Dakota Discovery Museum gears up to feature exhibit on early African American settlers
The Dakota Discovery Museum is aiming to chronicle the unique history of South Dakota’s African American pioneers with its new exhibit.
For the past several months, Dakota Discovery Museum Manager Rod Brown has been focusing his efforts on developing the “New Land; New Hope” exhibit, which is slated to open June 18. The exhibit will be on display until mid-November.
“There are so many fascinating stories and journeys of African Amercians settling in South Dakota, and we feel they are important pieces of history that need to be told,” Brown said.
The exhibit will include 30 freestanding panels speckled with old photographs and historical information on influential African American people or groups who settled in South Dakota.
Among the panels will be the story of Leonard “Bud” Williams, a former Mitchell mayor and resident, who Brown said was an African American pioneer and leader for the city of Mitchell. The late Williams was a Mitchell High School graduate and became the city’s first African American mayor in 1986, serving four terms in the mayoral chair. Williams is survived by his wife, Bonnie, and Brown said he’s been grateful to delve further into Williams’ journey to Mitchell with the help of his widowed wife.
“Bud was not only a leader in the community he was a leader for African Americans across the country. Along with his political success, — he was a strong military captain for an all-black regiment during WWII,” Brown said. “It’s been a pleasure working with his wife through constructing his panel in the exhibit.”
During the tumultuous times of slavery, which spans from the early 1600s to mid-1800s, Brown said the Dakota Territory was looked at as a fairly welcoming state for African Americans. Although the Dakota Territory — South Dakota’s name before it became a state in 1889 — was largely uninhabited, Brown said the first documented African American to inhabit South Dakota was William Clark’s slave, York. Clark is widely known for his exploration of the Dakota Territory with his partner Merriweather Lewis. According to Brown, York was a vital component to the success of Lewis and Clark’s expedition.
Because of the services York provided during the expedition, including nursing Lewis and Clark back to health and hunting for food along the journey into the Dakota Territory, Brown dedicated a panel to the late African American pioneer.
“York’s panel is unique, because there are no actual photographs of York available,” Brown said. “There are paintings and statues that we are told replicate his appearance, but no one has ever seen an actual photo of York.”
In addition, there will be a panel featuring the journey of Sarah Campbell, the first African American woman to establish roots in South Dakota. Brown said Campbell’s journey to the state details her triumph over the many challenges that an African American woman faced during the early to mid-1800s.
Brown said Campbell was sold to Henry Chouteau in the early 1800s. Chouteau was the cousin of Pierre Chouteau, the founder of Fort Pierre, the neighboring community of the state’s capital.
“Sarah’s story is also unique, because she won a court case that granted her freedom when she was just 14,” Brown said. “She became a nationally known cook, as well.”
The Buffalo Soldiers will represent one of the panels that features an African American group, Brown said. Buffalo Soldiers were African American soldiers who primarily served for the United States cavalry units on the Western frontier shortly after the Civil War in the mid-1800s.
Brown said the Buffalo Soldiers were tasked with fighting in Indian wars that took place in South Dakota and near the Black Hills.
“They had lower desertion rates than white soldiers; better performance than most white units,” Brown said of the Buffalo Soldiers. “They left Dakota Territory before South Dakota became a state, but they had an impact on the history of the state.”
The six-month exhibit will also feature paintings and art pieces of the state’s African American pioneers. Four paintings that will be on display throughout the exhibit were created by Wessington Springs High School students.