Black South Dakota Pioneers

Jim Kent profiles Joyce Jefferson, an amateur actress and retired federal employee who's spent seven years educating audiences about black South Dakota pioneer.

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ED GORDON, host:

South Dakota's history brings to mind Native Americans and homesteading whites. But Jim Kent reports on one woman's determination to uncover the stories of the Dakota Territory's lesser known residents.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JOYCE JEFFERSON (Historical Re-enactor): (Singing) Camptown ladies sing this song, doo-dah, doo-dah.

JIM KENT reporting:

Joyce Jefferson has spent seven years educating South Dakotans about the history of African-Americans in the States. Among the characters she portrays are Kathryne Reynolds, the first woman to homestead in western South Dakota, and Lucretia Marchbanks, who owned a hotel and restaurant in the Black Hills. Jefferson enjoys introducing her characters around the state because it makes them more visible.

Ms. JEFFERSON: We walked through Cheyenne...

When we look at the history of South Dakota, there are very few people who stand out who are African-Americans. There is Oscar Micheaux. However, there are other African-Americans who have lived in South Dakota who have contributed to the establishment of this state who are not well known. So I tell their stories.

KENT: She's not a professional actress. She's a retired federal employee. But her passion for discovering and animating history comes across in her performances.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JEFFERSON: (Singing) ...That they might hear the trumpet clear when sounding General call. Or boots and saddles in our rush that each and every man might mount in haste, ride son and fast to stop the devilish band.

KENT: South Dakotans who've seen Jefferson perform say they're surprised that African-Americans have been in the state a long time. Marilyn Houghfor(ph) grew up here, but she says in the history books she read there was...

Ms. MARILYN HOUGHFOR (Theater Goer): Very little. Very little. I did know that they were in the South; that they were slaves; that there was a Civil War and they were freed.

KENT: Phyllis Gilbert(ph) also went to school in South Dakota before moving to Minneapolis.

Ms. PHYLLIS GILBERT: My American history classes, I learned a lot about the settling of the West and I learned a lot about the Indian conflicts, but I knew nothing--virtually nothing--about the Civil War itself until I got to college. And only then--and hardly any knowledge about black settlers in the Midwest.

Professor HERBERT HOOVER (History, South Dakota University): I don't think the schoolteachers should be blamed.

KENT: South Dakota University history professor, Herbert Hoover.

Prof. HOOVER: The people who should be blamed are the people who write the history books who haven't tracked the information. We have a very multi-ethnic population in south Dakota, but the word simply hasn't reached people in middle and high school levels because the scholars like me, you see, haven't done their work in putting out the information.

KENT: Theater goer, Marilyn Houghfor, blames the mind-set of the average South Dakotan.

Ms. HOUGHFOR: We're very homogeneous and we don't even know what we don't know.

KENT: Historical re-enactor Joyce Jefferson has lived in South Dakota most of her life.

Ms. JEFFERSON: I see that there's a story that needs to be told and I'm happy that I can be a part of telling that story.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JEFFERSON: (Singing) ...free at last. Thank God almighty, we're free at last.

We come from a Abbaz(ph) across the sea...

KENT: Jefferson is helping to establish an historic African-American trail through South Dakota. And reversing the pioneers' route, she's also planning to take her characters on the road to the East Coast next year. For NPR News, I'm Jim Kent in Rapid City, South Dakota.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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