Updated: Mar 23, 2021
During the Golden Antiracism Collective's celebration of Black History month, Daphne Rice-Allen of the Black American West Museum said, “One thing to know about Colorado history is that Black people were here and have been here.” Shirley Ann Wilson Moore centers African American narratives during Westward Expansion in her book, Sweet Freedom’s Plains.
“On the trek west, African Americans entered a diverse arena where Native, Hispanic, Afro-Latino, and European populations had been continuous for centuries.” (Moore, 2016, p. 5).
Moore organized the book in three themes. First, African American experiences and skills in key locations along the overland trails. Second, the perceptions of the African American’s in their journey west. Third, Moore describes what the West meant and what it was expected to be for African Americans.
Underlying the themes is the question of how many Black emigrants moved west on the Overland Trails. Matching the overtly racist policies and ideas of the time period, official record keepers and toll monitors dismissed, ignored, and discounted the presence of Black people. Moore estimates that each story in the book represents hundreds of anonymous emigrants. She gathered rare narratives from white diaries, interviews with family members, along with geographic and census records.
Behind I leave the whips and chains
before me spreads sweet Freedom’s plains
~William Wells Brown, from ‘Flying Slave'
Moore writes that many African Americans traveled the Overland Trails as slaves. There was also an unknown number of free Black people who took to the trails for a myriad of reasons. White and Black migrants shared ideas of prosperity and opportunity in the west, although Black people had a much more open-ended journey. The narratives describe the trip as the start of liberation and transformation. Simultaneously, Black people took significant risks crossing state boundaries, each state with different racist policies. Further, vigilantes seeking to return Black people to White ownership were present along the Overland trails. The many narratives in this book are as varied as the people that participated in Westward Expansion.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wonders what it would be like to learn history from a textbook in a conversation with Eve L. Ewing. As a white woman who was educated in predominantly white communities, this is very much my experience. My own ancestral stories never included a larger societal context much less conversations about race. I learned United States history from educational institutions.
The images I saw in school from Westward Expansion were White people, White narratives, and euro-centric art. Manifest Destiny was the only explanation offered. I will not forget the benevolent woman walking across the plains while Indigenous peoples and bison appear to flee before her. I was not exposed to the idea that African Americans were a part of Westward Expansion until reading this book. Surely I knew, but did I? My experience reveals a critical flaw in history education because multiracial experiences existed in the null curriculum, an omission that our current educational institutions ought not repeat.
Implications for the Classroom
There are three types of curriculum that exist at any given moment: explicit, implicit, and null curriculum. Explicit is what we say with words and implicit is what we communicate with conscious or unconscious actions. The null curriculum is composed of what is omitted on purpose or by accident. The null curriculum is dangerous; this is where erasure occurs. Bringing in historical narratives from diverse racial groups is one essential piece of antiracist work because it aids in the undoing of racial and multicultural erasure.
Sweet Freedom’s Plains can easily be incorporated into the explicit curriculum. Shirley Ann Wilson Moore’s writing is engaging and the book is free of complex jargon. There is an obvious place for the book to be included in Social Studies or Language Arts. The book could also be included in a cross curricular Project Based Learning (PBL) experience. My peers and I implemented a Patterns in Human Migrations PBL a few years ago that spanned Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies (please forgive the rubric). This could easily be modified to fit a variety of students’ needs and historical time periods. The possibilities are many!
Sidney Rose curated this list of books on racism in the US organized by state and topic. Most of the books are Middle School appropriate. Also, I invite you to join Sidney Rose's Patreon community: The Antiracist Liberation, dismantling white supremacy one universe at a time.
Moore, Shirley Ann Wilson. (2016). Sweet freedom’s plains: African Americans on the overland trails 1841-1969. University of Oklahoma Press.