Black woman’s role in Montana history chronicled in new book

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    Miantae McConnell laughs during an interview at her home in Columbia Falls on Wednesday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Miantae McConnell laughs during an interview at her home in Columbia Falls on Wednesday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

If Miantae Metcalf McConnell hadn’t been severely injured in a car accident nearly 17 years ago, she may never have spent the years of research it took to piece together the story of a black woman who made her mark in the Montana wilderness.

As McConnell struggled through years of pain left behind by the driver who rear-ended her while she was stopped at a red light, she was forced to close her landscaping business and contemplate her future.

“I couldn’t do anything where I had to move, not even art,” the Columbia Falls author recalled.

Writing became a medium through which she could continue what had been a very artistic and successful life as a graphic and textile artist. McConnell had been intrigued by a historical vignette she’d read in Gayle Shirley’s book, “More Than Petticoats,” about Mary Fields, a 53-year-old second-generation slave who arrived in the Montana wilderness in the winter of 1885.

“It was a miracle she survived,” McConnell said, explaining how that account about Fields detailed the “typical, legendary Wild West stuff.

“I thought the real story must be ten times more remarkable,” she added.

Indeed, Fields’ story was extraordinary, and is laid out explicitly in McConnell’s new, 517-page book, “Deliverance Mary Fields, First African American Woman Star Route Mail Carrier in the United States: A Montana History.”

McConnell said it was an act of love, really, that compelled Fields to get on a night train in Toledo, Ohio, in December 1885 and travel to the Montana wilderness after getting word of her friend’s impending death. With early-day medical remedies tucked in her satchel, she arrived to find Mother Mary Amadeus lying on the frozen earth in a dilapidated cabin.

“Certain that the cloister of frostbit Ursuline nuns and their students, Indian girls rescued from nearby reservations, will not survive without assistance, Mary decides to stay,” McConnell wrote in her synopsis of her book.

She pored over documents in the state historical archives, bound volumes of newspapers that spanned decades, and old records at the Ursuline Center in Great Falls, among many other resources. Years went by — more than a decade all totaled — as McConnell searched for a complete picture of this remarkable black woman who had weathered wolf attacks, wagon crashes and “treacherous conspiracies by scoundrels, local politicians and the state’s first Catholic bishop.”

Fields — whose nicknames included “Black Mary” and “Stagecoach Mary” — dealt with racial prejudice and obstacles at every turn in her life.

“Delivering mail meant that Mary Fields’ location on the isolated route was public knowledge,” McConnell pointed out. “Those with ill intent gained ample opportunity.”

Yet she survived, and as McConnell’s research would show, “some loved her; some hated her.”

Among those who loved her were the sisters at St. Peter’s Ursuline Mission, who relied heavily on Fields’ sensible capabilities. But Fields was dealt a low blow by the first Catholic bishop in Montana, who abruptly fired her for alleged “inappropriate behavior” after nine years of dedicated service.

When Fields established herself as a freighter and found local saloons to yield valuable information about upcoming jobs, the townsmen passed a law forbidding women to go into saloons. Another time, when the Ursuline sisters threw a birthday party for Fields at the school, another ordinance was passed, stipulating the school could be used for school activities only.

For all the roadblocks put before her, Fields overcame them and persevered.

McConnell’s exhaustive research verified two key accomplishments for Fields. The U.S. Postal Service was able to verify Fields’ status as the first black star route mail carrier in the United States. McConnell also found a voter registration ledger that documented Fields’ registration for the vote, establishing her as the first person of color registered to vote in Cascade, Montana.

“As I got into the story, I didn’t want just the biographical story,” she said, explaining how she developed an authentic voice in her work of literary nonfiction.

It was at that point McConnell drew on her own authentic Montana experience. She grew up in California, but spent her summers in the Stevensville area where her grandfather had a farm. All four sets of her great-grandparents were homesteaders, three of which “proved-up” in Montana not far from Cascade. The late Lee Metcalf, the renowned politician who served Montana in both the U.S. House and Senate, is her second cousin.

“As a child I was very much aware of different populations and people’s perspectives,” she said. “I was from two different worlds and I loved them both.”

McConnell is blessed with auditory memory, the ability to take in information heard out loud, process it, retain it and then recall it.

“I could remember my grandparents’ conversations, from creamery picnics, cattle auctions, card games, verbatim conversations from childhood,” she said. “That’s what makes [the book] authentic.”

Her Montana experiences helped shape the conversation in her book.

“That encouraged me to open the scope of the book. I wanted to create a climate and story of what it was like then,” she said. “Mary was very strategic and intelligent. She was a black woman, on the frontier, on her own,” McConnell marveled. “She was so adaptable and creative, so strategic and clever.”

Although it was a physical injury that turned McConnell toward creative writing, she also credits her Montana heritage.

“I loved those summers,” she said, reminiscing about fishing in “every little trout stream” and getting a pony from her grandfather when she was 5. “I used to stare at the mountains and I always wanted to go up there.”

Back in California, her parents insisted on academic excellence. She was on an accelerated track and she loved school, loved to learn. But when McConnell got the opportunity to study art in high school, “that rocked my world,” she recalled.

After high school she applied to the San Francisco Art Institute with every intention of becoming an artist. Instead, McConnell met her husband, had four children and was a stepmother to his three children.

Art took a hiatus as she delved into motherhood and helped with her husband’s business, but it would resurface later in a big way.

After she and her husband split after 13 years she went on to start a textile-art business and later established a graphic design and marketing agency in the Bay Area.

“I was always self-employed,” she said. “I figured things out by myself, figured out different solutions in multiple ways. That has been a big asset.”

McConnell moved to the Swan Valley in 1995 and immediately reconnected with Montana. She continued her entrepreneurial endeavors with creating watercolor designs and then teaching screen-printers how to put her art prints on clothing. McConnell had a thriving business from her cabin in the Swan.

“I got to know the UPS guy very well,” she said with a laugh. “It was the first time in my life I wasn’t working 12 hours a day.”

Her “window of joy,” those days of hiking and immersing herself in the Montana outdoors were short-lived, though. The car accident changed all that. She moved to Columbia Falls in 2002.

For all the pain that accident caused, and still causes, it also led her to Mary Fields and a story that needed to be told.

“Deliverance Mary Fields” is available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Locally, the book can be purchased at The Bookshelf, 101 S. Main St. in Kalispell. It is also available for check-out at the Whitefish Community Library.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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