Black History Month In Montana

Black History Month In Montana

"He did not believe in segregating history by race, but rather, he dreamed of seamlessly incorporating the relevant history of all peoples into a unified discipline."

Of the numerous and notable African Americans who made Montana their home and helped the state prosper, my favorite is Bertie (sometimes spelled “Birdie”) Brown. February—Black History Month nationwide—is a good time to remember her.

“Bertie moved to Montana in 1891 and became one of the first Black women to homestead independently in the state,” writes Teresa Otto in Distinctly Montana. “Her good nature, tidy ‘home speak’ and famously good moonshine meant she had a steady stream of patrons.”

From her cabin on Brickyard Creek in Fergus County, Bertie stirred up what locals of every color regarded as a mighty fine brew. She did so in violation of Prohibition, but this woman had spunk. Sometimes, to get a bad law repealed, courageous people like Bertie step forward and break it.

A 2014 article in Montana Women’s History noted that Bertie’s homemade still “produced some of the best and safest moonshine in the country.”

It took a constitutional amendment (the 18th) and a law of Congress (the Volstead Act) to outlaw the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” in January 1920. After Prohibition yielded crime and mayhem with little to show for it all, it took another constitutional amendment (the 21st) to undo it in December 1933. In the intervening years, Americans paid an awful price for a fruitless effort to stamp out alcohol. 

No one disputes that some people will abuse just about anything, even freedom of speech by printing a lie. But the answer to the sins of the irresponsible few isn’t to outlaw the private, personal, and peaceful choices of the many. Thank you, Bertie Brown, for the courage to make the point.

Black History Month itself boasts a surprising history. The person responsible for it was a man who hoped for the day when it wouldn’t be needed. His name was Carter G. Woodson.

The son of freed slaves, Woodson was born in Virginia in 1875 and worked as a young man in the coal mines of West Virginia. From those profoundly humble beginnings, he went on to earn an undergraduate degree from Berea College, followed by graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard University. He died in 1950, the first child of slave parents to earn a PhD—which in his case was in history from Harvard. For most of his academic career, he taught at Howard University in Washington, DC but prior to that he taught high school in West Virginia and supervised a school in the Philippines.

His remarkable story is brilliantly told in a 2017 book by Burnis R. Morris, Carter G. Woodson: History, the Black Press, and Public Relations

Woodson did not view his students as empty heads he had to pour something into. He wanted them to think for themselves, just as he always did. He believed that to do otherwise is to perpetuate a form of slavery. To him, education was more about spurring young people to seek truth and enjoy the seeking. He disdained indoctrination, groupthink, and mindless regurgitation of some academic’s political agenda. He was a devoted educator who, as a free and independent spirit, left the plantation early in life and never ventured back.

In 1926, Woodson inaugurated a “Negro History Week” in February, which caught on around the country and ultimately expanded to the whole month. He wanted history taught in a way that left nobody out because of his color.

Woodson did not promote black history to stoke racial division. He wanted to fill a void by focusing on a topic long ignored in American education. He did not believe in segregating history by race, but rather, he dreamed of seamlessly incorporating the relevant history of all peoples into a unified discipline. 

In his biography, Morris recounts that at a convention once, the late and respected historian John Hope Franklin “heard Woodson say he looked forward to the time when it would not be necessary to set aside a week [or a month] for the observance of black history.” 

The great man undoubtedly believed, as Martin Luther King did, that people should be judged by “the content of their character,” not the color of their skin. In such an ideal, color-blind world, it would make no more sense to have a Black History Month than it would to have a White or Yellow or Red History Month.

I’m guessing that the hardscrabble and independent Bertie Brown might well have thought the same.


Lawrence W. Reed writes a monthly column for the Frontier Institute in Helena, on whose board he serves. He is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education and blogs at

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