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A new exhibit in St. Petersburg celebrates the Black Pioneers of the American West

Quilt of Black man wearing suit, tie, hat in front of American flag
Tierney Davis Hogan, Langston Hughes, Pioneer Poet, 2021
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©Tierney Davis Hogan
"Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West,” is now on view at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg

Popular culture generally hasn't done much to portray the history of diversity when it comes to developing America's western frontier. A new exhibit at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art examines the overlooked stories of Black settlers in the west.

When we think about the Wild West, many of us probably imagine characters from a Clint Eastwood or John Wayne movie.

But the reality is, the West is — and was — a melting pot.

Carolyn Mazloomi, the curator of "Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West,” at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, says the exhibit fills in the mostly missing historical record of Black people in 19th-century America.

"When you look in terms of knowledge and writing of Africans in the West, there's not that much information written,” Mazloomi said. “I grew up in the segregated South where only history of white people was taught. Even Black folks didn't know their own history themselves."

The first significant migration of African-Americans into the West began in the mid-1800s when escaped slaves crossed from Missouri into Kansas territory where they were allowed to homestead. At the end of the Civil War, thousands of Black people emigrated to Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, and beyond.

Mazloomi says these Black pioneers came to escape the hostility of the Jim Crow era. Many started businesses and established Black towns.

"The people that came, they were looking for a better life for themselves and their family," Mazloomi said. "They were trying to escape racism in the South. They were looking for a better way."

Quilt depicting western imagery, horses revolver, cowboy hat
Lauren Alisa Austin,View from the Camp Table,2021,@Lauren Alisa Austin
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The stories of these Black pioneers are illustrated through a collection of 50 pictorial quilts, arranged in chronological order, each hand-fashioned by members of the National Women of Color Quilters Network especially for this exhibition.

Mazloomi, who founded the group in 1985, says these handcrafted textiles are not your grandmother’s quilts.

“I've long said that the quilts have jumped off the bed on to the wall and now seen as works of art," Mazloomi said. "You see more quilts being displayed in museums and art galleries across the country."

These colorful, detailed works of art chronicle the arrival of Africans in the American West in 1528 all the way through the civil rights movement.

The curator says it makes sense that quilts were chosen as the visual medium for this exhibition, because quilt making was one of the few ways enslaved people and marginalized groups could tell their stories.

"When Africans were first brought to this country, they were not allowed to read and write and making traditional art was the only method that they had to communicate," Mazloomi said.

Each quilt in the exhibition provides a different visual narrative.

In one piece, we learn about Bass Reeves also known as the Black Lone Ranger, one of the first African-American deputy U.S. Marshals west of the Mississippi. We see Black people setting up gold mines in California, and meet African-American cowboys and rodeo stars in Texas.

Qullt depicting black gold miners in blue river
Connie Horne, Black Miners, 2021,©Connie Horne
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The stories of Black pioneers are illustrated through a collection of fifty pictorial quilts.

"They came from all walks of life," Mazloomi said. “They were entrepreneurs, they were writers, archeologists, as well as miners, explorers, the whole gamut."

Black women also played a pivotal role in the making of the American West. Like Mary Fields, also known as Stagecoach Mary, the first African-American woman mail carrier and Cathy Williams, the first Black woman to enlist with the U.S. Army and the only known female member of the Buffalo Soldiers.

Mazloomi says with each quilt, the artist was deliberate in their choice of colors and textiles.

"In Africa, the cloth has a very special symbolic and spiritual meaning,” Mazloomi said. “The colors and the patterns, each tell their own stories."

Mazloomi says these stories deserve to be more widely known and the exhibit at the James Museum is a good starting point to elevate the contributions of African-American pioneers.

"We as Black folk have participated in the making of this country in every facet since we stepped off the boat,” Mazloomi said. “That's important."

It's a missing chapter of American history, found — through the use of cloth, needle and thread.

Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West is now on view at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.
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