Montana’s African American Heritage Resources

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The Montana Plaindealer
The Montana Plaindealer (Helena, 1906-1911)

The Montana Plaindealer, one of three African American newspapers in Montana, began publication in Helena in March 1906, under the editorial direction of Joseph B. Bass.  Bass moved to Helena in 1906 from Topeka, Kansas, where he worshiped in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and followed the precepts of “self-improvement” promoted by Booker T. Washington. In 1910, Helena had the largest African American population in Montana with 420 individuals out of a population of 12,500. 

Montana Plaindealer Masthead

 

The four-page, six-column weekly featured a regular column entitled, “Race News,” which documented incidents of racial discrimination across the nation.  One of the first issues featured a story about a lynching of two African American men taken from a jail in Springfield, Missouri, by a white mob.  Each issue contained exhortations by the editor Bass promoting civil rights and highlighting economic opportunities for African Americans in Helena and across Montana.  Just below the masthead in the inaugural issue the editor advocated for “the principles of peace, prosperity, and union,” while reporting the results of the Republican primaries for the city of Helena and noting the participation of two “colored” delegates from Helena.  In 1909 the Plaindealer expressed its opposition to an anti-miscegenation bill passed by the Montana legislature that March.  In addition to racial violence and political interests, Bass also provide lengthy soliloquies on other topics of national interest, such as the Brownville Incident in 1907, where an entire company of the 25th Colored Infantry was dishonorably discharged pending allegations that members of the company were among those who shot up the town of Brownsville, Texas, killing a white man.  Because there existed no evidence any black soldier was involved, in fact they were all accounted for in their barracks at the time, such a generalizing and racist ruling from President Theodore Roosevelt was met with national uproar from the black community.    

 

The Plaindealer supported its publication through an active printing business, but by 1911 that business faltered and the newspaper closed its doors.

The Colored Citizen
The Colored Citizen (Helena, 1894)

The Colored Citizen one of three African American newspapers to take root in Montana, came to life for several months in 1894 in Helena. The inaugural issue, published on September 3, 1894, announced that its reason for being was the intense interest among the city’s 279 “colored” citizens in the upcoming election to decide the site of the state capital: Helena or Anaconda. The newspaper’s editor, James Presley Ball, Jr., son of a successful African American photographer from Cincinnati, proclaimed in the first issue the paper’s core philosophy and mission: “It cannot be denied that our people, through force of circumstance, occupy a peculiar status in this country. We are not thoroughly known. Our better qualities are not presented fairly to the public…Montana has a right to feel proud of its 2,500 colored citizens …” In 1900 African Americans represented only 1 percent (1,523) of the state population, but the community published two other newspapers, the Montana Plaindealer in Helena and the New Age in Butte.

Colored Citizen Masthead

 

Ball lived in Helena between 1889 and 1897, when he moved to Seattle. A number of African American businessmen had flocked to Helena during the late 1880s and1890s because of its relative racial tolerance and established Afro-American community. In the first issue of the newspaper, Ball implored his fellow “colored citizens” to unite behind Helena as first choice for the new state capital. The fight pitted against each other the two giants of Montana’s copper industry; William Andrews Clark promoted Helena, bankrolling the Colored Citizen and spending over $200,000 on the campaign, while his chief rival, Marcus Daly, invested over $2.5 million in support of Anaconda. A full-page endorsement in the final issue of the newspaper on November 5, 1894, explained the rationale for choosing Helena over Anaconda, the home of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company’s smelter and its founder, Marcus Daly. In bold type it read: “The Anaconda Mining Company Does Not Employ a solitary colored man. Dagoes and Foreigners are preferred to Native Colored Americans. Vote for HELENA for Capitol.” Helena emerged victorious by fewer than 2,000 of the more than 52,000 votes cast. The Colored Citizen and its readers had a significant influence on Montana’s choice of location for its state capital.

 

All issues of the Colored Citizen measured 17 x 22 inches, and appeared in a six-column, four-page format. Ball published the newspaper at 137 N. Main St., the location of his father’s portrait photography business. The paper focused on local and state news with regular columns about fraternal organizations populated by African Americans. The discrimination experienced by “colored citizens” during the 19th century in the Anaconda mines did not disappear over the next half century. In 1942 the U.S. government sent a battalion of southern Black miner-soldiers to Butte “to produce a full quota of copper for the war effort,” but the walkout in protest of their arrival by 8,000 white miners subverted their patriotic efforts.

The Butte New Age
The New Age (Butte, 1902-1903)

The New Age, published from May 30, 1902, to February 1903, represented the interests of the “colored” residents of Butte, Montana. In 1900, approximately 250 African Americans lived and worked in the copper mining metropolis, the largest city between Minneapolis and Spokane, Washington. Beneath the newspaper banner were the words: “Published in the Interests of Colored People.” True to its motto, on the front page of Volume 1, No. 1, there appeared a regular column entitled “Women’s Club News,” which highlighted music and readings conducted at the African American Woman’s Club of Butte. The same edition also included an article about the failure of Congress to address the “race” problem in America and another article about race relations in the Danish West Indies. A front-page editorial decried the lynching of “colored” people in Lansing, Texas, with a vivid description of the victim’s eyes being burned out with flaming sticks. In the inaugural edition the editors, John W. Duncan and Chris Dorsey, declared their intention to establish a statewide system of reporters dedicated to bringing the news of the African American community throughout Montana to readers in Butte.

The New Age Masthead

 

Five major railroads and its status as the economic center of Montana had contributed to the establishment of an African American presence in Butte, creating a demand for a journalistic voice in the community. Two African American churches, the Bethel Baptist and the African Methodist Episcopal, were located in the same neighborhood as the newspaper’s offices, just south of the commercial district. In its first issue, the New Age proclaimed: “We embark this journalistic canoe, set sail, aft the truth, fore the facts, to the wind of public sentiment, hoping not to get wrecked upon the financial shoals…” In a subsequent issue, the editors declared: “It shall [be] the purpose of the New Age, while we are not here by any means for political purposes…to awaken colored voters of this state to the realization of the fact that as a unit we can be a most potent factor in the political affairs of the state…” Irrespective of the editors’ good intentions, the New Age quickly became embroiled in state politics, siding with Democratic candidates in the heated election of 1902, during which the Democrats lost the Governor’s office, the state House of Representatives, and U.S. Congressional seats. In the competition between powerful mining interests, the paper sided with Amalgamated (Anaconda Company) against United Copper magnate, F. Augustus Heinze. Unfortunately, Amalgamated used its newly won political power to shut down the entire state economy in the fall of 1903 in order to force the hand of its copper mining rival Heinze. The newspaper’s Democratic editorial support and the fact that it did not cover the election results may have contributed to its demise.

 

For nine months, Duncan and Dorsey published the four-page, six column, 17 x 24 inch weekly newspaper, focusing on the African American community. However, in late 1902 Dorsey left Montana to study law in Honolulu, and soon afterward, in February 1903, the New Age closed its doors, a victim of the declining number of African Americans in Butte and Montana at large.

 

(Source text for this page provided by the Montana Historical Society, available online at Chroniclingamerica.loc.gov in their more about: The Montana Plaindealer; The New Age, and The Colored Citizen pages.) 

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