Richard Edwards is the co-author, with Jacob Friefeld and Rebecca Wingo, of “Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History” and director of the Black Homesteaders in the Great Plains project at the University of Nebraska.
At Dearfield, the walls and roof of the lunchroom, once an important gathering place, have collapsed. The decaying building sits behind a chain-link fence. The substantial wood-frame house of the settlement’s founder, Oliver Toussaint Jackson, built in 1918, has been vandalized. Although listed in 1995 on the National Register of Historic Places, and despite local efforts to save it, Dearfield is undergoing demolition by neglect.
Nicodemus, in Kansas, founded in the 1870s, is the best-known black homesteader settlement and the oldest one west of the Mississippi. It is the only one still occupied and is now a National Historic Site. Even so, its First Baptist Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church and other historic buildings are in such poor shape that they cannot be opened to the public. The National Park Service is failing in its responsibility to maintain this historic site.
These places are precious not just to descendants but to all Americans, and their loss is a national shame. The homesteading story is usually told as one of white Americans’ westward movement. But the 1862 Homestead Act had no racial restrictions, and after the 1866 Civil Rights Act clarified that black Americans were citizens, they too were entitled to 160 acres of public land if they paid a modest fee and lived on the property continuously for five years.
Some black homesteaders, former slaves, tried to settle on public lands in the South, but relentless white violence mostly defeated them. In the Great Plains, they found success. A significant colony (as it was called) of about 150 people thrived at Blackdom, near Roswell, N.M., during the opening decades of the 20th century. Dearfield was home to more than 200 homesteaders.
Similarly, perhaps 170 black people lived on homesteads at DeWitty, named for the man who opened its first post office. They established a community that flourished until the Great Depression wiped out many Nebraska farmers, black and white. By then, DeWitty had its own schools and a robust local farm economy. The town’s barber, R.H. Hannahs, hosted a picnic for everyone on the first Sunday of August, a day filled with speeches, music, games and sometimes a rodeo.
Black homesteaders faced challenges common to the pioneer era in the West, when the harsh climate made agricultural life precarious. But they sometimes faced racism, as well. At the Empire colony in Wyoming, the family of one homesteader, Baseman Taylor, sought his admission to a state asylum in 1913 when they became concerned about his deepening mental instability. Instead, the county sheriff arrested Taylor. When he became agitated, deputies beat him repeatedly. Taylor died three days later.
Yet black homesteaders and their white neighbors could also get along. DeWitty residents were friendly with nearby white ranchers, working, playing baseball and celebrating the Fourth of July together. In 2016 , descendants of the DeWitty homesteaders and neighboring ranchers gathered to erect a historical marker. As an overflow of cars and pickups lined the shoulders of the highway nearby, some 250 celebrants shared food and swapped stories about their ancestors.
Nicodemus in northwestern Kansas was the largest black homesteader colony, with 300 to 400 settlers living there in the 1880s. Along with the Topeka, Kan., courthouse where the seminal civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education began, Nicodemus is arguably the most important black history site in the Great Plains. One Nicodemus leader, E.P. McCabe, twice elected as Kansas state auditor in the 1880s, is thought to have been the highest black elected official in the country at the time, outside of Southern Reconstruction governments. Today about a dozen descendants of Nicodemus homesteaders still reside there. In late July, thousands of the Nicodemus diaspora and friends will descend on the town for its 140th anniversary “Homecoming Emancipation Celebration.”
The physical vestiges of these communities are gradually disappearing. No buildings or markers indicate that black homesteaders once lived at Empire in Wyoming or the Sully County Colored Colony in South Dakota. DeWitty, Blackdom and Dearfield have historical markers, nothing more. A project that I head at the University of Nebraska, working with the Homestead National Monument of America (part of the national park system), is dedicated to creating a digital archive to preserve the memory of the black homesteading movement. But there is an urgent need to save the actual places where so many black people, in the decades after the Civil War, toiled to live and prosper in freedom.