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Gov. Archie Gubbrud recruited Ted Blakey to be a spokesperson for Civil Rights in South Dakota. Photo courtesy of Dakota Territorial Museum in Yankton.
Gov. Archie Gubbrud recruited Ted Blakey to be a spokesperson for Civil Rights in South Dakota. Photo courtesy of Dakota Territorial Museum in Yankton.

Yankton's Civil Rights Champion

Feb 11, 2014

February is Black History Month. Every Tuesday this month, we’ll introduce you to black pioneers and leaders who helped shape South Dakota. Today we feature Ted Blakey, a Yankton businessman and tireless Civil Rights advocate.

Until the day Ted Blakey died in 2004, he possessed a newspaper clipping from February 1838. It advertised his grandfather, an 11-year-old boy at the time, for sale at a slave auction in Missouri. For Blakey, a Yankton businessman and tireless Civil Rights advocate, it served as a reminder of how far his family had come.

Blakey was born in Yankton in 1925, the youngest of 11 children. His family roots were in Missouri, but his father and uncle were encouraged to move to South Dakota after hearing Tom Douglas, an African-American who ran a successful business in Yankton. Douglas wanted to share the freedom he enjoyed so in 1904 he traveled through Missouri, telling everyone who would listen that if they came to Yankton they would find “freedom like you’ve never seen anywhere.”

Blakey’s father and uncle were in the crowd one day and were intrigued by the proposal. The final straw came the day his father was accused of assaulting a white woman after simply bumping into her in a dry goods store. The clerk threatened to lynch him if he ever returned. When he got home he told his wife they were leaving for South Dakota. They arrived in Yankton on Oct. 16, 1905.

In the Dakotas African-Americans did not find the same attitudes toward them that were prevalent in Southern states, but discriminatory language still found its way into early territorial laws. Gov. William Jayne, in his first message to the new territorial legislature in 1862, called for a ban on slavery. Despite his entreaty, a committee passed a bill preventing “persons of color” residing in Dakota Territory. Fortunately the full House rejected the measure. Still, the Organic Act that authorized a government for Dakota Territory declared that only “every free white male inhabitant of the United States…shall be entitled to vote at the first election.” Not until 1868 did the legislature delete the word “white.” Similarly, schools were “equally free and accessible to all white children,” until 1868.

Blakey became the owner of a successful janitorial service and pest control business in Yankton. He was also president of the school board and the PTA and active in the Jaycees and Kiwanis. “It was never really that bad,” Blakey recalled in a 2001 interview, though there were incidents of discrimination in the 1960s. South Dakota’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People surveyed the state and found certain restaurants in Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Huron, Mitchell and other larger towns refused to allow blacks to eat in. Another survey by the Black Hills Civil Rights Committee revealed that 90 percent of bars and barbershops and 30 percent of restaurants and motels in Rapid City refused service to blacks.

The NAACP and Gov. Archie Gubbrud recruited Blakey to remedy the situation. “That was when I really hit it,” he later recalled. “I went before Rotary, Kiwanis, the Sacred Heart PTA and a lot of clubs there. See up until then, a black person couldn’t get a haircut in Yankton until after 5 o’clock. He (the barber) pulled down the shade and cut your hair. There was not a barbershop in Yankton that would cut a black man’s hair in 1963.”

Blakey helped change all of that. In 1963 Gov. Gubbrud signed a Civil Rights Bill. Blakey also urged the state legislature to approve the 24th amendment to the constitution, eliminating the poll tax. South Dakota was the 38th and final state needed to approve the amendment in 1964.

In time Blakey came to be the unofficial spokesperson for South Dakota’s black population, a role he especially relished whenever outsiders had questions. “We hear about the Holocaust, and survivors of Pearl Harbor,” Blakey says. “I want them to know what black people did in South Dakota, and in Yankton.”

Thanks to Ted Blakey, many South Dakotans knew the story well.



06:10 pm - Wed, February 12 2014
Pat Davis said:
I had no idea what was going on in the 60's in Yankton. I'm just so taken aback. I'm feeling so ignorant on this could people do such acts to another human being....white people are so stupid and ignorant and so prejudice that I am totally ashamed of my race.
07:02 pm - Wed, February 12 2014
Patrick J. O'Leary said:
What an incredible man. I met him a couple of times while growing up in Yankton, but never really knew him. Amazing story, spirit and he left alot of great memories with so many people in Yankton.
08:33 pm - Wed, February 12 2014
Mallory Acers Hagen said:
Ted was an amazing man, both for his work to further the rights of African-Americans in our state, and for the person he was.
The work he did for civil rights will live on.
I am proud to have known him and to have had him in my life.
09:50 pm - Wed, February 12 2014
Molly O'Leary said:
Ted Blakeybwas a class act, through and through. A true community leader.
12:52 pm - Thu, February 13 2014
Peggy O'Leary said:
Ted Blakey was a wonderful man, husband and father. He was well liked and respected in the Yankton community, as were all his family members. He was also a very hard worker, who could do almost anything. He would always greet you with a big smile. It saddens me to learn about the haircut issue. I'm sure there were probably other obstacles that Ted and his family encountered, but Ted never let it keep him from being the best he could be. He was a great role model for all of us.
12:49 pm - Fri, February 14 2014
Bernie said:
Ted was a great friend. When we started a newspaper in Yankton County, he was one of the first advertisers, maybe THE first. He was also one of the first to subscribe to South Dakota Magazine. He fought racism and discrimination with a smile and a winning attitude. His slogan for his pest control business was "I'm Licensed to Kill!" He also raised a beautiful family, and he could sign like Louis Armstrong. I once went the a funeral for a black friend of Ted's, and after the dinner the men all sat around and sang hymns. If I'd recorded it, I could sell a million CDs.
07:48 pm - Fri, February 14 2014
Margaret Holland said:
I was privileged to have grown up knowing the Blakey family, although not as well as I wished I had been able to know them. They were role models of the kind of people who made this country great. They worked hard, kept a positive attitude in the face of challenges and had a strong faith in God. I am sure many people could share stories of his kindness to others in need.
06:43 am - Mon, February 17 2014
John Andrews said:
Here's a quote I found from Ted about his community involvement that didn't make the piece. "You name it, I belong to it," he said. "I'm even a charter member of the Sons of Norway."
08:59 pm - Mon, February 17 2014
Ed said:
What a great guy. I got to know him in 1974 and my mother cherished a picture of her and Ted as he played the violin. Loved that smile.
07:48 pm - Wed, February 19 2014
Lee Schoenbeck said:
Ted was always a force at GOP functions. Can't remember when I first met him, he was just always there. I don't recall ever thinking of Ted as "black" or ever hearing anybody else view him that way. He was just a passionate conservative republican who never missed a state convention. A great guy with a great smile
06:25 pm - Thu, February 20 2014
Jim said:
I recall Polish Bob Karolevitz saying both he and Ted were charter members of the Sons of Norway. I think they both got a lot of mileage out of that one.
It was before my time but I have it on good authority that as young man Ted was the only guy in Yankton with enough style to wear a Zoot suit at the local dances.
A decade after his passing and he still makes people smile.That's a real legacy.
06:56 am - Wed, March 12 2014
Sherri said:
Ted and his family were dear family friends. I will never forget that beautiful voice of his! Loved when he would sing at church.
09:56 pm - Fri, February 27 2015
Wanda Blakey Price said:
Uncle Ted was my father's youngest brother, my brother Arthur and I looked up to Ted as a role model as we lived for several years with him and his parents our grandparents. What I remember most about Ted was his easy going personality,quick smile and outgoing manner.He was man of many talents, an entrepreneur, farmer an excellent singer to name a few. Ted ' s favorite hobby was researching our family history which even included visiting Africa, Idaho, Washington, Virginia and Pennsylvania specifically. Keeping family ties strong through his work planning and hosting family reunions. Ted was also instrumental in having the A.ME Church declared an Historical Landmark in Yankton.
03:08 pm - Tue, June 21 2016
Lee Hawkins said:
Thank you for this article about my cousinTed. He was a great man and I appreciate how he taught us about our family roots young. My grandfather was Zackarius Blakey of Yankton. He LOVED that town and spoke about it fondly until he passed away in October of 2016. Thanks to John Andrews for this informative piece. If anyone has any information about my great grandfather Isaac Blakey, please let me know. He owned a farm, a hunting guide service and a dog-catching service. Clark Gable was among his clients during Pheasant hunting season. Onward Yankton. Thank you.

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