Throughout last year, waves of protests swept the nation as residents and activists demanded that Confederate monuments in their towns and communities be taken down. In Montana, the Pacific Northwest’s only Confederate monument—a memorial fountain erected in 1916 by the Daughters of the Confederacy—stood for weeks as then-mayor James Smith hesitated to remove it.
President Donald Trump’s attack on immigrants around the country was now in full swing. In a state whose African American population is less than 1%, Montana resident Wilmot Collins, a former civil war refugee from Liberia who was fairly new to the political scene, saw an opening. He seized the opportunity to counter the president’s narrative by sharing his own story.
“When people can relate to the real deal, they’re wide-eyed, because all they’ve heard is what comes out of our leadership,” he told The Globe and Mail. “There’s no way when people hear your stories and struggles they can’t identify with you.”
Collins ran against Smith and ousted the four-term incumbent mayor of Helena, Montana, last November with fewer than 350 votes.
Although Helena had once elected an African American, E.T. Johnson, as a mayor in the past according to the Montana Historical Society, that was 16 years before Montana became a state and Helena incorporated as a city.
“It tells you that the people of Helena were more focused on their own issues and it was not about race or anything,” said Collins. “They were looking for a change and I came in at the right time. I spoke the language they were looking for.”
Well wishers and residents, about 100 in number, packed the Capitol Rotunda in early January—most of them with their cellphone cameras on the ready—to watch as Collins was sworn in.
Collins, 54, moved to Montana 28 years ago when he fled Liberia in 1990 during the country’s first civil war. He told The Globe and Mail that during the war, frequently the only thing to eat was butter mixed with mayonnaise. Along with his wife and five relatives, they crammed themselves into a single room near the American Embassy hoping it would serve as a safe haven as fighting raged across the city. Collins and his wife, Maddie, fled Liberia to Ghana, the Ivory Coast and finally, the United States.
Collins became an American citizen, working in the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. For two decades, he was a member of the United States Navy Reserve. Collins has two children with his wife, their daughter, Jaymie, and their son, Bliss.
“I never thought about it,” said Collins. “My only thing was, I hope they can give me a second chance. That’s all I needed. This country and this state and this city provided me a second chance.”