A Conversation with Ellen Baumler
about the History of Chinese and African-Americans in Montana
By Cristina Estrada-Underwood
“I think each one of those ethnic groups is a missing chapter, and in order to have a complete picture of our state history we can’t ignore their journeys. They made a huge impact even though that population isn’t necessarily here anymore.”
It is always delightful to have a conversation with Ellen Baumler. She is one of those individuals who transpires her passion about history—particularly about Montana history. I have had the opportunity to attend several of her lectures and every single one of them has been very informative, but at the same time very straightforward. Baumler has an accomplished career as a historian; she is one of the most well-respected historians in the region. She describes herself as an “author, educator, and interpretive historian.” Baumler received her PhD from the University of Kansas in English, classics, and history and has worked at the Montana Historical Society since 1992. While there, she has composed hundreds of signs for Montana’s historical sites, written National Register nominations, developed historic walking tours, and collaborated on the creation of roadside historical markers. Baumler is an award winning author of eleven books and dozens of articles on a wide variety of historical topics. One of her most important accomplishments is that in 2011 she was the recipient of the Governor’s Award for the Humanities. On a side note, she was the hostess of the popular radio show History on the Go and also has had appearances on national TV (The Travel Channel).
Ellen graciously agreed to meet me to have this conversation the day after her presentation at MSUN [Profiles of African-American Montanans] but before going to the second presentation she had scheduled that day in town.
Tell me a little bit about you. Where are you from originally?
I’m not from Montana; I came here in 1988. My husband is an archeologist and got a job here as a state archeologist, here in Montana. Our daughter was about 3 when we came; we had spent 10 years in Tucson, but I grew up in Kansas City. My father was an attorney, both grandfathers were attorneys, as well as my uncle too, so I come from a family of attorneys. I went to the University of Kansas and also the University of Missouri and back to Kansas to get my PhD. My husband and I were married, and we lived in Arizona while he was in graduate school at the University of Arizona. I had taught GED classes while I was there for 10 years, although I had really enjoyed it, I was getting really burned out, so when we moved to Montana, we came to Helena, and that’s where we live today. I was fortunate enough to stay home with my daughter for 3 years, and then was very lucky to get hired by the Montana Historical Society in 1992. My job there started out at about 10 hours a week to sort of create a national register sign program that was a new idea at that time. The program is still going strong today and is funded though Montana lodging and facilities tax. My job is basically funded through that, but it’s branched out, so I still do signs, but I do a lot more besides that.
What prompted you to do research about different ethnicities in Montana?
I think it started probably with the Chinese. I served on a person’s dissertation committee at the University of Montana, who was an archeologist doing his work in Chinese archeological sites, and I learned a lot from his 500 page dissertation. I think than I began to realize there wasn’t really any study done, the main missing ethnic histories were African-American and Chinese, so I had sort of concentrated on those two groups because they are huge gaps in our history, in Montana. Nobody had really done much research in either one of those groups, so I created a PowerPoint for school use on African-Americans and began to look at the contributions that they have made, and it’s really blossomed into other researchers taking up on the idea. I’m not the only one who has done that, Ken Robison in Great Falls has done a tremendous amount of work, but he’s primarily worked in Great Falls. I looked at the state wide African-American population and really quickly began to realize that those stories are completely untold. It is difficult to seek them out because most of it is not written down, so we have to do a lot of background work to flesh out those stories and family members, but we have come up with family members to interview; we have come up with family pictures of some of the families. In Helena in particular, because it was one of the largest urban centers, we had one of the largest early African-American populations. The State Preservation Office has a grant to identify places where African-Americans lived and list those places in the National Register of Historic Places. I think they have been pretty successful in finding several places across Montana in every community, but they are still looking. Any information that comes forward is really helpful and appreciated.
Ellen during her interview
(Photo by Cristina Estrada-Underwood)
Nice! I do remember reading something about it in one of your newsletters (referring to the Society Star, Montana Historical Society Newsletter)
Yes, and as we were talking last night, here in Havre [referring to her presentation the night before the interview titled Profiles of African-American Montanans scheduled as one of the events in observance of MLK day] Alice Pleseant was one of Havre’s beloved and colorful characters (she was an African-American woman) but the places where she lived, we don’t think still exist, so it’s really too bad.
You somewhat gave me an answer into my next question which is: Why do you think it is important to investigate these diverse groups in Montana? Is there anything else you might want to add?
I think each one of those ethnic groups is a missing chapter, and in order to have a complete picture of our state history we can’t ignore their journeys. They made a huge impact even though that population isn’t necessarily here anymore. We have a very small Chinese population in Montana today because Chinese who came were mostly single men who left their families to make a fortune and often times they didn’t get to go back home. They didn’t marry, and they didn’t have children, so the population vanished. In the case of the African-American population, it has been always small, but always vital, and I think we have to look at why that population diminished. It did so because job opportunities were very few here in Montana. Many African-Americans went elsewhere to make a living during WWI and WWII. Today the African-American population is growing, especially in Great Falls, because of Malmstrom Air Force base. Many black airmen and servicemen are stationed there. That really is a renewed and vital African-American population.
As far as your work with Humanities Montana: you had been around the state talking about Chinese and African-American pioneers. How do audiences receive your presentations?
Our audiences are amazed, truly amazed at the history of these ethnic groups. The one other ethnic group I failed to mention is the Jewish group, and I’ve done a lot of work in that also, identifying places and people. I think people are amazed with how diverse Montana really is. We are a state of immigrants, particularly German immigrants. I think more than half of Montanans are descendants of Germans. Scandinavian folks homestead here also, but many different people came from European countries. That’s a story we know a little bit better, just because people have done a lot of work on the homesteading era, but even that is an emerging picture.
What has been one of your most surprising discoveries in all this journey with these different ethnicities? Any in particular that’s been amazing?
Well, I think it is surprising how rich those families were in tradition, and how rich those cultures really are. I think we have no idea what traditions were preserved and what’s carried on by families. For example, with the Chinese it’s a little bit difficult because the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited most families from immigrating to Montana from 1882-1943, so we didn’t really have families, but even though we didn’t have very many, we still have some of those generational restaurants and families that are still living here, representing the third and sometimes the fourth generation. On the same note, with African-Americans, we have an African-American family that has been in Helena for about four generations now and their children are fifth generation. Their ancestors were born into slavery. It’s an amazing thing they came to Montana, settled here and stayed.
Considering the times and that the majority of Montana was Caucasian probably Montana wasn’t necessarily the most welcoming place to other ethnicities and races…
I think we are better than we were, of course, but it was not easy for those families, Chinese, African-American, or Jewish.
You have been mentioning Jewish culture, is that one of your future research projects?
Well I’ve done a lot of work in the Jewish culture and have done National Register nominations for the Jewish temple which is now owned by the Catholic Church in Helena and also for the Home of Peace Cemetery, which is the oldest active Jewish cemetery in Montana. I don’t know… maybe I’m ready to take on another group or look further into the African-Americans because I think there is still a lot we can discover there. I just completed a new lecture on medical contributions of African- Americans in Montana. It’s a whole other thing to look at, and it’s a very interesting topic, and I’ve only brushed the surface on, so I will probably do more with that. You know the thing that is very interesting is that I found that many African- Americans went into podiatry; I don’t know why that is, but many African-Americans were barbers. Along with being barbers they went to podiatry school; they were called chiropodists in the early 20th century. There were many African- Americans who practiced that branch of medicine, and I’m not sure why that was but it deserves a lot more research.
From a historical stand point, how do you see the development of diversity in Montana? What might be the circumstances that might resurrect more diversity? Is it linked to more economical development or job opportunities?
I think there have been really limited job opportunities here in Montana. I think within the last 50 years, people want to come here because of the scenic beauty of the place, but they don’t really come here for economic reasons. I think that maybe changing because now there is so much technology based on just the internet and one can do that anywhere. Maybe, we are going to be attracting a much more diverse population, I hope so, it would make Montana that much richer for sure.
Is there anything else you would like to add, something I didn’t ask you and you think is important to mention?
I wish more historians would do this kind of research [researching historical ethnic groups in Montana] because I do think this is very valuable for us to know where we come from, how can we know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been?