The African-American Women Who Made the West

Obscura Day celebrates the black women of the frontier.

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One of the earliest lessons that my parents taught me was the importance of celebrating the history of my people. As a black girl growing up in white suburbia, I couldn't rely on my elementary-school history books when it came to black history, because there was barely any in them. I learned about the past by reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and going on weekend trips to visit places like the African American Museum in Philadelphia. I discovered the stories of women like Madam C.J. Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Sojourner Truth in the glossy pages of oversize books given to me by family members and friends from church. 

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My experience is unfortunately common, which makes the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center in Denver, Colorado, a vital space. Founded in 1971 by Paul W. Stewart, the Black American West Museum plans to celebrate Obscura Day— which is the website Atlas Obscura's yearly celebration of "the world's most curious and awe-inspiring places" — by offering guided tours with historical reenactors to visitors on April 16. The museum highlights the experience of African-Americans in the West from the mid-1800s forward. 

"It's not black history. It's history from a black perspective," explains Terri Gentry, a volunteer docent and member of the museum's board of directors. "We're not an isolated incident. We weren't in a vacuum, we weren't separate. Our history is intertwined; it's just that sometimes our perspective is not presented." 

The museum not only celebrates the African-American communities that flourished throughout Denver and the western United States, but it also shines a spotlight on the African-American women who helped establish the economic and civic foundation of the black frontier. It features suffragettes like Elizabeth Piper Ensley, soldiers like Cathay Williams, and doctors like Dr. Justina Ford, who is also the former owner of the house where the museum is currently located. 

Black women were taking care of the homestead, Gentry explains. "They might have [had] a husband who is out working on another ranch for someone else while they [were] working in their house [while] also working in the home of a white family as a maid or a laundress to help bring in money." At this time, women like the philanthropic entrepreneur Clara Brown were running businesses and establishing schools while their husbands were away working as ranch hands or militiamen in Montana, Wyoming, or Kansas. "Sometimes the husband would be gone for a lengthy period of time, so there were multiple things that had to happen in order to take care of the family."

Visitors participating in this weekend's Obscura Day can anticipate getting a vivid glimpse into the lives of black Westerners through a series of reenactments depicting what daily life was like in the early days of Denver, in addition to a tour of the museum's exhibition. Centered around the black pioneer town of Dearfield, Colorado, which was founded in 1910, the museum's main collection houses an intimate assortment of photographs, personal belongings, and documents that once belonged to the town's original inhabitants while also highlighting the story of Denver's celebrated Buffalo Soldiers, Tuskegee Airmen, cowboys, and residents.  

You can find out more information about the Black American West Museum's Obscura Day event here

Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny. 

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