When Artes Johnson was a boy, his family told him stories about their ancestors coming to Nebraska in wagons.
He didn’t know if they were true.
Black people in wagon trains, settling the west?
It would be decades before Johnson, a now-retired photojournalist, could fill in the pieces and verify the details of his great-great grandfather’s journey.
William P. Walker was his name, says Johnson. Resident of Ohio and Canada, seaman and postmaster and farmer and early settler of DeWitty, the all-black enclave in Cherry County.
He can show you the photos -- an old man next to a birthday cake crowded with candles. A young man with his bride. Black and white images of the children who blessed Walker’s two marriages and whose 13 children would spread wide branches.
And become part of a bigger family and an important piece of Nebraska history: The Descendants of DeWitty.
The Lincoln man and his sister started a nonprofit of the same name. For the past 18 months they’ve traveled the state dressed as long-dead founders of DeWitty to tell the story of the once-flourishing Sandhills community.
The 12 black families that came down from Ontario to claim 160 acres in the middle of Nebraska and eventually found bigger plots farther west in a place they called DeWitty, where they farmed the sandy soil and found community with each other and with the white families of nearby Brownlee.
They told that story again last Friday at Metro Gallery, where a mini-exhibit of photos will hang all month.
They will tell it Saturday at the Malone Center’s Juneteenth celebration, surrounded by more photos from the town -- larger images that capture the past.
“There’s so much history,” Johnson says. “If nothing else, it’s our responsibility to keep it alive.”
In the spring of 2016, Johnson had traveled to Valentine to attend the dedication of a historical marker. It told the story of a place that had long disappeared, its residents scattered by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression and land more suited for grazing than growing.
He’d been working to learn more about his family history when he heard about the dedication the day before it happened, Johnson said this week.
“It was by the grace of God I even knew that was going to be happening.”
He headed to Valentine with his brother and pulled into the hotel parking lot in time to see an African American gentleman get out of his car.
“I thought, ‘Hmmm, another black man, maybe he’s here for the same reason I am.’”
The man’s name was Delbert DeWitty.
And so it went.
He met relatives of other DeWitty residents.
He met author Stew Magnuson, who pushed for the marker, assisted by DeWitty descendants, the State Historical Society and then-state Sen. Al Davis.
He met his own far-flung cousins.
“I thought, ‘We’ve got to take this further. We’ve got to make this into something else.’”
Johnson picked up the phone and called his sister, Denise Scales, in Omaha. And when he arrived home in Lincoln, the pair filed paperwork to establish a nonprofit.
They applied for a grant and got it. They tracked down old photographs and had them digitized. They built a Descendants of DeWitty website. Shot a 19-minute documentary. Have hopes for a coffee table picture book and more.
And Johnson found a treasure in his neighbor Bill Hunt, a retired historical archaeologist who sussed out the histories of dozens of DeWitty’s original settlers, happy to help.
“I gathered all the documents I could find,” he says. “Census records, homestead records, photos and a few other oddball things.”
He’d known of DeWitty before Johnson moved in down the street. Now he’s a part of the traveling reenactors, a white man introducing the black cast at Johnson’s request.
The stories they share of the town’s history -- the largest and longest-lasting black settlement in rural Nebraska -- are well-told and interesting, he says.
“We don’t know much about the histories of minorities in this state ... and it’s not a stereotypical story. It’s the story of a community that went through great hardship.”
It’s been a century since the Red Summer of 1919. A bleak time when hate-filled whites burned black homes and businesses across the country and killed hundreds of people, most of them African Americans.
“DeWitty didn’t have anything like that,” Hunt says. “They worked, they celebrated with their white neighbors, there was none of that enmity.”
A remarkable place, Johnson says. Social living at its best.
“Everyone worked together so they could succeed. They built each other’s churches, they built each other’s houses. It was an example of what America can be.”
Johnson has returned to the land along the Loup River south of Valentine where those families lived and worked and went to school. With Hunt’s help, they uncovered William Parker Walker’s gravestone.
Not much is left of DeWitty. The settlement that started at the turn of the 20th century began to dwindle and the last inhabitant was gone by 1936.
Windbreaks signal where sod houses once stood. Three graves remain in the settlement’s cemetery. And the bones of a single house.
Johnson talks about those long-dead people as if they were still alive. He traces their connections and calls their names. He speaks of the success that followed them after they left.
He remembers watching “Wagon Train” with his siblings. He remembers his grandparents saying: Our family was just like that.
He remembers what he thought.
“We were like, wait a minute. We didn’t believe it.”