Tuesday, November 22, 2022

"Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West" at the James Museum

"The Truth Hurts: Riches, Resentment, Revenge, RIOTS"
by Carolyn Crump
I've been a hold out on visting The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art. Western art just isn't my thing -- or so I thought. Still, I was eager to see the Museum's special exhibit "Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West." The exhibit features quilts made by the Women of Color Quilters Network and highlights the stories and achievements of Blacks in American western history. It is an impressive show. 

I am ashamed to say I'd never heard of the Tulsa Massacre and Race Riots until I saw the show "Watchmen" with Regina King. I found myself doing some research to learn if the horrifying attacks on the Black residents and businesses of Greenwood depicted in the show could possibly be true. Of course the sad answer was yes. 

Carolyn Crump's work depicts O.W. Gurley, one of the leading entrepreneurs in the area of Tulsa known as Black Wall Street. Expand your view of this quilt if you can so you can see the detail. Other Black businessmen are depicted in the blue portion of the quilt. The newspaper Gurley holds includes a picture of an unarmed Black soldier facing off against a white armed marshal. There are flames in the background and a Black man hanging from a tree. The parts of the quilt surrounding Gurley picture hooded Klansmen bearing torches and burning buildings. I can only imagine what a difficult work this was for Crump to create.

Detail from "Watts Riot" by Viola Burley Leak 
Another quilt focused on the devastation of the Watts Riots. I was familiar of course with the 1992 riots that took place following the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers charged with the use of excessive force during the arrest of Rodney King. But I didn't know about the 1962 riots that occurred over a five day period following the arrest of Marquette Frye for drunk driving. When he resisted, an officer hit him in the face with a baton. Numerous bystanders witnessed the abuse, and the city erupted. The riots resulted in 34 deaths and more than $40,000 in property damage. The 1992 riots led to 63 deaths, 12,000 arrests and estimated $1B in property damage.

Shown here is one of five panels that address the issues of drunk driving, physical confrontation, police brutality, surmounting anger and the explosion of the riot. Each panel includes some type of fire, a reference to the 1962 rally cry of "Burn, Baby, Burn." 

"Stagecoach Mary" by Dorothy Burge
I loved this quilt for many reasons, not the least of which is its unique shape. You definitely didn't want to mess with Mary Fields aka Stagecoach Mary.  She was the second woman and first African American woman star route mail carrier in the U.S. And now for a digression. The postal service used to go by the motto "Celerity, Certainty, Security." Apparently people had better vocabularies back then than I do since I had to look up "celerity." It means swiftness of movement. Each word had its own star, which is why they were called star routes. It does make you wonder if there were unstarred routes -- especially since this nomenclature was used until 1970. But that's a question for another day. 

Anyway... the wall cards for each quilt were quite fulsome, so I'll just quote from Dorothy Burge's description of Mary:  "Fields drove the 15-mile route from Cascade to St. Peter's Mission, Montana from 1895 to 1903...The six foot tall Fields was a quick-shooting and hard-drinking mail carrier who wore men's clothing and flaunted a revolver and a rifle. Locals praised her kindness and generosity, and schools in Cascade were closed each year to celebrate her birthday. Cascade's mayor granted her an exemption to enter saloons after Montana passed a law forbidding women from entering these establishments." This is a woman I'd like to sit down and spend some time with. 

"Cathay Williams aka William Cathay:
Female Buffalo Soldier" by Georgia Williams
Georgia Williams' quilt celebrates Cathay Williams, the first Black Female Buffalo Soldier. Of course the Army didn't know she was a woman when she enlisted in 1864. (No physicals were required at the time.) She served for two years under the name William Cathay as part of a racially segregated unit. 

Why, you might ask, would Williams want to become a soldier? First, she had some military experience. Williams was a teenage house slave living in Jefferson, Missouri when Union forces occupied the town. Captured slaves were often taken as contraband rather than freed. That gives one pause, doesn't it? Williams was put into service as an Army cook and washerwoman and traveled around the country with her Infantry unit. 

Once the war was over, few job opportunities existed for newly freed slaves. Many joined the military. Williams is quoted as saying, "I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations and friends." Williams' gender was discovered when she was hospitalized after contracting smallpox, and she was discharged from the Buffalo Soldiers when she was released from the hospital. It is estimated that 400 women posed as men in order to serve during the Civil War. 

These are just a few of the 50 quilts in the "Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West" exhibit at the James. The show runs through January 8th. If you go, allow time to see the rest of the Museum. I was surprised by the variety of work on display, from striking photographs by Edward Curtis to a Warhol-esque take on Red Cloud, a leader of the Oglala Lakota, by Stan Natchez. For more information about the James, click here.  

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