they thrived in Deadwood. There was Sully County where there were over 200 African Americans who lived there and that's near our capital of Pierre. They wanted to be free and they wanted to have the opportunity to find gold and be rich just like everybody else did."

Joyce Jefferson says she'll continue to teach people of all colors about Kathryn Reynolds, Mary Kercheval, Peggy and Norville Blair and other pioneers who were part of the African-American Experience in South Dakota. She'll do it, she says, because they existed, because they were interesting and because theirs' is a story that should be told.