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Tagged with " Nicodemus"
11 Jul
2017

The Lone Ranger was Black*

Was the Lone Ranger modeled after Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. deputy marshal who worked thirty-two years in the Arkansas and Oklahoma territories in the late 1800’s?  He may have been.

Lone Ranger, Tonto

“The Lone Ranger” classic TV and radio shows embedded this image of the character (with Tonto) into American lore.

History Is Biased

“The Lone Ranger was Black: Reintegrating Minority Viewpoints into Historical Fiction.” This intriguing title of one of the sessions offered at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland drew me in.  The session addressed the issue of bias in our history and the impact of that bias on authors of historical fiction.  Today we no longer view history as “the truth” but rather a story told through the lens of the teller.  Did you love the Lone Ranger when you were growing up?  I did.  We assumed he was a courageous (and white) lawman.  That’s how the story was told.

Readers of historical fiction express their fondness for this genre because they like a particular historical period and enjoy learning from fiction set in an historical context.  Readers also say they want accurate history in the stories they read.  Historical fiction writers have a responsibility to the historical record.  But what record?

American history, Black history, buffalo soldiers

Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry or the 9th Cavalry, while stationed at Yosemite National Park. ca. 1899 (Shutterstock).

Finding Alternative Viewpoints

A key question for authors of historical fiction is how to tell stories and develop characters with lives extremely different from their own given the bias of historical sources.  How do we find alternative viewpoints?  How can we do justice to the painful experiences of non-dominant characters in our stories?

Most of us have heard the story of Custer’s Last Stand or the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  From the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne perspective, they believed they were betrayed because their treaty rights were ignored after gold was discovered on native lands.  White Americans saw the Indians as wild and bloodthirsty and stubbornly refusing to move to the reservation.  For many of us, we learned only the white American history version growing up.

Bass Reeves and The Lone Ranger

When we watched and admired the Lone Ranger as children we accepted how he was portrayed.  Yet, he probably was based on the real-life story of Bass Reeves.  Reeves, a former slave, whose exploits were famous, was imposing at 6’2”.  The first black lawman west of the Mississippi, he cut a striking figure on his large gray (almost white) horse, while wearing his trademark black hat and twin .45 Colt Peacemakers cross-draw style. He was never touched by a bullet although he brought in 3000 criminals alive and 14 dead, killed in self-defense.  Reeves was called the “Indomitable Marshall.”  He left silver dollars as his calling card.  Other similarities to the Lone Ranger included his friendship and knowledge of Native American tribes and languages and his use of disguises to capture those he pursued.  The racism in our culture probably prevented the Lone Ranger hero from being portrayed as a black lawman.

Lone Ranger, Bass Reeves

“Who WAS that Masked Man?” Was it Bass Reeves?

The historical narrative is actually composed of multiple narratives.  We have often learned only one.  Most of the stories about homesteaders on the prairie who risked their lives and battled extreme heat and white-out blizzard conditions portray them as white.  In doing the research for my historical novel, “Sarah’s Secret,” I discovered a little-known town in Kansas called Nicodemus which drew freed slaves to homestead in the surrounding area after the Civil War.

Offering an Opposing Voice

As writers of historical fiction, we have an obligation to our readers to offer an accurate portrayal of both our characters and the historical context.  Our discussion in this conference session emphasized the importance of deep knowledge and experience of the culture in which our story is set as well as a recognition of the historical biases of the sources we are using.  This is especially important if the writer is writing in a cultural context other than her own.

Writing historical fiction provides us an opportunity to balance the bias of history by including an opposing voice of the non-dominant group in the story.  Since my protagonist, Sarah was traveling North by wagon through Kansas to return to Nebraska and her family, I thought it would add interest to the story to describe Sarah and her children unexpectedly encountering a black family in the middle of Kansas living near Nicodemus.

Sarah follows a narrow path with her seriously ill daughter to find help.  She discovers a welcoming family descended from former slaves who willingly share their modest home for several days while Sarah nurses her daughter back to health.  Her sons have fun with the son of the family. This was also an opportunity to include an opposing voice to traditional bias when Sarah tells her concerned son stories about her own and her father’s rejection of slavery, support for the Union in the Civil War and her family’s generosity toward “Negro” families when she was a child.

Have you been surprised when you learned a different narrative from the “official record?” Tell us about it.

*Thanks to J. James Cotter for leading the session “The Lone Ranger was Black: Reintegrating Minority Viewpoints into Historical Fiction” at the Historical Novel Society Conference, June 2017

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23 Feb
2016

A Town Built on Opportunity and The Pioneering Spirit of Former Slaves

In recognition of Black History Month, I wanted to share this background from my research for my novel inspired by the lives of my grandparents. 

 “No, my parents homesteaded here after the Emancipation.  They came up here from Mississippi. It was a long and hard journey but they made it and settled on this land.” Alida responded proudly…

…your husband?”

  “Oh, George is in town, in Nicodemus .  He runs the General Store.  His father helped establish the town.  George’ll be home for supper. And if your baby don’t get better, George’ll get the doctor in town.”  (Excerpt from: “Trust, Betrayal and Forgiveness:  A Family Story”  a novel in process)

I discovered the town of Nicodemus doing my research about Kansas.  Nicodemus is the only remaining western town established by African Americans during Reconstruction after the Civil War.  To many freed slaves, Kansas was a symbol of opportunity and freedom associated with the “underground railroad” and the abolitionist John Brown.  Nicodemus survives as a symbol of opportunity and the pioneering spirit of former slaves.

A Town Built on Opportunity - 1

In 1877, six former slaves from Kentucky followed the leadership of one of their own, Reverend H. W. Smith and a white man, W. R. Hill, an experienced land speculator.  They believed the stories Hill recounted of a “Promised Land” with abundant game and rich soil   available through the Homestead Act.  They came with the goal of establishing the first all-black settlement on the Great Plains

Several stories are told about why they named the town Nicodemus.  One claims that the town was named after the biblical figure “Nicodemus”.  Another tells about an African prince taken into slavery and later bought his freedom.  And, yet a third story suggests it was named after an escaped slave.

A Town Built on Opportunity - 2

This is the Williams Family. Most people living in Nicodemus are descendants or related to this original settler’s family. The caption is left to right. Charles, Henry (first baby born in Nicodemus), Clara, bottom row Charles Sr., Emma, Neal. (Click picture to read more)

 

They recruited through posters distributed all over the South and by word of mouth.  In the late summer of 1877, 308 railroad tickets were reportedly sold to desperate families wanting land and freedom.  Early settlers were very poor and often arrived without tools, horses or provisions.  As I wrote in my last post, the shortage of timber forced these settlers to build their homes out of sod or in dugouts like many other pioneers. One story is recounted by a woman who arrived very sick.  Looking around after hearing the cry, “There is Nicodemus,” she could only see smoke coming out of the ground.    Although the location of the town was chosen along the bank of the Solomon River, and considered an area suitable for farming, many found life there to be too challenging.  This barren land was hardly the paradise these former slaves had been promised.  Many families returned to the green hills in Kentucky.  Additional groups of settlers arrived with more resources and the population grew.  Those that settled and stayed showed resourcefulness and hard work.

Nicodemus remained a small thriving African American community through World War I.  In 1910 the population is recorded at 600.  As with many farming communities, the Depression and the Dustbowl were devastating. The population reached a low point of only 16 people.  Several other black settlements sprung up in Kansas after the Civil War, but Nicodemus was the only one to survive.  Revitalized in the 1970’s, Nicodemus was recognized as a National Historic Site in 1996.

The story I am currently writing, is inspired by the lives of my grandparents, Sarah, a widow with five children, traveling by wagon through Kansas in 1911.  She is desperate to return to the homestead of her parents in Nebraska to have the comfort of family nearby.   Before they can reach Nebraska, her baby daughter becomes seriously ill.  She needs help.  She rides one of the wagon horses down a rutted path, leaving her other children with the wagon.  She worries if she is safe, if she can find aid and support or if she will be turned away.  She knocks on the door of a small house with smoke curling from the chimney.

The door opened a crack and a Negro face with black searching eyes peered out.  “Yes, ma’am?”

“My baby daughter’s very sick.  We’re traveling by wagon to Nebraska.  I need some help.”

The door opened wider to reveal a tidy room with handmade wood furniture.   A small woman, with dark brown skin and a kerchief tied around her head motioned me inside.”

In the story, this family, descended from former slaves who settled in Nicodemus, welcomes Sarah and her children to stay until the baby is well.

Do you know other stories of settlements by African Americans (or other ethnic groups) who homesteaded in other states?

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