Wilmot Collins, 54, poses for a photograph in his Helena home Wednesday afternoon.

Wilmot Collins, 54, poses for a photograph in his Helena home Wednesday afternoon.

Though Helena had a black mayor before it was even incorporated, local historians say former Liberian refugee Wilmot Collins may be the first in the state since then. 

Collins, 54, unseated Helena's mayor of 16 years James Smith in Tuesday's city elections. 

"For sure he is Helena's first 'official' black mayor and the first in Montana too!," Ellen Baumler, interpretive historian with the Montana Historical Society, wrote in an email to the Independent Record. 

However, the Helena Weekly Herald reported on May 22, 1873, that a "colored barber" named E. T. Johnson defeated two other mayoral candidates with a total of 56 votes before Helena became an incorporated town. An 1868 Helena city directory lists Edward T. Johnson as a black barber from Washington, D.C. 

MHS Community Preservation Officer Kate Hampton said some Montana newspapers considered Johnson's mayoral candidacy to be a joke. However, Baumler said he was known as Mayor Johnson from that time on. 

The 1870 Census lists Johnson as 32 years old with a personal estate worth $1,000. He was an authorized distributor of Frederick Douglas' "New National Era" paper and lost his business and home in a fire that devastated Helena in 1874, according to archives of the Helena Weekly Herald provided by MHS. 

Johnson was later elected to be a delegate at the state Republican Convention in 1876 and was a Republican candidate for Congress the same year, the newspaper's archives show. 

"He served as assistant marshal for Helena's centennial parade, representing the 'colored citizens of Montana' on July 4, 1876," Hampton said, adding that she could not find any mention of him in newspapers after 1877.

Subscribe to Daily Headlines

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Load comments