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African Americans in North Dakota history

Written by Merry Helm

January 18, 2020 - Today is Martin Luther King Day.

There’s never been a significantly large population of African Americans in North Dakota. But there have been Black people in the state as long as there have been white people. Early records indicate that the earliest Black people came as slaves of explorers and traders. In fact, they were the first non-Native child born here.

Many also came of their own accord to follow the American dream. One of our most famous North Dakotans was Era Bell Thompson, who became the international editor of Ebony Magazine. She was the daughter of a homesteader near Driscoll who moved to Bismarck in 1919 to run a secondhand store.

Ironically, African Americans had a major advantage over European immigrants - they spoke English. Many had fought in the Civil War, and most had seen enough of the world to know they had a choice of whether to stay here or not; European settlers, on the other hand, were not as aware of their alternatives.

Many African Americans who came to the state were associated with the steamboat trade from St. Louis. Others were in the Army. After the Civil War, many regiments were being relocated out West to provide protection for the railroads, homesteaders and gold-seekers. Many thought that the soldiers wouldn’t be able to withstand the harsh Dakota winters, but General William Sherman, military commander of the West, insisted that troupes sent here be of both races.

In July 1891, two companies of Black soldiers from the 25th Infantry Regiment arrived at Fort Buford on the Upper Missouri, quickly followed by a third. The next summer, two companies from the 10th Cavalry joined them, and by 1893, Fort Buford was made up entirely of these enlisted men; the only whites at the fort were commissioned officers. Native Americans called them buffalo soldiers because their hair reminded them of curly buffalo hair.

They also worked as cowboys. Twenty-two-year-old James Williams worked cattle in the Medora area in 1886, and it’s told that he was such a good roper that he once lassoed a goose right out of midair. Another well-known cowboy was John Tyler, a friend to Teddy Roosevelt.

Of those who came to homestead, William Montgomery is noted for his 1,000-acre bonanza farm south of Fargo. In the Mouse River area, Frank Taylor was a highly respected horse dealer; he had a ranch near Towner where he specialized in raising and trading Percherons and Belgians.

And in sports, North Dakota had integrated baseball teams already in the 1930s. Long before Jackie Robinson broke into the majors, baseball teams all across North Dakota lured, from the Negro Leagues, some of the best players in the world, including legendary pitcher, Satchel Paige.

In short, African Americans may not have settled here in large numbers ... but their contributions have certainly been noteworthy.

Ann Sothern

Written by Merry Helm

January 22, 2020 - Today is the birthday of Hariette Lake, who was born in 1909 in Valley City. Her mother was an opera singer, her father was a “traveling thespian,” and her grandfather was a violinist.

When Hariette was six years old, her father deserted them, and her mother, Annette, moved the family first to Minneapolis, then to Southern California, where she was hired as a diction coach during the early days of “talking pictures.” Annette also prepared her daughter, Hariette, for life in show business, training her as a lyric soprano and teaching her piano.

In 1933, Hariette started her career with a brief movie role in which she and co-star, Lucille Ball, played bathing beauties. They hit it off and started experimenting with hair colors and makeup while slogging through a quagmire of bit-parts and walk-ons. Lucy described it as being “categorized with the scenery.”

Film mogul Harry Cohn saw Hariette in a stage performance and decided to cast her in a picture he was making for Columbia Studios’ “Let’s Fall in Love.” But there was a catch ... “There are already too many Lakes in show business,” he said, and promptly renamed her Ann Sothern. She didn’t complain. “I [wasn’t appearing] in B or C pictures,” she explained, “I was in Z pictures.”

Her performance got her noticed, and in 1939, she landed a sophisticated comedy, “Trade Winds,” which gained her rave reviews. MGM picked up her contract, and her popularity as a comic actress was cemented in “Maisie,” in which Sothern played a flippant former burlesque dancer with a warm heart and a lot of man trouble. The film was a smash hit and led to nine more Maisies. But Ann knew enough to leverage that success – for each successive Maisie, she insisted that the studio first give her another strong movie role to play. And Lucy? “I got all the parts Ann Sothern turned down,” she quipped.

Sothern’s greatest exposure came in the 1950s with the advent of the sit-com. While the studios forbade their actors to get into television, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz boldly launched “The Lucy Show,” and soon after, Ann Sothern launched her own TV career with a sassy character in a very successful show, “Private Secretary.” “The best comedienne in this business, bar none, is Ann Sothern,” Lucy said, and after Sothern left “Private Secretary,” Lucy and Desi commissioned their writers to create “The Ann Sothern Show.” Again, she was a hit, and the show ran for three years.

In 1986, Ann Sothern was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in “The Whales of August,” co-starring Lillian Gish, Bette Davis and Vincent Price. Twelve years before, Sothern had suffered a fractured vertebra and permanent nerve damage to her legs, yet she was still the life of the party. “When Ann appeared on the set,” said director Lindsay Anderson, “the whole atmosphere lightened up. She brought her own poker chips and played cards with the crew.”

Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies, has said, “There was nothing she couldn’t do. Light comedy was her forte, but she also was a good singer and the camera loved her.”

Ann Sothern died in 2001 at the age of 92. Today, as we remember her birthday, we can look back to how she ended her episodes of “The Ann Sothern Show” – she would look into the camera and say, “Good night ... and stay happy.”

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