Daring To Dream: 1866 African-American Homesteaders
The Great Exodus and the Homesteaders
On May 5, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act for government land for pioneers, including women, if they were single, widowed, divorced, or deserted. Some of those women homesteaders included Gwenllian Evans, Montana, Grace Binks, Laura Etta Smalley, Montana, Annie Morgan, and Bertie Brown. Annie Morgan's cabin is now owned by the U.S. Forest Service.
It would take another four years before and the 14th Amendment giving African Americans the right to be U.S. citizens. This was passed by Congress but vetoed by then-president Andrew Johnson. It was again passed by Congress and vetoed again by Johnson. Finally, a two-thirds majority gave passed, allowing it to become law without the President's signature.
Was it any wonder that after years and generations of suffering and slaving with no wages that the now freedmen were now, as citizens were able to become landowners. After the Civil War, Reconstruction was full of broken promises such as the 40 acres and a mule. This never happened even though General William T. Sherman promised. President Andrew Johnson reversed that order and gave the land back to the Confederate landowners.
Not everything changed for the better after the war. Before long, the Jim Crow Laws were rampant, the Ku Klux Klan ordered lynchings, harassment, and the landowners forced the freed slaves to sign contracts as sharecroppers and tenant farmers keeping them in perpetual debt.
Now a wave of freedmen was making plans to head north and west for their chance of free land. The Great Exodus was about to begin. The men were used to hard work and certainly knew how to farm. They also knew they would be leaving the only home they had ever known, and going someplace foreign and having no idea of what might lay ahead. But, to them, any place where they could be free seemed like a dream. They also knew safety in numbers was wise and essential to form a community.
And they began to build their communities and schools and churches, building sod houses to begin out of the earth and getting their farms planted.
But factors beyond their control like weather, lack of water, funds, and racism contributed to the communities failing. Not from want or the work they put into it but to survive they left for better opportunities.
African American Homestead Communities
Here are six of the largest of the communities founded by African American communities.
Dearfield, Colorado. Settled in 1910, by 1920, there were 2-300 hundred; by 1946, only one left.
Empire, Wyoming. Settled in 1908. In 1910, there were 36 families; by 1930, only four families, and then there no families left.
Sully County, S. Dakota
Blackdom, New Mexico. Settled in 1901 but damaging worms, alkali soil and the wells dried up.
Most are ghost towns now, but preservation efforts are on-going in an attempt to save the history of the brave African American homesteaders. The Black American West Museum, Denver, Colorado, along with the University of Northern Colorado, is attempting to stabilize buildings before they are totally gone. The Dearfield Fund, 3091 California St., Denver, Colorado, needs help to fund their preservation efforts.
Dearfield is the last standing town of the valuable relics.
The homesteaders had to deal with the harsh conditions, harassment, and racism still following them. Between the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, most communities became abanded and forgotten.