In August of 1948, Octavia Bridgewater was a black nurse working at the old St. Peter’s Hospital, when she saved the life of newborn Patty Tobin -- now Patty Mazurek, the widow of former State Attorney General Joe Mazurek.
“After she was born, I tried to breastfeed her and she got diarrhea really bad,” said Patty’s mother, Barbara Creel. “Octavia was my nurse.”
Creel recalled Bridgewater telling Dr. Morris, “This baby is going to die unless you do something.” The doctor immediately did an emergency blood transfusion, and Patty began to recover.
Bridgewater, who had earned nursing degrees in New York, was initially denied employment at Montana hospitals because she was black, said Montana Historical Society historian Ellen Baumler. During World War II, she was chosen as one of only 56 African-American nurses, of 8,000 in the country, to serve in the military, and would push to have the quota lifted.
Octavia and her parents, Samuel, a buffalo soldier at Fort Harrison, and Mamie, a leader in Helena’s Second Baptist Church and the Helena Chapter of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of early black residents in Helena.
They, and others, will get more attention and recognition, thanks to a recent National Park Service two-year grant of $27,000 to the Montana Historical Society’s State Historic Preservation Office.
Focus on Helena
The project, “Identifying African American Heritage Places,” builds on previous MHS research on black heritage, said Kate Hampton, community preservation coordinator at SHPO.
Researchers are particularly focusing on Helena because it historically had one of the largest populations of African-Americans in Montana, said Hampton.
The black population peaked here at 420 in 1910, according to Baumler.
But blacks were part of Helena’s earliest recorded history.
The first African-American arrived back when this was still the Last Chance gold camp, when Joseph Allen, a hack driver from Saratoga Springs, New York, came here with the Holmes wagon train in 1864, according to Baumler.
But, of course, he was not the first to set foot in Montana. That honor may go to York, who was a member of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery.
MHS research will focus on the period of 1910 to 1930 because “that’s where we’re going to find a lot of material,” said Hampton.
1910 and 1930 census record
MHS staff and Carroll College interns are poring over the 1910 and 1930 census records, finding the names of black residents and family members, and then locating their addresses and places of employment using R. L. Polk & Company city directories of the time. These addresses are marked down on historic Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Helena from those years and then transferred to digital maps.
The digitized historic maps have been overlayed with the current layout of the city, where one can simultaneously view both layers of the map.
This spring, Hampton plans to hire a consultant to complete the property record forms that detail the history of the identified properties.
“We’re hoping to do 40 inventory forms,” she said, “from residences to businesses.”
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One could be the Montana Club, she said, where Julian Anderson was a well loved black bartender for decades.
Another could be the Wise Penny, which was the Dorsey Grocery for decades. After Walter Dorsey died at an early age, his wife, Almira and their daughters, Carrie and Lena, ran it.
The historic properties will likely be dispersed across Helena, Hampton said, because African-Americans lived in a number of different neighborhoods -- the Raleigh-Hoback area, Highland Street, State Street and Wood and Peosta. Families also lived by the Broadwater on Kessler Row. Blacks in Helena were never segregated into one neighborhood.
“So many of the properties and African-American businesses fell victim to bulldozers during urban renewal,” said Hampton, as did downtown residences and businesses owned by the Chinese community.
However, some sites, like the Haight-Bridgewater House at 502 Peosta Ave., have been preserved, and it was recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We’re hoping to get a lot of encouragement from the city,” Hampton said of the current history project. She also wants property owners to be aware that MHS is in the process of identifying historic properties of interest. “We would be delighted in having property owner participation.”
“We’re hoping to submit a Multiple Properties Documentation to the Park Service,” she said, with perhaps one property nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.
The MPD would document the history of African-Americans in Helena, Hampton said, making it easier in the future to get historic properties recognized by the National Register of Historic Places.
The new historic mapping will be put on an updated MHS black history website, so people can click on a property and have its history pop up on the screen.
A model for other groups
The Helena research project will be a model for 16 preservation groups across the state to use to do their own local research project in the future. And as part of this current grant, they will each document at least one property.
Black history isn’t just about the urban experience, Hampton said. Montana had black cowboys, buffalo soldiers stationed at each fort and also black homesteaders.
“Millie Ringold had her own mine and also ran a boarding house in Utica,” said Hampton. Ringold, a former slave, was a gold prospector in the Little Belt Mountains.
“Mattie Castner ran the Castner Hotel in Belt, which was certainly an integral part of Belt,” said Hampton. A former slave, Castner became known as “the mother of Belt.” Her “generosity was rivalled only by her exquisite cooking,” according to one MHS document.
Both Billings and Great Falls still have active African Methodist Episcopal Churches. In the past, there was one in a number of Montana communities, including Helena. “The one in Great Falls (the Union Bethel AME Church) had a wonderful renaissance,” said Hampton. “The community rallied and restored it,” with the local bricklayers union redoing the brickwork to make the building safe. Since then, the congregation has been steadily growing, said Hampton.
“We are so happy to be doing this,” said Hampton of the latest research. The current project builds on earlier MHS census research from 2008.
“That’s the joy of this project -- it snowballs,” she said. From census names, researchers are moving to the addresses and mapping them. As they dig more into black family histories, it could lead to future research with oral histories, and also focusing the research on other cities in Montana.
For more information, call Hampton at 444-7742.