Brian J. Leech is an Assistant Professor of History at Augustana College and a native of Montana. He is working on his first book on the consequences of open-pit mining in Butte.
By Brian James Leech
Although the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey gained the most press coverage, the recent election saw many important mayoral races as well. One of the highest profile, big-city mayoral elections was won by Jenny Durkan, who became the first woman elected as Seattle Mayor since Bertha Landes, who served from 1926 to 1928. Lost in the excitement over major governorships and big cities was another “first.” Helena, the capital city of Montana, elected the state’s first black mayor. Wilmot Collins, a Liberian refugee, won at the same time as a “progressive ticket” swept the City Commission races. Montana’s status as the least black state in the nation (less than 1% of its population is black) made this result a surprise to many. A closer look at the state’s history, however, suggests not only that black Montanans have a deep history of political engagement, but also that Collins is not exactly Montana’s first black mayor. Indeed, Helena elected a black mayor before any other city in the American West.
Although the 1870 federal census only counted 183 black people in Montana, Helena elected a black mayor on May 22, 1873. As Ellen Baumler, a historian with the Montana Historical Society, recently reported to the Helena Independent Record, E.T. Johnson, labeled a “colored barber” by the local newspaper, became mayor that year. Johnson enjoyed a decent, though brief, political career in Montana. Hailing from Washington, DC, he distributed Frederick Douglas’s “New National Era” newspaper. After serving as Helena’s Mayor, Johnson later ran for Congress in 1876, and became a delegate to the state’s Republican Convention that same year. Media reports today about Collins’ victory aren’t counting E.T. Johnson’s “first,” but they have some justification for doing so. Johnson became mayor before both Helena incorporated as a city and Montana became a state. Hence, Collins rightly should be hailed as the state’s first black mayor (although perhaps we should attach an asterisk).
E.T. Johnson should still be celebrated as a political pioneer, though, especially given his place in the American West’s history. BlackPast.org lists Edward Duplex, elected mayor by the Board of Trustees of Wheatland, California in 1888, as both the American West’s first black mayor and the first black mayor of a majority-white community in the U.S. Yet E.T. Johnson’s election clearly predates this event. Both Duplex and Johnson should also show up on timelines leading up to what is typically labeled a major breakthrough: Tom Bradley’s election as Mayor of Los Angeles. One century after Johnson’s election in Helena, Bradley became the first African American mayor of a major western city. The 2015 documentary Bridging the Divide considers Bradley’s highly contentious 1973 election, which featured a lot of race-baiting and allegations of communism by Bradley’s opponents. Effectively building a multi-racial coalition, Bradley served as Los Angeles Mayor for 20 years.
Why did Helena produce an African American mayor before California? It’s tough to say for sure, but Helena featured a relatively large and close-knit black community during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although the federal census never lists more than 1,800 blacks across the state, Helena’s black community declared itself home to “500 prosperous citizens” of African American heritage on November 5, 1894. Newspaper editor James Presley Ball may have been exaggerating in the above statement, as the census suggests only 279 “colored” residents lived in Helena at the time. But it is significant that the declaration came in the black community’s own newspaper, The Colored Citizen.
If we take The Colored Citizen as an indicator, Helena’s black community was quite politically engaged. The newspaper’s primary reason for being was to promote Helena in the 1894 state capital election. Helena’s rival for the honor, the city of Anaconda, had boosters with deep pockets. The powerful Anaconda Copper Mining Company backed its eponymous smelter city, using whatever means its backers could afford. Anaconda’s boosters alleged that Helena’s “scab labor” blacks were not unionized and instead labored solely as “servants.” Hence, these African Americans supposedly failed the test for working-class citizenship. Ball’s Helena newspaper defended African Americans’ citizenship, celebrating their role as “pioneers, not only of Montana, but of Helena,” while noting both blacks’ ownership of “thousands of dollars of real estate” and their engagement “in every kind of business.” Editor Ball further laid out his case. As former slaves, readers of The Colored Citizen truly understood “bondage by individuals, corporations, or otherwise,” and hence opposed the new enslavement that the Anaconda Company would bring to the state of Montana if its favored city won. Helena did win the election, but Ball’s fears still became something of a reality. The Anaconda Company tightened its “copper collar” over Montana politics and the press during the following decades.
Although living in vibrant, politically-active communities, blacks in Montana faced many barriers. Starting with a state law in 1872, most of Montana’s public schools were racially segregated until the 1890s. Montana historian Annie Hanshew recently reminded me of Jim Smurr’s mid-century article “Jim Crow in Montana,” which points out that Helena ended this practice with a school election in 1882, although this change came as much due to school overcrowding as newfound racial tolerance. Another black newspaper, The Montana Plaindealer, published in Helena from 1906 to 1911, unsuccessfully opposed a state anti-miscegenation bill, which passed in 1909.
Blacks were not the only group of Montanans under scrutiny during the Jim Crow era. Historian Orlan Svingen declared that other westerners had similarly faced discrimination in what he calls “Jim Crow, Indian Style.” Svingen cites a Crow leader by the name of Robert Yellowtail, who criticized racial discrimination in Montana’s schools and public accommodations during the 1910s. Svingen also notes a 1986 Montana federal district case Windy Boy v. County of Big Horn, which laid bare past and continuing discrimination against American Indians in employment, voting, housing, and policing.
Montana’s black population reached its height in 1910. Exclusion from a variety of occupations and a loss of economic opportunities meant that many second and third generation African Americans left Montana. Montana’s overall population has grown over the last couple of decades, though. Black population figures have therefore also rebounded, albeit slightly. The 2010 census lists 118 blacks in Helena—not an enormous number, but double the census figure before it.
This history is particularly notable given one key issue in the 2017 Helena election: a Confederate monument. Erected in 1915 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a fountain to honor the confederate dead stood for over a century in a public park. It was part of many efforts at the time to celebrate the “Lost Cause” of the Confederate South, which typically minimized the role of slavery in the Civil War and narrated the South’s story as an honorable struggle against great odds. Montana, of course, had no Confederate dead during the Civil War because it wasn’t an organized territory until 1864, three years after the war began, and didn’t achieve statehood until 25 years later. However, Montana did host confederate sympathizers during its territorial days—a group in southwestern Montana tried in 1863 to name their city “Varina” in honor of the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. That place instead became Virginia City when a Connecticut-born judge refused to allow “Varina.”
The Helena fountain gained renewed attention two years ago. At that time, the City Commission voted to place a plaque providing historical context next to the monument. The plaque was to read that monuments like this fountain were created by a group that openly supported the KKK and distorted history, both to romanticize the Old South and “to assert justice for the ‘Lost Cause.’” Mayor Jim Smith opposed the plaque, and two years passed with plans for a plaque but one was never placed. In the furor surrounding confederate monuments this past summer, though, members of the Montana Legislature’s American Indian Caucus declared opposition to the monument. After Heather Heyer’s death in Charlottesville this August, Helena’s City Commission voted to remove the monument. Worried that the monument would become a target for white supremacist gatherings and violent clashes, Mayor Jim Smith reversed his stance. He stated support for removal, but many in the local press believe that Smith’s earlier views, coupled with the city’s initial inaction, played an important part in his recent mayoral loss.
The man who will replace Smith, Wilmot Collins, was also at the commission meeting that August. The local KXLH news station reported his testimony in favor of removal; “We’re preventing people from bringing in hatred and bigotry. We’re not erasing history. History will be here forever.” Coupled with the monument’s removal, Collins’ election suggests that the state’s long history of race in politics certainly has not been erased. Indeed, race continues to play a much larger factor in Intermountain West politics than most recognize, even in the nation’s least-black state.
Photo credit: Butte-Silver Bow Public Library (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)