When Eleise Clark set out to research her genealogy, she ran into a brick wall: the Civil War.
“I thought we were people,” Clark said. “But my grandfather was born as property.”
As Clark dug into bills of sale in search of tidbits of information on her enslaved ancestors, including her grandfather who was born to enslaved parents in the early 1860s, she developed a deeper appreciation for her cultural heritage. Now, she embodies it.
Clark, 67, heads the Jane Taylor Reenactors Guild, associated with Denver’s Black American West Museum, which for decades has kept alive the stories of Black people in Western history. The guild has had few engagements since the pandemic began, but Clark hopes as in-person events pick up steam, she and her five fellow reenactors can resume interpreting history through the lives of those who made it.
In classrooms and beneath tents at outdoor festivals, Clark and her fellow reenactors don period costumes and portray captivating figures from Western history, including Bass Reeves, a U.S. Marshal, Pony Express riders, and O.T. Jackson, who founded the predominately Black Dearfield farming colony in Weld County.
Clark mainly portrays three Black women, all of whom were born into slavery but found new lives in the West. Their lives carry lessons for people faced with adversity today, she said.
The first, Clara Brown, a former enslaved woman, was likely the first Black woman to come to Colorado during the Pikes Peak Gold Rush in 1859. She grew prosperous with investments in real estate, and earned the nickname “the Angel of the Rockies” for her work as a midwife and community philanthropist. But she spent much of her life searching for her four children, who were taken from her during her years of enslavement. She reunited with her sole surviving child at age 82, shortly before her death in 1885.
The next, Mary Fields, came west in the 1880s as a laborer for a group of Catholic nuns. At age 60, she became one of just two women to hold a “Star Route,” a contracted Postal Service route, delivering mail by stagecoach in remote stretches of Montana. A cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking, gun-toting frontierswoman, she was known for her fearlessness. When snow grew too deep for her stagecoach, she delivered mail by snowshoe.
The third is Cathay Williams, a former enslaved woman who was taken as contraband by the Union Army during the Civil War, and pressed into service as a washer woman for Gen. Philip Sheridan. After the war, she used her knowledge of soldier life to pass herself off as a man named William Cathay, and enlisted in the all-Black Buffalo Soldiers regiment and served in frontier New Mexico. Her sex was discovered by an Army doctor, and she was discharged and later denied a pension, but gained respect as a seamstress and boarding house owner in Trinidad.
To Clark, all three women carry lessons that resonate today.
“They learned to function in a world that told them ‘no’ all the time,” Clark said. “These stories are a testament to human determination. These women happened to be Black, but everyone struggles in one way or another. They teach us not to doubt what we’re capable of. If someone tries to stop you, find a way around them.”
When Clark portrays the women, she says she “calls upon the spirits of the ancestors” to help her tell their stories. Speaking as Brown, Fields and Williams has allowed her to empathize with their experiences.
“I can feel them,” Clark said. “With Clara, I can feel the pain of having your babies stolen and sold. But she didn’t lay down and die. She stayed determined. Cathay Williams, she saw a chance at a better life as a soldier, and she went for it. And Mary Fields, she looked at the world and said, ‘I know I’m big, I know I’m not the prettiest woman, but kiss my ass. Get out of my way. What are you going to do about it?’”
The stories of women who endured atrocities like having their children stolen can help modern audiences connect with current events, said Terry Nelson, the community resource manager at Denver’s Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library.
“Look at Hispanic families who have had their children taken at the border,” Nelson said. “Right now, there will be families separated in Ukraine. There are people losing their children today who will spend their lives looking for them, like Clara Brown did. We learn from these reenactors that people who endured unspeakable hardship found ways to preserve their souls.”
The guild’s reenactments also breathe dignity into Black genealogy, Nelson said.
“The study of Black heritage is the study of people who were considered possessions,” Nelson said. “The intent was to prevent enslaved people from having any individual identity except through their master. But the guild takes people who started life as property and shows us their humanity.”
The guild has become a mainstay at the Higher Ground Fair, an annual celebration of Western culture and art in Laramie, Wyoming. Though the fair has been on hiatus the last two years, organizer Gayle Woodsum said she’s thrilled to invite the guild back when the fair resumes in September.
The guild has an electric presence, Woodsum said.
“Not only are they bringing history to life, but that live performance with someone who so embodies a real person just lowers barriers,” Woodsum said. “The fear of not understanding history, of asking a stupid question, it melts away when audiences interact with them.”
The guild’s performances are a “radical act,” Woodsum said.
“These are stories that have been silenced and erased from how we think about the Old West,” she said. “The performers’ passion is a refusal to allow that history to be erased. We all benefit from hearing the whole story of the West.”
Some of the guild’s stories push beyond the 19th century into history only now fading away.
John Thomas, another reenactor in the guild, portrays a Tuskegee Airman, a member of a group of Black aviators who distinguished themselves in combat in World War II.
To research his role, Thomas was able to interview three surviving Tuskegee Airmen, two of whom have since passed away.
“They did incredible things,” Thomas said. “They were some of the top aces of the war. They put their lives on the line for their country, but the minute they walked down the gangplank when they returned home, they stepped back into segregation and Jim Crow.”
By interviewing surviving pilots, Thomas was able to add complexity to their story.
“They encountered hatefulness, but they also encountered those who embraced them and recognized their bravery,” he said. “That recognition helped push the Civil Rights movement forward, and it shows what can be accomplished when people come together.”
Clark said her performances at the Higher Ground Fair have moved people to tears, and stunned those who were unaware of the contributions and experiences of Black people in the West.
Then there are those who push back.
“You get people who don’t like our presentations,” Clark said. “They want Manifest Destiny, and they want it to belong to one group of people. They don’t want to accept that there were Black cowboys. They don’t want to think about it or believe it. It’s the same mentality behind banning books we see in some schools today.”
Clark had a unique vantage point on Black history in the West. She grew up in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, which for decades was the heart of Black culture in Colorado. But it thrived with a variety of cultures.
“I grew up speaking Spanish, and I knew Japanese Americans who had been in the internment camps,” she said. “I learned to make tortillas, tempura and schnitzel.”
When she was young, Clark said she didn’t feel the weight of race.
“I was just Eleise,” she said.
But coming of age in the Civil Rights era, through news reports she saw the barbarity Black people endured in their fight for equality.
She remembers attending speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his four visits to Denver in the 1950s and 1960s. She said Denver in the mid-20th century was a place of “laissez-faire racism,” where segregation and prejudice were enforced more by social custom than force of law.
Clark said she feels the historical figures she portrays, who emerged from slavery, would likely consider modern people to be whiners.
“They’d be amazed at how we bellyache today,” Clark said. “They’d say, ‘You mean you don’t have to milk a cow to get milk or get pecked by a rooster to get eggs?’ They’d think we have it good. But what we’ve lost is some of the love, the common sense they had.”
Clark said in many ways, life has improved for Black people in America, but the insidiousness of racism persists.
“We can go to college now,” she said. “We can get better jobs. But we still have to navigate Blackness. As a Black woman, I can’t hide who I am. Those in power don’t want to share that power. The game hasn’t changed.”
That’s why the guild’s message of perseverance is so vital, she said. The big task for the reenactors’ guild going forward is to recruit younger members to take over the stories from members who are growing old.
“We can’t keep doing this forever,” she said. “We need young people to embrace their heritage and keep this going. These stories, these lives, they need to survive.”