Stories of a bygone era
Contributions by black Routt County residents immeasurable
February 10, 2008
Steamboat Springs — The stern, coal-dusted faces of about 20 miners are fixed straight ahead in a 1942 photograph of a Moffat Coal Mine crew. The unity of the racially diverse men belies the segregation of the era.
The black coal miners who labored to make a living in once-thriving black communities in Oak Creek and Mount Harris are pieces of Routt County history that local historians say are largely forgotten. Stories include Mount Harris’ all-black baseball team; Oak Creek’s black Methodist Church and Afro-American Political Party; and Steamboat Springs resident Daisy Anderson’s experiences as the last surviving black widow of the Civil War.
February, which is nationally celebrated as Black History Month, provides an opportunity to shed light on the contributions made by black residents of the Yampa Valley, Steamboat resident Reggie Sellars said.
The original purpose of Black History Month, as envisioned by creator Carter G. Woodson, was to recognize the achievements and contributions of black people to American society.
Woodson felt black history and black contributions were misrepresented or ignored, which is why he founded Black History Week in 1926. The week was later expanded to a month in the 1960s.
Sellars, who is among the 1 percent of Routt County residents who are black, said black history is largely overlooked in an area that boasts of its skiing heritage and Winter Carnival traditions.
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“It’s part of our culture, and the labor of these people helped shape what has become of this area,” he said. “I don’t think most people around here even know there were contributions made by black folks.”
Sellars stressed that the contributions of black men and women are American history, not black history, but he said February often gives people a chance to talk about cultures they may live outside of.
“That chance to talk is always a good thing,” he said. “But it really hit home for me a couple weeks ago on Martin Luther King Jr. Day when our schools didn’t have that day off. Across the country, students were sitting down to learn about MLK or civil rights in their area. In Steamboat, it was like, “We are not going to study that now, but later.”
A bygone era
There is little left of Mount Harris but a roadside marker on U.S. Highway 40, while the area in Oak Creek that was settled by many black families – known as Hickory Flats – is now home to the Oak Creek Ice Rink.
“They came in a period of time in the 1930s and 1940s when the mining industry was booming and then when many of the white miners went off to war,” said Mike Yurich, archivist at the Tracks and Trails Museum in Oak Creek.
“When the mines closed down in the 1950s, the African American population started to dwindle. There were a few that continued to live here and a number died in the area, but to look around now, it’s hard to imagine that there was a black community here,” he said.
In an effort to save many of the lost stories of minorities in South Routt, Yurich has begun collecting historical documents and artifacts pertaining to blacks at the museum.
Yurich said his favorite artifact is a newspaper clipping from the defunct Oak Creek Times that recounts a baseball game played in 1932, between the all-black Mount Harris Browns and the all-white Oak Creek team.
“The Browns won the game 6 to 5 in extra innings against the previously undefeated Oak Creek squad, but the best part is that the Oak Creek fans cheered just as loud for the black team,” he said.
According to the newspaper article, “The blow to Caucasian prestige was accepted with honking of motor horns and a brief glow of pleasure for the Mount Harris colored team : The justification for the applause leads off into national history, the expediencies of the old Whig Party with its bosses down south and all its votes up north, the fugitive slave act, and the Dred Scott decision.”
In a folder full of faded newspaper clippings, Yurich pointed out an Oct. 10, 1929, article about the first all-black church service in Oak Creek.
“They said it couldn’t be done, but it was. The colored people of Oak Creek worshipped for the first time in the history of Oak Creek in their newly established church Sunday,” the article stated.
Yurich also has a ticket to a 1937 dance sponsored by Oak Creek’s Afro-American Political Party.
“When I asked around, I found that they organized because they weren’t welcome at public dances,” he said. “They organized so they could rent a hall and have their own dances. It was composed of people from Oak Creek, Mt. Harris and Steamboat.”
The most well-known black resident of Routt County may be Daisy Anderson, the last black widow of the Civil War.
When she was 21, Anderson married a 79-year-old Civil War veteran, a Buffalo Soldier and former slave named Robert Anderson Ball. Several years after his death in a car accident in 1930, she moved to Steamboat Springs and set up home in Strawberry Park to be near her sister, May Williams.
May Williams opened the Rushing Water Inn in Strawberry Park, providing beds to hunters and traditional southern food to all those who wanted a taste of the south.
Daisy Williams settled nearby with her brother Ernie Graham, a coal miner.
At age 4, Rita Williams was left in the care of her Aunt Daisy. From her home in Los Angeles on Thursday, Rita Williams said growing up with her aunt in Steamboat Springs was like a crossroad.
“The conversations and concerns and perspective that I lived with at home were all influenced by people looking at America in the 1800s,” said Williams, who chronicled her time with Daisy in her novel, “If the Creek Don’t Rise: My Life Out West with the Last Black Widow of the Civil War.”
Rita Williams later had the opportunity to attend Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp and The Lowell Whiteman School. She went on to earn a master’s of fine art from the California Institute of the Arts.
Daisy Williams, who was a licensed fishing guide with her sister May, told her own story in her autobiography, “From Slavery to Affluence.”
“There is just no place on the national consciousness that there were black Westerners, pioneers and cowboys,” Rita Williams said. “My people really accomplished extraordinary things, and when we look at Strawberry Park today, nobody would have known of that existence.”
Rita Williams said she wouldn’t be surprised if the legacy of her aunt is soon forgotten by those in Routt County.
“There are a lot of people in Steamboat Springs that are running away from urban problems and they have a kind of ambivalence to black people,” said Williams, who echoed Sellars’ sentiment that black history is American history.
“It’s incomprehensible to me that black history wouldn’t be part of an ongoing history curriculum the same way white history is,” she said. “But the opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference.”