Return of the Kerchevals
By Paul Higbee
For years, I hoped to meet a Kercheval. This summer I met 45 of them.
Long ago, the Kerchevals were Spearfish’s only African American family. They were, in fact, a founding family who, in the 1870s, succeeded in growing potatoes and other root vegetables from the red, rocky soil east of town. Family members jumped into a range of business ventures, too, from timber sales to saloon keeping.
Mary Kercheval, the matriarch, was born into slavery in the South. She and four sons became property owners and entrepreneurs in South Dakota. That’s a big accomplishment, but sadly not what most impressed Black Hills people 100 years ago. It’s well documented that Mary once worked as a cook for George Custer, and that meant a lot to early residents who credited Custer for their own presence in the region.
Mary is not to be confused with Sarah Campbell, another black woman who cooked for Custer and accompanied him to the Black Hills on his gold discovery expedition of 1874. Mary preceded Sarah as cook, working for Custer in Kansas, and apparently her Custer connection had no bearing on the Kerchevals’ decision to make the Black Hills home.
The Custer connection didn’t interest me when I first attempted to write about the Kerchevals in the 1990s. I wanted to know what it was like for them growing up in a region where there have always been black residents, some historically notable, but not enough to make a place a bastion of African American heritage. I didn’t get far because I couldn’t find any family members left to interview.
Last winter, Karla Scovell, director of Spearfish’s High Plains Western Heritage Center Museum, called me to say Pat Jackson of Ontario, California hoped to organize a Kercheval family reunion at the museum. Jackson is Mary Kercheval’s great-granddaughter. She was contacting Kercheval descendants across the country, some of whom were greatly surprised to learn they had roots in South Dakota — a state, as I said, not usually regarded as significant in black history.
Scovell asked if I would lead a tour through town and point out sites — schools, churches, cemeteries — which the Kerchevals had known. Nothing could stop me, I replied.
One other thing, Scovell cautioned me. The family stressed it wanted authentic Spearfish history, warts and all. Nothing Pollyanna. Absolutely, I promised, because the Black Hills isn’t Pollyanna country. As typically recounted, maybe to a fault, the region’s history is about grit and proving yourself tough. Division and dispute were everywhere — between Natives and whites, of course, and between competing miners, ranchers and sodbusters, and even water users who developed and shared the same irrigation ditches. Would an African American family have been spared? Not a chance.
Before the family’s arrival, I got to know Jackson by phone and mail. She never lived in South Dakota but heard stories from her mother, Beatrice, a 1931 Spearfish High School graduate. When it came to the family’s acceptance in the community, Jackson told me, there were good times and bad, friendly and cold neighbors, helpful and indifferent teachers. Kercheval boys grew up tough. If racial epithets were yelled at them, the boys ran after the tormenters to fight. “And we were told they didn’t come back defeated,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s mother was the youngest of 12 children. When her older siblings left home she faced loneliness and social isolation. In elementary school, children played ring-around-the-rosy, but no classmates would hold Beatrice’s hands (a thoughtful teacher did, but the other hand was left dangling). Later, as a teenager, when interracial dating was unthinkable everywhere in America, there was nothing for Beatrice to do but sit at home as her classmates enjoyed much anticipated school dances.
“My mother said Spearfish was a beautiful place, God’s country, but a place for her to be from, not be,” Jackson recalled. After graduation Beatrice was off to southern California.
Eighty-seven years after that graduation, the family returned to Spearfish on a Friday that Mayor Dana Boke officially proclaimed Kercheval Day. They walked the land next to the High Plains Western Heritage Center Museum where their ancestors once cultivated potatoes. Our tour ended at Rose Hill Cemetery, where Mary Kercheval and her son, Sam, were laid to rest in 1921 and 1925, respectively. The family placed Pan-African flags on the graves.
History tells us there were worse places for African American families than Spearfish in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On the other hand, there were plenty of better places, too. Today, of course, a black family wouldn’t be alone. For the near future, Scovell says, her museum is developing exhibits that will tell the Kercheval story, and those of other people of color who helped shape Black Hills life.
Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the September/October 2018 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.