February 21, 2021- It’s well-known that thousands of African-Americans headed to the large cities of the Northeast, Midwest and California, both during the Jim Crow Era and as a result of the Great Depression, Less well-known is the movement of people of colour to the rangelands of the interior West. Those among the Black community in the South who were looking for independence, and a chance to prove themselves as individuals, listened when lower middle class whites talked of the Wild West, of cowpunching and the wide-open spaces. Many set out for territories like Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and the new states of Colorado and Nevada. They found, at least initially, that there was not as much judgment based on the colour of their skin, and few questions were asked about their antebellum status. Both men and women found their way west, with some women establishing hotels in small mining and ranching towns. Elizabeth Smith, one of the first settlers of Wickenburg, Arizona was prominent among them, owning and operating her own hotel, the Vernetta (named for her mother-in-law) and starting the town’s first Presbyterian church. She was forced to take a subservient role, in the 1930’s, when a coterie of business people from the East Coast arrived and instituted Jim Crow laws in Arizona. Elizabeth never gave up her dignity, though, quietly reminding the New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians, who engineered her shunning, that their ancestors had fought against slavery and for the freedom of all. While the Vernetta Hotel only remained open until her death in 1935, Elizabeth is once again honoured by the people of present-day Wickenburg.
The men who took on the work of ranch hands and cowpokes were treated somewhat better. Even the whites who came from the Deep South to work the range had better sense than to turn on their co-workers of colour. Here is one such Black Cowboy, offering a view of the Texas range that is not often celebrated.
The pioneering spirit burned brightly, in a good many who took the promise of “Forty acres and a mule” to the next level.