The forgotten pioneers: Walker Browning and Billings’ Black community

Wayman Chapel, an AME church, located at 402 S. 25th Street in Billings, Montana. Behind it, sits the parsonage for the congregation (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Society has mythologized the West as a romantic and heroic era full of optimism, largely told from the white man’s perspective. However, the history of westward expansion was a diverse undertaking filled with discrimination and hardships. African Americans, whites and other minority groups went west for homesteads, employment and gold. Native Americans suffered forced assimilation and land grabs so others could reap benefits.

Notably, the opportunities were not easily accessible to minority groups such as African Americans. For example, one Black family, the Brownings, migrated throughout the West before setting their roots in Billings.

For most African Americans, the West offered a better life than the South, but African Americans still faced discrimination and turmoil. In response, Blacks banned together in communities to encourage each other’s advancement and to combat social injustices. The communities made lasting impacts, but despite their efforts, their stories have been absent throughout the historical narrative. 

In the late 1800s American society was undergoing dramatic social and political changes. The Civil War was waged over the issue of slavery. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the enslaved population in the South that fought for the North. Black women, men and children were systematically abused, dehumanized and imprisoned by their enslavers. The proclamation gave the Black population freedom and independence.

The Reconstruction Era allowed Black men a chance at social mobility in the southern states. Although the African American population was free and had more power, racism persisted. Some Blacks still lived and worked on the same fields under their former enslavers — unable to do anything else due to lack of resources. They were the victims of discrimination and violence at the hands of whites and the Ku Klux Klan.

African Americans wanted to take advantage of their new freedom, so they journeyed west to escape the violence and oppression of the South.

The Black population viewed the West as a place for opportunity, hope and change. For example, the Territorial Suffrage Act of 1867 provided more opportunities than the South. The act allowed African American men living in the West the right to vote whereas Blacks in the South could not. Furthermore, thousands of Black soldiers, also called “buffalo soldiers,” migrated to Montana and helped colonize Indigenous lands. In turn, they claimed homesteads with the hope of integrating into Western society. Finally, the discovery of gold in Montana created a chance to strike it rich, and the expansion of the railroad led to employment opportunities.

One of these Black families who migrated west was the Brownings.

At 15, Walker Browning became an orphan and a caregiver to his younger siblings after his father died in the Civil War followed by his mother. Like most African Americans, Walker wanted to escape the oppressive South. In 1878, the young Walker and his siblings migrated to Omaha, Nebraska, where he married Ruth Merriweather.  It was not long until the couple started building a family.

That same year Walker, his siblings, and Ruth moved to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, where Ruth gave birth to their first daughter, Jessie Luetta, also called “Lulu.” Two years later, the couple had a son, Charles, and in 1881, their daughter Claudia was born. While the Brownings were building their family, Walker took advantage of the opportunities in the West. Walker joined the Hayden’s company as a cook on a historic survey for America’s first national park, Yellowstone. From there the family moved again to Deadwood, South Dakota, where Walker took his chances at gold mining.

A building and parking lot where the home of Walker and Ruth Browning, the first Black settlers in Billings was located, south of the railroad tracks at 106 S. 30th Street.

In 1882, the mining quickly played out and Walker sought work for the railroad in the emerging town of Billings, Montana, where the family decided to sink roots.  A year later, Walker finished constructing the family home at 106 S. 30th St. It is believed that the Browning family were the first residents to build a permanent home south of the tracks, known as the “Southside.”

A decal that advertises the Billings Southside walking route (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

The Black community started building homes around the Brownings.  Notably, the Southside became an enclave of diverse ethnic residents such as Germans, Chinese and Mexicans. The Southside would become an important place for rich culture and social ties. The Browning family devoted their lives to the Southside community and advocated for social changes.

African Americans migrated West for opportunities such as jobs and home ownership. The West is often romanticized with optimism; however, the era was embedded with contradictions and exploitation.

For example, jobs were available, but African American men had difficulty obtaining employment.  Schools were integrated but there were policies in place that created segregation. Once a school reached 10 Black children the students were required to be taught in separate schools. Moreover in 1908, local newspapers started using the racist phrase “Dark Town” when referring to the Southside.  

In response to the social injustices, the Brownings were influential in the community to cope with the oppression and to advocate for social mobility.

Walker and his son, Charles, earned leadership roles in the local Republican Party. Charles helped established the Taft Sherman Club. Its goal was to organize Black male voters and help with organizing locally. Ruth, Claudia, and other women also played a role in the community. The Billings Black community promoted women’s social mobility, higher education, organized community fundraisers and helped develop its own Black church.

Black women across Montana formed social clubs to promote societal change. Ruth was the president of the Billings’ Phyllis Wheately club and her daughter, Claudia, was a member. 

The Phyllis Wheatley Club, founded in 1918, served as a sort of social club that built the fabric of the diverse community, along with women sporting big hats, classy outfits and fancy shoes for fundraising events. The club promoted education for women by helping them obtain college scholarships. Members lobbied the government for public swimming pools, and assisted with founding the Wayman Chapel American Methodist Episcopal church.

The cornerstone of Wayman Chapel on Billings, Montana’s Southside. The church, which sits at 402 South 25th Street, was originally located 17 blocks away and was moved to this location (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

The Browning family played a significant role with establishing the Wayman Chapel, which was influential to the Black community in the Southside. Originally the church was located 17 blocks north of the railroad tracks.

The community, through a large effort, purchased and moved the building intact across the railroad tracks to 402 S. 25th St. The chapel was built in 1896, and is the only remaining building that is standing today from Billings’ early Black community. Nonetheless, discrimination persisted and Black population started to decline.

Montana’s Black population hit its peak in 1910 mostly in bigger cities such as Missoula, Billings, Great Falls, Helena and Butte. However, discrimination and intuitional racism caused the Black population to dwindle. When the Great Depression hit, the large white population targeted the Black community in part for the economic woes as well as drought that swept across the country. 

The KKK saw a resurgence, which resulted in more violence and discrimination. Moreover, the Western states implemented racist legislation and practices of the South.

In 1909, Montana legislation passed a ban on interracial marriages. Furthermore, in 1914 officials in Billings built the first public swimming pool. The public made violent threats against Blacks and other minorities who used the pool.

In response, the park board allowed minority groups from using the pool only on Sundays, justifying the ban was for their safety. In response, Walker Browning called out the discrimination in a letter to The Billings Gazette.

South Park Pool in Billings, Montana, located in South Park. The original pool and bathhouse was built more than a century ago. (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan)

Walker wrote: “I have been a resident of Billings for 32 years and have lived on the water from the Yellowstone River, and I do not think it would be seriously contaminated by a few of your people — human beings — whose chief desire would be a pleasant dip on a hot summer’s day.”

Despite Walker’s efforts for social justice, the Browning family would not live to see the pool desegegrated.

Ruth died in 1923, followed by Walker in 1925. The Billings Gazette respectfully paid condolences to both of their deaths, referring to both Ruth and Walker Browning as “Billings pioneers.”

Ruth was recognized for her membership in the AME church and contributions to the community. Ruth’s funeral services took place at the Wayman Chapel and attracted a large attendance, according to the report in The Gazette.

In Walker’s obituary The Gazette paid tribute to his life and role in the Yellowstone National Park expedition.

Even after Walker’s and Ruth’s deaths, the Brownings continued to play a role in the community. Walker’s brother, George, and his wife, Belle, opened up their home to African-American newcomers in Billings. Their home was known as “Mrs. Browning’s Furnished Rooms.” 

The historiography of Black history in the West especially in the Rocky Mountains has been understudied, perhaps due to lack of primary sources. Montanan historian Anthony Wood believes the lack of historical narrative stems from what he calls “colonial erosion” — the notion that white accomplishments have undermined and erased Black history in the West. As the white population grew and the African American population declined, more attention was given to white contributions. In turn, the historical memory for Black roles faded away.

For example, Wood explains that old buildings owned by African Americans were destroyed due to negligence, and officials were unaware of the buildings’ historical significance. For example, the only early Black structure in Billings that remains today is the Wayman Chapel. What was once the George Browning home at 112 S. 26th St. is a parking lot with a memorial plaque and garden to honor the family.

The same pool that Walker called for desegregating more than 100 years ago is at risk for suffering the same fate as other historic buildings. The building has not been maintained, and the years of neglect are visible.

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