By Tom Griffin
When Quintard Taylor was a brash 22-year-old teaching in the Black Studies Program at Washington State University, he thought he knew everything-and he wasn't afraid to tell everyone. The brand-new professor pounded home the fate of African Americans in America-slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Great Migration to the North, the Civil Rights Movement.
But in the middle of one lecture, a student interrupted him. "Why do you people only talk about the South and the cities of the East?" his student asked.
"Because there is no black history in the West," Taylor snapped back.
That retort wasn't good enough for Taylor's student, an African American from Oregon. "He challenged me on this," Taylor recalls. "He told me his own family came to Portland in 1854-that was only a few years after the city was founded. I asked him some more questions. I was so fascinated by this, I thought that maybe there is something to this story."
UW History Professor Quintard Taylor. Photo by Kathy Sauber.
That "something" turned out to be Taylor's lifelong obsession-the African American experience in the American West.
Some 25 years later, Taylor is perhaps the foremost authority on blacks in the West and an esteemed historian on the overall history of the American West. Last fall he was lured away from the University of Oregon with the UW's Bullitt Chair in American History, the oldest endowed chair at Washington.
Taylor says blacks and whites today hold the same misconceptions he did when it comes to African Americans in the West: Most are unaware of contributions going back to the 16th century. And this summer's hit movie Wild Wild West, starring Will Smith as a black Secret Service agent, isn't much help.
"It does raise people's consciousness about African Americans in the West," Taylor says, but fiction overpowers any historical facts. While there were African-American cowboys and gunslingers, "in the 19th century most black folk were going to the cities, where there was great freedom and greater opportunities."
Despite Hollywood distortions and historical omissions, the truth is that blacks have been in the West since the beginning of European exploration, he notes. The Spanish slave Esteban was one of only four survivors of an ill-fated expedition to Florida and Texas. The four faced a 1,500-mile, eight-year ordeal before reaching Mexico City in 1536. Later Esteban was the guide for the first Spanish expedition to what is now Arizona and New Mexico, where he died in 1539.
Closer to home, a farm owned by black settler George Washington Bush was one of the first permanent residences north of the Columbia River. That move prompted others to migrate north of the river, leading to the organization of Washington Territory. Today Bush's name graces the nearby town of Bush Prairie.
Blacks have been part of Seattle's history since the arrival of the first African American settler in 1858-three years before the founding of the University of Washington. In addition to the menial jobs of porter, cook and waiter, blacks in early Seattle were also hotel owners, businessmen and newspaper editors. White Seattlites even grew accustomed to the sight of of African American soldiers who were stationed at Fort Lawton during hostilities such as the Boxer Rebellion.
This history was a revelation to Taylor, who grew up in a small, segregated community in Tennessee and was trained as a urban historian. Classic histories of Detroit, Chicago, New York and the South centered on the conflict between blacks and whites. His early study of blacks in the West was "a rude awakening," he admits. "I began to realize that the real story in the West is not a black versus white issue. It is the story of African Americans making their way in a multicultural setting," he explains.