camera icon DANA DAMEWOOD/REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF THE NATIONAL TRUST FOR HISTORIC PRESERVATION IN THE UNITED STATES

Fall 2020

Promised Land

By Jacob Baynham

After the Civil War, more than 26,000 African Americans left the South to homestead the Great Plains, carving out farms, free lives and community on the prairie. 

In September 1877, several hundred formerly enslaved people packed their belongings and left Kentucky by rail for Kansas. When the train could take them no farther, they disembarked and continued for two days on foot. The terrain was bleak and unfamiliar, but the odyssey was inspired by a dream: the chance to live as free citizens on their own land around the newly formed town of Nicodemus.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, thousands of African Americans made similar migrations to the Great Plains, fleeing the white violence that followed the Civil War in the South. Under the Homestead Act, they staked claims on farmland from New Mexico to the Dakotas.

Many of these Black homesteaders settled in communities that grew to several hundred people in population. While most were farmers, some became educators, pastors, business owners, postmasters, restaurateurs and musicians. Others pursued careers in local and state politics.

“They represent, to me, what African Americans did with their freedom,” said Angela Bates (third from left above), whose great-great-great-grandparents were among the first homesteaders of Nicodemus. “They became landowners in an environment that was hostile, at a time when the nation was hostile toward them. They hunkered down and said, ‘If we could do this for our masters, we can do this for ourselves.’”

Now, Nicodemus National Historic Site, Homestead National Monument of America and the University of Nebraska are collaborating on a study of Black homesteaders on the Great Plains. Over the last three years, the effort — partially funded by the National Park Service — has produced ethnographies of six African American homesteader communities: Blackdom, New Mexico; DeWitty, Nebraska; Nicodemus, Kansas; Dearfield, Colorado; Empire, Wyoming; and Sully County, South Dakota. “This research will help us bring this story to life,” said Mark Engler, superintendent of Homestead National Monument of America in Beatrice, Nebraska. “The connections we draw with this history become much more relevant and stronger when we see the face of an actual individual.”

The ongoing research, which will eventually be compiled in a book, also highlights the scope of Black homesteading. Poring over thousands of homesteading records and census documents, the research team established that more than 26,000 African Americans participated in homesteading the Great Plains. “This was a small group of people who did some amazing things,” said Richard Edwards, who directs the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska and is heading up the research. “Their story needs to be part of our national narrative about homesteading.”

The Homestead Act of 1862 granted 160 acres in certain states to citizens or those intending to become citizens who staked out unclaimed property, built a home, cultivated the land and lived there for five years. (The land had been previously taken from Native Americans, many of whom were by then living on reservations.) The act was the first major piece of national legislation without a racial exclusion for its benefits. Once the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (and later the 14th Amendment) granted African Americans citizenship, they were entitled to all the rewards that homesteading promised — although they often risked everything to gain them.

From 1868, when the first land patents were granted, to 1961, almost 1 million Americans successfully homesteaded the Great Plains. While the vast majority were white, Edwards and his colleagues found that Black families were granted more than 3,400 land titles, making them owners of an area the size of Rhode Island.

Homesteading demanded both courage and resourcefulness. When that early group reached Nicodemus in 1877, they saw no buildings, just tendrils of smoke rising from dugouts where some early settlers were living. It was too late to plant, and were it not for the charity of some white neighbors and a hunting party of Osage Indians, few would have survived the first winter.

Transforming the unplowed prairie into viable farmland was grueling and hazardous. Homesteaders endured grasshoppers, tornadoes, hailstorms and drought, and they faced the constant threat of their fields being trampled by cattle herds that cowboys were driving to market. Crop prices were volatile.

Even with scant money to pay a teacher or buy materials, building a school was an immediate priority for most Black homesteading communities. One of the founders of Nicodemus, the Rev. S. P. Roundtree, carried a brand on his cheek, the punishment for being taught to read by his master’s son. Nicodemus opened a school that first year in the dugout of a woman named Jenny Fletcher.

Despite economic, environmental and social hardships, African American homesteaders crafted vibrant social lives on the Great Plains. They had sewing circles, newspapers, investment clubs, concerts, dances, ice cream parlors and churches. In DeWitty, Black homesteaders formed a baseball team — the Sluggers — that played teams from neighboring white towns.

Occasionally, Black homesteaders dodged the “separate but equal” norms of the Jim Crow era. DeWitty’s most prominent couple, a white man named Charles Meehan and his Black wife, Hester, lived in open violation of Nebraska law prohibiting interracial marriage. In other communities, schools taught white and Black students together, integrating the classroom well before Brown v. Board of Education.

“Prejudice is a luxury that you cannot afford in an environment like this,” Bates said. “If the nearest help is 5 miles away, who cares if you’re Black.”

Still, these homesteaders couldn’t escape racism altogether. The town of Torrington, Wyoming, near Empire, segregated its restaurants, printed degrading caricatures in its newspaper and worse. In 1913, local deputies beat to death Baseman Taylor, the brother of Empire’s most prominent homesteader. They were never charged with a crime.

Eventually, these communities dissolved. Poor rainfall and then the Great Depression drove many farmers from their land. Children left the farm to pursue education or to find a spouse. A few crumbling buildings remain in Dearfield, but of all Black homesteading settlements, Nicodemus is the only one that has survived. (It currently has a population of around 20.) And yet these homesteader communities may have succeeded even as they vanished.

“The idea was not to build permanent settlements,” Edwards said. “The idea was to be a place where the homesteader generation could get relief from violence, make a living and prepare their children for lives likely to be led elsewhere.”

Edwards estimates there are between 100,000 and 250,000 living descendants of African Americans who homesteaded the Great Plains. Among them is Bates, executive director of the Nicodemus Historical Society and great-great-granddaughter of Tom and Zerina Johnson, one of the community’s founding families. Bates’ great-grandmother gave birth to the first baby in Nicodemus, a boy named Henry, born in a dugout.

Bates grew up in Southern California, but every summer her family packed their station wagon and drove “home” to Kansas. Bates was thrilled to ride horses, pump water and live the country life. In the 1990s, she worked for several years to establish Nicodemus National Historic Site. Now in her sixties, she lives southwest of town and devotes herself to collecting, preserving and sharing the history of the families who homesteaded this unforgiving prairie.

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“Their spirit of determination and tenacity, their strong will and faith in the Lord is the legacy that burns in our veins as descendants,” Bates said.

That legacy is most apparent during the Homecoming and Emancipation Celebration in late July, which typically draws several hundred descendants from around the country to Nicodemus. The sleepy town comes alive with a parade, a baseball game, a gospel extravaganza, a dance and a community feast. (This year, the event was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) In those moments of togetherness, Bates feels closest to her homesteading ancestors and the landscape where they first felt free.

“Nicodemus is not just a physical geographic spot in the middle of the United States,” Bates said. “It’s a connection to this land and to family. It’s a state of mind.”

About the author

This article appeared in the Fall 2020 issue

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