The following essays by Anthony Wood are examinations of the role of politics in different aspects of African American life in early Montana.
African Americans and Montana Politics
Dr. Quintard Taylor connects the broader trend of community
development to the specific role Jim Crow era politics played in the northern
migration of African Americans from the South.
 Because repressive politics led many black
men and women to seek out new homes elsewhere, it was natural that they sought
places where they could pursue and fight for progressive political action. This is a main factor brought up by Taylor
explaining the prevalence of black communities in both urban areas and in
relatively small and isolated places such as Helena and other Montana cities.
 In places where several hundred black voters
could potentially be the deciding factor in elections, petitions, and other
local ballot issues, it was generally believed that such places would better
foster the political aspirations of African Americans. While this was a general truth in larger
cities, Montana was by no means a politically and socially welcoming state for
its ethnic minorities.
Historians of African American politics at the turn of the
century note a dichotomy in the theory of progressive politics and their
 The distinction
manifested itself to varying degrees, and almost exclusively among white
Republicans of the day. It is the
distinction between the theoretical rights of African Americans, what the
constitution afforded them as citizens, and what rights the larger society
chose to afford them. This notion was
played out in nearly every aspect of political practice from Reconstruction to
the Civil Rights movement and beyond.
From lynchings to rigged juries, and systemic disregard for due process
and habeas corpus, the socio-political environment which existed made it clear
that a color line had been created by white Americans to ensure black Americans
never enjoy the rights of citizenship under the law. The very same men that often defended the
rights of black men to vote, and to own property, and otherwise engage in a
comfortable American life, were also the men that upheld that political color
line. They were happy seeing the African
American citizenry as equal, so long as they weren’t reminded of it.
 As such the West quickly developed a social
caste in which African Americans were expected to play a certain role. Montana implemented practices, both legal and
societal, that established the color line.
This took place slowly between 1890 and 1910. The culmination of these policies and
practices, the anti-miscegenation law of 1909 which made it illegal for a black
man to marry anyone other than a black woman, clearly indicated the “Jim
Crowification” of West in the previous decades.
Such was the socio-political environment that Montana’s
African American community found itself in in the early twentieth century. Even though nearly every effort had been made
to limit the efficacy of black civic life, which may have led to the
mid-century theory that African Americans in the West were politically passive,
the history of African Americans in Montana politics shows they consistently
pushed the political color line while seeking the realization of political and
short, they refused to be confined to the “role” which the powers that be had
created for them. Black Montanans voted,
ran for office, pushed for civil rights legislation, sued in court, and most
importantly, exercised their freedom of speech.
 It can be argued that the latter contributed
more to the political growth of the black community, and the Montana community
as a whole than any other factor.
The following essays are examinations of the role of politics in different aspects of African American life in early Montana.
POLITICS AND THE PRESS
Montana's black newspapers served as an important platform
for African American Montanans' political aspirations. The first publication of
a black newspaper in Montana was born amidst the early political turmoil of the
state’s creation. For several months in
1894 the Copper King William Clark bankrolled
The Colored Citizen as part of a $200,000 campaign to win the state
capital for Helena.
the paper could be generally characterized as piece of political propaganda for
the capital campaign, the editor and local photographer J.P. Ball took every
advantage of his new position to advocate for the progress and well-being of
his community. Weeks before the vote
took place in 1894
The Colored Citizen
went out of print. Though short-lived, The
did lay the framework for future publications focused on
racial and political issues.
In 1902, Butte barbers John W. Duncan and Chris Dorsey set the type for Butte’s first and only black paper. The New Age ran for nearly a year, leaving print in February 1903. The New Age established itself as an independent voice for Butte’s black residents. While the political tenor was decidedly Republican, in contrast to the many pro-union democratic papers of Butte and Anaconda, its mission stated on the first page was to create a voice “Published in the Interests of Colored People.” If there was any question as to whether or not the black community of Montana was politically or socially passive, the center piece of the first issue of The New Age suggests otherwise.11 In addition to “Pertinent Facts Regarding Our Position” Duncan and Dorsey’s paper published editorials and national stories regarding racial and political topics in every single issue of The New Age. They even produced columns that seemed demonize white Republicans, the party of emancipation, such as “White man’s idea of Heaven.” In this literary piece, the author describes the parade of the good black Christians through the white section of heaven. The white Christians marvel and applaud them as they sing gospels in their beautiful voices, while the angles, who are all white, congratulate the white Christians on helping these new souls to find salvation. The parade ends with the black Christians returning to their “separate but equal” part of Heaven. Such pieces, which appeared frequently, not only highlighted the injustices of segregation, but also illustrated the moral hypocrisy that many white Republicans, in addition to the Democrats, adhered to concerning the “place” of African Americans in a post-reconstruction society.
A third African American newspaper began in Helena in
1906. Differing from its predecessors,
The Montana Plaindealer succeeded in
being a complete and very relevant source of local, state, and national
news. With its ability to center its
stories on a wide range of both political and non-political issues, Editor
Joseph Bass created a public forum on topics of everyday life that reached over
a thousand readers at the papers’ zenith.
 Where The
focused on the racial politics of the capital campaign, and
The New Age attempted to speak
eloquently on the broader issue of racism and politics, Bass’
Plaindealer combined local pieces,
non-political snapshots of black citizens, and the everyday goings on of Helena
with politically charged editorials on events that impacted the lives of the
black community. In this way, Bass
exposed many members of both black and white communities in Montana to aspects of
political and social injustice.
FATE OF THE ZANZIBAR
Montana historian William Lang’s article, “Tempest on Clore
Street, Race and Politics in Helena, Montana, 1906,” conveys an account of the
trials around the closure of the popular black saloon called the Zanzibar,
located on Clore Street in Helena. According to Lang and contemporary accounts,
the club's co-owner and proprietor Lloyd Vernon Graye's bombastic personality
played an important part in the case.
 Graye was successful, well-dressed (perhaps
to the point of opulence) and reportedly a womanizer.
 His actions had gained him few friends, even
among the black community. Joseph Bass,
The Montana Plaindealer,
noted that many religious people found his morally loose lifestyle
reprehensible, but nevertheless still desired he receive a “square deal.”
 Bass noted in an editorial about the
Zanzibar's closure that he believed the actions taken by the city council and
police chief only occurred because they viewed Graye as acting beyond his place
in their society. According to Bass, it
was not that the Zanzibar enjoyed a large white patronage, or its success in
general. Instead, the wealthy elite of
Helena “feared that [Graye] was making inroads, and really was the object of
admiration of damsels of the silk-stocking district of prostitution.”
 What this means is open to a certain amount
of interpretation. Likely, Graye had
become the middle-man for white prostitutes. At the time, prostitution in the
mining cities of Montana was common and lucrative, and according to Joseph
Bass, many wealthy tavern and boarding house owners in Helena benefited from
it. One tavern owner and city
councilman, Jake Lissner, along with fellow Alderman Henry Longmaid, fought for
the closure of Graye’s establishment.
The prosecution hid their vendetta against Graye in the
guise of “cleaning up Clore Street." Clore Street, now Park Street, had
long been the home of many of Helena’s immigrants and people of color. It was the business district for many Chinese
as well as African Americans. Over the
years, places along Clore received a rough reputation. Much of that reputation was hyperbole, as it
was claimed that it hosted opium dens and places of illegal gambling and
saloons whose patronage was solely drunks and minors, not to mention the active
aspects of each of these claims were legitimate, they were no less true for the
many saloons, boarding houses, and gambling facilities in other parts of Helena
that were owned by white “gentlemen.”
The Zanzibar doubtlessly contributed to the many vices of
the district, but racism played a central role in the case. It began with city Alderman James “Jake”
Lissner presenting the motion to revoke the business license of the club's
proprietors, Lloyd Vernon Graye and David Gordon, after two murder cases
involving Clore Street prostitutes were investigated. The motion was pressed on the basis that most
murders such as the most recent two, and a fabricated estimate that seventy
percent of the entire city’s crime, originated at the Zanzibar.
 When the courts first suspended the license
of the businessmen, Graye and Gordon appealed, claiming that no evidence had
been presented that any wrong doing occurred at their club. In the appeal process that followed, the true
nature of the prosecution emerged.
Lissner made passionate pleas against the red-light business ventures
and drunkenness of Graye’s saloon, all while his own bar one block east on Main
Street was known to be “a rendezvous for immoral women” and the host of many
 In the Democratic
The Helena Independent, the
editor decried race mixing, using Graye's reputation of taking up with white
prostitutes as an example. The paper
maligned Graye's character more than his business actions.
 For progressive black men like Joseph Bass,
this had far-reaching legal implications for the African American community.
The call for a “Square Deal,” what the Republican ticket had
promised in the last elections, dominated the appeal process, as well as the
rallying of public support.
The case Lissner and the city council brought against Graye and Gordon
was based on personal vendettas against a much disliked black man, and not on
substance. The appeal was upheld and the
license reinstated. For some time this
appeared to be a great legal victory for progressive politics. However, not long after, Lissner and the
Sergeant of Police Leonard Bailey drummed up new evidence and a testimony that
Graye had sold beer to minors in October of the previous year. With proof a crime in-hand, the city locked
the doors of the Zanzibar forever.
The Zanzibar's closure had many effects on the black
community. Foremost was the
acknowledgement by the political powers in Helena that black men were still
seen as inferior before the law. It was
a subtle ruling that on the surface to casual white observers could very well
seem just. A known pimp, hustler, and
proprietor of a rough club had been found guilty for what everyone would assume
to be just one of many legal infractions to take place on his property, and for
that his right to operate that business had been revoked. However, to the black community of Helena,
the hypocrisy rang too loud for this to be anything less than deeply perverted
justice. Lissner’s claim held no moral high ground, as his business was the
same as Graye’s. This added to the betrayal of the Republican mayor, Lindsay,
who the African American community had been staunch supporters of his election
 He had promised all a “square deal,” but here none was
given, making every black man and woman fear that the courts provided them no safety
at all. The closing of the Zanzibar was
a constant reminder of this fact, as it had for years been a place where
Helena’s many former Buffalo Soldiers met to reminisce, where young couples
could dance and socialize, and even for those more religious and morally
upright citizens, the Zanzibar had been a place to meet for various social and
civic clubs. The Zanzibar quartet met
and practiced weekly at the establishment. During these meetings, men like
Joseph Bass, a staunch supporter of prohibition, could be found singing with
other more conservative African American men.
 As such, all members of the black community
lost something along with Graye and Gordon.
In spite of the ruling, Helena’s African American community
was still on the way up in 1906 and would enjoy another decade of
prosperity. Lloyd Vernon Graye continued
to operate his successful tailoring shop in the basement of the National Bank
building on Main Street. David Gordon,
understanding that Graye’s bombastic character was a business liability, broke
off his partnership, and bought and opened a saloon directly across the street
from Lissner’s club.
Gordon found a new and well liked partner in William C. Irvin, who had
served as the city’s first and only black police officer. Their new club was a success and ran for
several years. Lissner fought his fellow
councilmen to decline Gordon and Irvin’s new business license, but was
defeated. Perhaps it was the absence of
Graye in the proceedings, or that Irvin was held in very high esteem by the
white Helena community as a devoted public servant, or perhaps it was in part
the public outcry against their decision against the Zanzibar that led members
give Gordon, who had undoubtedly been wronged, some small amount of justice.
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