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Author's book about black frontiersmen still relevant

By Gheni_Platenburg
Feb. 16, 2012 at 8 p.m.
Updated Feb. 16, 2012 at 8:17 p.m.

A squadron of the 9th Cavalry at Ft. Robinson, Neb., in 1889. The 9th fought Indians throughout the West. Seven troopers of this regiment won the  Medal of Honor.

The 1960s were a tumultuous time for black and white race relations.

During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the '60s brought highs such as the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but it also brought lows such as the assassinations of civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Marches and other campaigns of civil resistance were frequent occurrences as blacks and whites fought together to gain racial, economic, political and educational equality for blacks.

Though he never participated in a sit-in or a boycott, author and Refugio native J. Norman Heard sought to do his part in the movement with the publication of his book, "The Black Frontiersmen: Adventures of Negroes Among American Indians 1528-1918."

Published in June 1969, the book detailed the roles that black men played in the development of the American frontier that had previously been ignored by history.

"He felt like this is a story that had been overlooked," said Dan Heard, Calhoun County district attorney and one of J. Norman's nephews. "There were a whole lot of things black people did during the frontier that are not widely known."

"I think this shows progress but is in keeping with the absence of prejudice always exhibited by Uncle Norman," Heard said.

Although the book's content was risqué during the time it was published, it was not a deterrent for the history buff.

The gutsy author came by his love of history honestly.

His four great-grandfathers fought for Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Indian Wars of Texas and in the Texas Revolution under Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

J. Norman Heard developed his interest in the old West and the frontiersmen from his uncle, William Heard, known to many as "Uncle Bull."

Uncle Bull, a cowboy who participated in one of the later cattle drives from South Texas to what was then the American Indian Territory, often told J. Norman stories about black and white cowboys, said Dan Heard.

After he earned his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Texas-Austin, where he was a staff member for the Daily Texan, he also attained a master's in library science from his alma mater.

He went on to work as a librarian for various colleges, including Texas A&I University, Texas Tech and Southeastern Louisiana College, all the while continuing his personal historical research into the men and women responsible for settling the West.

While working on his doctorate in history at Louisiana State University, J. Norman began specifically researching information that would later lead to the publication of "The Black Frontiersmen."

The book came to fruition after he teamed up with the John Day Publishing Co.

The book spans four centuries, beginning with Estevanico, the first black man in America, and ending with Henry Flipper, a cavalry officer and assistant secretary of the Interior who lived until 1940.

"The Black Frontiersmen" makes a full circle as it details how blacks on the frontier transitioned from lives similar to Estevanico, an African Muslim who was born free but was later enslaved in a Spanish invasion to lives like that of Flipper, an American slave who was freed in a federal invasion and spent his last years writing an account of Estevanico's exploits.

J. Norman's book also details the relationship between blacks and American Indians.

Some tribes such as the Choctaws and Chickasaws, who were both of mixed white and American Indian blood, imitated whites by enslaving blacks.

The Cherokees were commended for their remarkable progress brought on by their status as slaveholders, which was considered an "incentive to any industrial pursuit," J. Norman wrote in his book.

Meanwhile, in other tribes, blacks were able to rise to positions of power including that of chieftain.

Additional facts explored in the book include details on the low number of blacks in the Far West during frontier times as well as proof that blacks fought in white armies during wars with the American Indians, but at times, they also banded together with the American Indians to fight against the whites, such as in the Seminole wars.

"As a fighting man, he performed feats which have been almost forgotten, yet his adventures were unique, and they deserve a place in the annals of the frontier," J. Norman wrote in his book jacket.

Years later, J. Norman's research continues to be well-received and appreciated.

Cortez Hill wrote a review of the book in October 2006, giving the book five of five stars on Amazon's website.

The historical researcher went on to write several historical articles and additional books during his career, including "Bookman's Guide to Americana," "White into Red: Study of the Assimilation of White Persons Captured by Indians," and one of his most widely known chronologies, "Handbook of the American Frontier: Four Centuries of Indian-White Relationships."

In later years, the devoted father of three special-needs children went on to found Acadian Village, a community for special needs people in Lafayette, La., volunteer with the Special Olympics and write several books detailing his children's special needs and what he and his wife, Joyce Heard, have done about it."

He never did, however, lose his love for history.

Described by many as cheerful and mild-mannered, J. Norman served as the curator and tour guide at the Mississippi Valley Missionary Museum on the grounds of the Acadian Village in Lafayette, which houses a collection of Indian artifacts and paintings by local artists.

"As a kid, I watched him work on some of his books. He was always fun to talk with, particularly about history," said his nephew. "I'm very proud of my uncle's work, particularly the attention he paid to people left out of American History - African-Americans and Indians.

"American history is not all one group."

Today, the trailblazer of black frontiersmen research is 89 years old and still lives in Lafayette with his wife.

He maintains an interest in history and the Refugio Bobcats.

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