Staking their Claim
A brief look at Black Homesteaders, narrated by Elizabeth Burden and with special thanks to the Nicodemus Historical Society, History Nebraska, the University of Northern Colorado Special Collections Black American West Museum and New Mexico State University Special Collections.
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[00:00:00.220]Hello, my name is Elizabeth Burden.
[00:00:02.520]I am a descendant of Henry and Mary Burden,
[00:00:05.300]who were part of a group of African-Americans
[00:00:07.940]who claimed land under the Homestead Act of 1862.
[00:00:12.370]Under the act, American citizens and aspiring citizens
[00:00:16.190]paid a small fee to stake their claim to up to 160 acres
[00:00:21.570]on which they had to make improvements over five years.
[00:00:25.680]My great-grandfather, like many others,
[00:00:28.150]came to the Great Plains to farm on land of his own.
[00:00:31.600]He, like other African-American homesteaders,
[00:00:34.920]believed that land ownership would help
[00:00:36.850]his family on their journey toward full
[00:00:38.930]and equal citizenship post slavery.
[00:00:42.790]Black homesteaders faced challenges,
[00:00:44.660]both in farming and in prospering
[00:00:46.560]in a society replete with racial discrimination,
[00:00:49.780]hostility, and violence.
[00:00:52.560]Their homesteads gave them a place to plant
[00:00:54.790]the seeds of hope for the generations to come.
[00:00:59.040]Before Henry Burden found his way to Nebraska,
[00:01:01.320]he served in the military, fighting
[00:01:03.430]against the Confederacy in the US civil war.
[00:01:06.690]In 1870, he claimed land in Saline County, Nebraska,
[00:01:10.970]the ancestral homelands of the Ponca Nation.
[00:01:14.390]By 1873, Henry married Eliza Hill.
[00:01:18.520]After she passed, Henry married Mary Burden.
[00:01:22.460]Together, they raised their family of eight children,
[00:01:25.590]and lived a relatively peaceful life near Pleasant Hill,
[00:01:29.030]a town settled by Czech immigrants.
[00:01:32.230]I traced my roots on my father's side
[00:01:33.912]to that corner of Southeast Nebraska.
[00:01:38.670]Across the West, many Black homesteaders
[00:01:41.200]formed communities to support one another.
[00:01:44.670]In 1877, Black entrepreneurs from Topeka, Kansas
[00:01:49.090]established the town of Nicodemus, Kansas
[00:01:51.700]to recruit potential homesteaders from the south.
[00:01:55.300]That year Zachariah Z.T. Fletcher
[00:01:58.710]opened a general store and built the St. Francis Hotel.
[00:02:03.290]He served as a delegate to the Kansas Convention
[00:02:05.750]of Colored Men and helped to launch
[00:02:08.290]Nicodemus' first public school.
[00:02:12.780]In 1910, O.T. Jackson founded
[00:02:15.810]the Dearfield colony in Northern Colorado.
[00:02:19.590]Charles Rothwell moved from Denver with his mother
[00:02:22.160]in 1910 to help Jackson build the community.
[00:02:26.900]After serving in World War I, Rothwell returned
[00:02:29.558]to Colorado and although he was told
[00:02:32.860]there was no room for Black cowboys,
[00:02:35.280]he competed in rodeo competitions
[00:02:37.490]all along the front range, winning many prizes.
[00:02:41.900]Rothwell held onto his homestead into the 1970s.
[00:02:47.840]Frank Boyer incorporated the Blackdom Townsite Company
[00:02:51.130]in Chavez County, New Mexico in 1903.
[00:02:55.020]By the end of the 1910s, Boyer's dream
[00:02:57.810]of building a vital Black homesteading community
[00:03:00.380]had come true, but poor harvests, lack of water,
[00:03:05.230]and collapsing crop prices limited Blackdom's growth.
[00:03:09.550]And an oil boom did not save the town.
[00:03:12.700]By 1921 townspeople had sold the church
[00:03:15.740]Boyer had helped build and moved to nearby towns.
[00:03:21.350]The smallest and most short lived
[00:03:23.430]Black homesteading community was Empire, Wyoming
[00:03:26.670]in Goshen County on the border with Nebraska.
[00:03:30.230]In 1910, Empire residents built their own school.
[00:03:34.150]And Reverend Russell Taylor became its leader in 1911.
[00:03:38.290]He cleverly used Wyoming's laws
[00:03:40.660]demanding segregated schooling
[00:03:42.800]to maintain the school's independence.
[00:03:46.040]By the end of the 1910s, residents
[00:03:48.700]found Empire's arid climate too difficult to farm,
[00:03:52.030]and the community began to disintegrate.
[00:03:54.790]Charles and Rosetta's Speese left Empire
[00:03:57.070]for a new Clack homesteading community
[00:03:59.090]in Cherry County, Nebraska.
[00:04:01.990]Homesteaders first called it DeWitty, and then Audacious.
[00:04:06.310]It drew new Black homesteaders from Canada,
[00:04:08.850]and from across the south.
[00:04:11.770]One resident, Peryle Woodson taught
[00:04:14.580]in DeWitty's one room schoolhouse,
[00:04:16.520]and raised cattle she co-owned with her brother, Chris.
[00:04:19.810]Extreme drought and other opportunities prompted Charles
[00:04:23.370]and Rosetta Speese to move to Sully County, South Dakota.
[00:04:26.850]There, they joined the McGruder and Blair families.
[00:04:30.850]Born into slavery in Tennessee,
[00:04:32.900]Norvel Blair had founded the Black homesteader community
[00:04:35.760]in Sully County, after living in Illinois.
[00:04:38.910]He bred prize Morgan horses.
[00:04:42.290]The Black homesteaders saw land ownership,
[00:04:44.750]farming and entrepreneurship
[00:04:46.810]as a means to attain freedom and equality.
[00:04:50.250]Their legacies extend far beyond
[00:04:52.370]the geographical locations where they once lived.
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