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They labored over beans, watermelon and vegetables painstakingly planted in sandy soil and grazed modest herds of cattle.

Their children daydreamed at desks in single-room schools. They slept between sod walls and played a mean game of baseball.

But homesteaders who settled along the North Loup River in Cherry County differed from most of their pioneering peers in one highly visible way: the color of their skin.

By most accounts, that difference didn’t count for much in the Sandhills.

“There was no kind of segregation at all," nonfiction author and former Nebraskan Stew Magnuson, who researched the subject, said in a phone interview. "The ethos out there was neighbors help each other. When your neighbor needed help, and you’re out on the prairie, you help them.”

Overgrown graves and a few foundations are all that remain of the once booming community of nearly 200 called DeWitty.

Descendants of DeWitty, later renamed Audacious to reflect residents’ attitudes, would like to remind those cruising by on U.S. 83 that they are passing a place important to Nebraska’s history and pay homage to those pioneers, some former slaves, and their dreams of a better life. They hope to raise $5,100 to erect a plaque to honor and remember the once brisk town.

Magnuson, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, but who grew up in Omaha, learned about DeWitty as a teenager flipping through a copy of NEBRASKAland magazine at his grandparents' home in Stapleton.

“It just completely blew my mind because I was raised in the '70s and '60s with this image of the West as just populated by white people or Native Americans,” he said. “The fact there had been a community the size of a town out in the middle of Nebraska populated by African-Americans pretty much blew that conception out of my head.”

The Homestead Act of 1862 gave settlers 160 acres, and later, the Kinkaid Act offered as many as 640 acres to claimants, luring thousands of immigrants, former slaves, would-be farmers and adventurous souls to Nebraska. They packed their lives into bags, wagons and oxcarts and hit the road looking to start new lives.

Nebraska’s harsh winters and the challenges of farming defeated many transplants -- black and white -- who were used to more hospitable climates and more fertile soil.

DeWitty wasn’t the only black homestead community in the state, but it was one of the most successful and longest lived, surviving nearly 30 years.

Descendant Catherine Meehan Blount, who lives in Bishopville, Maryland, believes its success came from a core group of about nine families that came to Nebraska from Canada. They were skilled, valued education, were accustomed to punishing cold and had already learned how to build a community out of wilderness, she said.

Her grandparents, Charles and Hester Meehan, traveled by wagon to Nebraska from the Canadian settlement of Elgin, which was established by a Presbyterian minister as a refuge for escaped and freed slaves. Charles was white, Hester black.

Charles Meehan’s parents left Ireland during the Great Famine, landed on U.S. shores and made their way to Detroit, where he was born, Meehan Blount said.

But they separated, and his mother married a man of African descent and they moved to Canada. It was there Charles met Hester, who was a third-generation Canadian. The childhood sweethearts got hitched in 1875. Interracial marriage, while legal in Canada, was a social no-no. In Nebraska, it was against the law.

“I always thought it was a little bit strange they went to Nebraska,” Meehan Blount said. “Their marriage was perfectly legal in Canada. Certainly in Nebraska it was very clear that Nebraska did not recognize interracial marriages and one could have been fined for being married to someone of another race or imprisoned for it.”

She suspects racism and hostile relations with white neighbors in Canada played a part in the decision. And the promise of free land spurred them to travel more than 900 miles west to Nebraska.

They stopped first in Overton, where they heard about vast unclaimed lands in the Sandhills, tales of which were spread by folks like railroader Clem Deaver, one of the first African-Americans to make a claim, according to a 1969 Nebraskaland Magazine article.

Wood was scarce, with only a few cottonwoods dotting the landscape. Settlers built homes of bricks cut from sod, and a wooden roof was a sign of prosperity. More humble folks used sod for that too, with a little grass up top to soak up the rain.

Ava Speese Day, another of Charles and Hester Meehan’s grandchildren, lived in DeWitty as a child and later wrote about her memories, including the time a couple of boys got into her grandfather’s prize watermelon patch.

Flies were a problem in the summer, she said in one story published in the book "African American Women Confront the West, 1600-2000." When they didn’t have flypaper, they would twist up newspaper, light it and use it to burn the wings off flies then sweep them up. Speese Day died in 1988.

DeWitty was more of a sprawling settlement than a town, lacking any kind of central business district, Magnuson said. It spanned 10 to 20 square miles and had a post office, store, church, schools, town band, barber and a baseball team called the Sluggers.

The schools were integrated, with children from nearby Brownlee sharing the playground and learning math with the Dewitty children.

The barber, Robert Hannah, was a freed slave. Every August he hosted a community picnic inviting all of DeWitty and Brownlee.

But droughts, dust storms, crop failures and financial hardships took their toll, and the community dwindled. People sold their land to neighboring ranchers or mortgaged it to the bank.

The Meehans eventually sold all but 40 of their acres, which stayed in the family until 1965. By the 1920s, their children had grown up and moved away. Hester died in 1923 while visiting two of her sons in Alliance. Charles moved to Illinois for a few years, then came back to Alliance, where he died in 1935. He held onto those 40 acres just in case one of his kids ever needed a home to return to, Meehan Blount said.

Joyceann Gray of Sterling, Virginia, the great granddaughter of DeWitty homesteaders William Walker and Charlotte Hatter, said families used their land as a steppingstone to give their children a better life.

“The goal of the family was not to have these children become farmers like themselves but to have the advantage and foothold in the country so they could go on,” Gray said.

All the families of DeWitty worked to support each other. While some of their histories are recorded better than others, credit for their accomplishments should be shared, Gray said.

"Everybody supported everybody else. If there was an orphan, somebody took her in. If a barn needed to be built, then they all came together and built it," she said.

One of those DeWitty children, Goldie Hayes, went on to be a teacher and made headlines when she was elected over four white teachers as a delegate to a 1947 assembly of educators in Lincoln.

Zetta Tate, county superintendent at the time, was quoted in The Chicago Defender’s national edition saying that Cherry County is “unconsciously dedicated to the principal that a man is a man and a woman is a woman. Here we believe that there is no race, no color no creed. … Mrs. Hayes won the election because she deserved it.”

Don Hanna III, whose dad used to get his hair cut by Robert Hannah, owns much of what was once DeWitty and has taken several descendants out to look at the fields their ancestors worked. But he discourages curiosity seekers. It’s rough country, he said, dangerous to navigate.

“I see myself a little bit as preserving the dignity of the settlement itself and not letting people come and tromp over it and pick up things,” he said. “It is rest in peace as far as I’m concerned.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7304 or nbergin@journalstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ljsbergin.

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