Rediscovering the Largest Black Settlement in Nebraska: The Descendants of DeWitty

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Grace Bellinghausen
CONTRIBUTOR

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this article stated that settlers first arrived in DeWitty after the Kincaid Act of 1904. Many DeWitty residents were already in the area before the Kincaid Act took effect. 

An exhibit at the Criss Library is helping to preserve the history of Nebraska’s largest Black settlement, a homestead called DeWitty once located in the panhandle in Cherry county.

Today, the descendents of those who settled there are working to make sure that the settlement’s history is not forgotten. The Descendants of DeWitty organization brings artifacts to different exhibits throughout the state to ensure the stories of these early Black homesteaders live on.

Artes Johnson found out about his historical lineage in 1969, when he read a story in Nebraskaland magazine. He noticed his “Grandpa Walker” in a photo, which sparked his curiosity to find the significance of his roots.

The exhibit acts as a living time capsule of history — a history that was nearly lost. In April of 2016, 200 people gathered for the commemoration marker on U.S. Highway 83, where the DeWitty settlement once was. They decided that the history needed to be told.

Many of the residents of DeWitty were escaped slaves who came from Ontario, Canada, the last stop on the Underground Railroad to freedom.The Homestead act brought these settlers to the sand hills of Cherry County, Nebraska, to a plot of 30,000 acres they called DeWitty.

DeWitty’s neighboring town of Brownlee had a large population of Irish immigrants, who were more welcoming than many of their white counterparts in cities. By 1910, they had a post office, a baseball team, a barbershop and a school. One of these schools served both the Black homesteaders and the Irish Immigrants of Brownlee.

“Fernella Walker rode her horse around her land protecting it, carried a gun, farmed turkeys and taught the school children,” Artes Johnson said. “They were very territorial of their land and very hard working.”

DeWitty was on the frontier. There were cowboys, Native Americans and buffalo. Soldiers stirring up the West nearby and these tumultuous times, mixed with the ongoing racial tension, caused DeWittians to keep to themselves, to their family and their land.

“There was no downtown area in DeWitty for this purpose,” Johnson said about their reserved nature.

Crop failure devastated DeWitty after WWI, and many moved away for better farming opportunities. Regardless, the Black settlements’ success and progressive nature in their relationship with the neighboring Irish town of Brownlee, including an integrated school, is a tale that defies the norms of the early 20th century.

“While reviewing documents, I found that many of my ancestors didn’t want to leave DeWitty,” Johnson said. “The city didn’t have the same sense of safety and security as the small homestead that they once called home.”

Artes and the other descendants want the legacy of the largest Black settlement in Nebraska to be taught in schools. They want to enlighten new generations with stories of a new concept of the wild west– one with diversity and acceptance.

The Descendants of DeWitty exhibit is on display in the Osborne Gallery at Criss Library until Nov. 7.

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