Two Legendary African American Homesteaders

An African American homestead couple stand in front of their home.

Of the almost 1,800 African Americans who lived in Montana in 1910, approximately 43 percent were women. Most lived in Helena, Butte, and Great Falls. A few, like Annie Morgan, Birdie Brown, and this unidentified Great Falls-area homesteader, pictured with her husband on their claim, looked to build a life for themselves on the agricultural frontier. Photograph by the Great Falls Photo View Company, Ken Robison Collection

Homesteading was hard work, but it offered single women a chance to become independent at a time when social mores made it difficult for women to be self-sufficient. Among the many single women who took this opportunity were two African American women who filed homestead claims and did well for themselves. Homesteading allowed Annie Morgan and Bertie Brown to become women of property, and each brought special skills to the communities in which they settled.

Nothing is known about Agnes “Annie” Morgan’s early life except that she was born in Maryland around 1844. By 1880, she was married, had come west, and was a domestic servant in the household of Capt. Myles Moylan and his wife, Lottie. The captain was stationed at Fort Meade, Dakota Territory, along with Frederick Benteen and other survivors of the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle at Little Bighorn. Morgan’s association with the Seventh Cavalry lends credence to the legend that she once had cooked for Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

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Celebrating Sarah Gammon Bickford

Sarah Bickford arrived in Virginia City in 1871. The former slave became the first and only women in Montana to own a utility company.

Sarah Bickford arrived in Virginia City in 1871. The former slave became the first and only women in Montana to own a utility company. Courtesy Ellen Baumler.

On April 10, 2012, Montana honored Sarah Bickford by inducting her into the Gallery of Outstanding Montanans in the Capitol Rotunda in Helena. A former slave who became one of Montana’s most prominent businesswomen, Bickford richly deserved this honor. She was the first and only woman in Montana—and probably the nation’s only female African American—to own a utility. Yet despite her public success, Sarah Bickford’s life is difficult to piece together. Like most African Americans who came west, she carried the burden of slavery, making her past especially difficult to trace.

Sarah Gammon Bickford was born on Christmas Day in 1852, or 1855, or 1856 in North
Carolina or Tennessee. Her parents were slaves of John Blair, a wealthy Tennessee attorney and state senator. As was common, Sarah (nicknamed Sallie) and her family took the last name of their owner. At some point Sarah’s parents were sold and she never saw them again.       Continue reading

Contributions of a Mother and Daughter

Members of Pleasant Hour Club, including  the club's founder Mamie Bridgewater (third from right) and her daughter Octavia (far right) picnic in Colorado Gulch west of Helena, ca. 1926. Octavia, who graduated from Helena High School in 1925 and then attended the Lincoln School of Nursing in New York, served as an army nurse during World War II. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2002-36.11

Members of Pleasant Hour Club, including the club’s founder Mamie Bridgewater (third from right) and her daughter Octavia (far right) picnic in Colorado Gulch west of Helena, ca. 1926. Octavia, who graduated from Helena High School in 1925 and then attended the Lincoln School of Nursing in New York, served as an army nurse during World War II. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2002-36.11

Mamie Anderson Bridgewater and her daughter, Octavia, were strong African American women who lived under the veil of racism in Helena during the first half of the twentieth century. Each earned the respect of the Helena community, and each helped to make a difference in the lives of other African Americans.

Mamie was born at Gallatin, Tennessee, in September 1872, one of eight children. In 1892, she married a career “buffalo soldier,” Samuel Bridgewater, at Fort Huachuca, Arizona Territory. In 1903 she followed her husband to Fort Harrison, Montana, where he was stationed after the Spanish-American War. There she raised five children and worked as a matron at the veterans hospital. All the while, she cared for Samuel during his frequent bouts of illness from wounds received at the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898.

After her husband’s death in 1912, Mamie Bridgewater worked as a domestic in private homes, always scraping together enough to care for her children and grandchildren whenever they needed her assistance. She was a leader of Helena’s black Baptist congregation and was heavily involved in fund-raising for Helena’s Second Baptist Church, completed circa 1914. She was also a founder of the local Pleasant Hour Club, which organized in 1916 and became the Helena chapter of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. At her death in 1950 at age seventy-seven, she was serving as chaplain of the Pleasant Hour Club. Continue reading

“Lifting as We Climb”: The Activism of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs

Catalog #PAc 96-25.2

This photo captured the women (and children) of the first MFCWC Annual Convention, which took place in Butte on August 3, 1921. Photograph by Zubick Art Studio, Butte, Montana. MHS PAc 96-25.2.

In 1921, the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (MFCWC) organized “to encourage true womanhood . . . [and] to promote interest in social uplift.” While its members engaged in many traditional women’s club activities—raising money for scholarships, creating opportunities for children, and providing aid to the sick—advancing the cause of civil rights in Montana was one of the organization’s most important legacies.

MFCWC (originally the Montana Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs) held its inaugural meeting in Butte, where members agreed on five organizing principles: “Courtesy—Justice—The Rights of Minority—one thing at a time, and a rule of majority.” At the local level, member clubs engaged in a variety of volunteer work, from bringing flowers to hospital patients to adding works by African American authors to local libraries. But at both the local and the state levels, MFCWC members also concentrated on racial politics, raising funds for the NAACP and taking positions on abolishing the poll tax and upholding anti-lynching laws.

The MFCWC’s legislative committee became especially active after World War II, and from 1949 to 1955 it led the campaign to pass civil rights legislation in Montana. The committee’s efforts reflected Montana’s complicated racial climate. As its members advocated for legislative change, the MFCWC often encountered resistance from white Montanans, who simultaneously asserted that Montana did not have a “racial problem” and that, where prejudice did exist, it could not “be changed by passing a law.”

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The Life and Legend of Mary Fields

Mary Fields, driving a buggy. Born a slave in the 1830s, Mary Fields arrived in Montana in the Ursuline Sisters who came to establish an Indian boarding school and mission. Fields remains a legendary frontier character, celebrated for her tough persona and kind heart.

Born a slave in the 1830s, Mary Fields arrived in Montana with the Ursuline Sisters who came to establish an Indian boarding school and mission. Fields remains a legendary frontier character, celebrated for her tough persona and kind heart. Photo courtesy Ursuline Sisters Archives, Great Falls

Born around 1832, possibly in Tennessee, Mary Fields celebrated her birthday on March 15. The details of her life before she came to Montana in 1885 are difficult to trace—complicated by her birth into slavery and the fact that, although she was literate, she left no written record. According to one biographer, Fields’s mother was a house slave and her father was a field slave. After the Civil War, Fields worked as a chambermaid on the Robert E. Lee, a Mississippi River steamboat. According to some accounts, she met Judge Edmund Dunne while working on the Robert E. Lee, and eventually became a servant in his household.

In the 1870s, Fields began working at the Ursuline Convent in Toledo, Ohio, where Dunne’s sister, Mother Mary Amadeus, was the superior. In 1884 Mother Amadeus traveled to Montana to join the Jesuits at St. Peter’s Mission. The next year she wrote to request that the convent send more people to staff the struggling mission and boarding school. Mary Fields traveled upriver with the nuns sent by the order.

Thus Mary Fields began her new life among the sisters in Montana. She worked at the mission for the next ten years, raising chickens, growing vegetables, and freighting supplies from nearby Cascade. She developed a reputation for having “the temperament of a grizzly bear,” but tales also spread about her toughness and devotion to the nuns and students. Continue reading

Rose Gordon: Daughter of a Slave and Small-Town Activist

Businesswoman and writer Rose Gordon poses with her brother, Taylor, in front of her White Sulphur Springs home, on May 1960, MHS Photo Archives 951-717

Businesswoman and writer Rose Gordon poses with her brother, Taylor, in front of her White Sulphur Springs home, on May 1960, MHS Photo Archives 951-717

Rose Gordon was born 1883 in White Sulphur Springs to a former slave and a black Scottish-born immigrant. Her commitment to service makes her life notable, while the grace and advocacy she showed in navigating the racist currents common to small-town Montana sheds light on the African American experience.

Rose’s father, John, came to Montana Territory by steamboat in 1881 to cook on the mining frontier; her mother, Mary, followed a year later. The family purchased a home in White Sulphur Springs, Meagher County, where John worked as a chef for the town’s primary hotel. At the time the family settled there, Meagher County was home to some forty-six hundred people, including thirty African Americans.

In the 1890s John Gordon was killed in a train accident, leaving Mary Gordon to support five children by cooking, doing laundry, and providing nursing care for area families. Despite the long hours she gave to helping her mother, Rose graduated from high school as valedictorian. Her graduation oration, “The Progress of the Negro Race,” ended with praise for the African American educator Booker T. Washington, and Rose’s life thereafter gave testimony to Washington’s emphasis on self-improvement, self-reliance, education, and non-confrontational relationships with white people.

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Alma Smith Jacobs: Beloved Librarian, Tireless Activist

Alma Smith Jacobs served as the head librarian of the Great Falls Public Library for almost twenty years before becoming the Montana state librarian in 1973. Both of these achievements were historic firsts for an African American woman. Throughout her life, Jacobs demonstrated a passion for education and for community building and a commitment to working for racial justice in Montana.

As an adult, Alma Smith Jacobs--posed here (far right) with her mother and sisters at Spring Creek near Lewistown, ca.1920--made numerous contributions to Montana as a civil rights activist. She is most often remembered, however, for her work as a librarian. MHS Photo Archives PAc 96-25.1

As an adult, Alma Smith Jacobs–posed here (far right) with her mother and sisters at Spring Creek near Lewistown, ca.1920–made numerous contributions to Montana as a civil rights activist. She is most often remembered, however, for her work as a librarian. MHS Photo Archives PAc 96-25.1

Alma Smith was born in 1916 in Lewistown, Montana, to Martin and Emma Riley Smith, members of the wave of African American migrants who had been drawn to the Pacific Northwest between 1865 and 1910. Although Montana now has a reputation for being predominantly white, in the early twentieth century there were sizeable black communities in the state, especially in larger cities like Helena, Butte, Missoula, and Great Falls.

The Smith family moved to Great Falls when Alma was a child. After graduating from Great Falls High School, Alma took advantage of scholarships to achieve an impressive education, first at Talladega College in Alabama and then at Columbia University, where she completed a degree in library science. Credentials in hand, and newly married to World War II veteran Marcus Jacobs, she returned to Great Falls, where she found a position at the public library in 1946. Eight years later she became head librarian. From that position, she worked to build the presence of the library throughout the city and central Montana. Continue reading