Some former Southern enslaved people and their descendants followed the American dream westward, where they created towns to homestead together. This is a tale of two of those towns—on either side of the Wyoming-Colorado border—and what today’s small towns now can learn from their stories.
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[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]
Back at the beginning of this season, we visited Teller City, a silver mining town that cropped up in the 1880’s in Colorado’s North Park, the valley where I grew up. It was a really bustling town for about eight years. Over a thousand people lived there at its height. If you remember, my dad Jay and I went and visited the town with local historian Rick Corneilson. I asked Rick, where did all those people come from?
“You could say North Park is Swedish,” Rick said. “Most of the old timers are Swedes.”
“Did they know each other? Were they drawing each other out here?”
“Well, the oldest Carlstroms came from Sweden. They settled here and they brought their family, their brothers. And after they settled, they brought their kinfolk over and they settled. They saw they were making a living, having a good time and [said] let’s go,” Rick said.
“Right. They probably liked the cold too.”
Rick laughed. “Yeah, being from Sweden, yeah.”
So to Rick’s mind, North Park’s immigrant roots are mainly Swedish. And that sort of attraction of certain groups to settle in large numbers in one area, that happened all over the American West. The Spaniards of the Southwest, the Mormons in Utah. Greek, German, English, they came, sank roots, then wrote back inviting friends to come along. But the thing was, some of those groups–like the Swedes in North Park–they were welcome to the new frontier. But some? Well, some were not.
Over the next few episodes, we’re going to talk about migration to the rural West. And the reason is that we might be able to learn a lot about why people move someplace and why they leave. Not all towns were like Teller City–they weren’t all bust towns. Some were snuffed out intentionally because of the identity of people who moved there. But a lot of those stories have been whited out in the history books. But to understand the role of migration in ghost towning, it might be time to start unearthing it.
Erin Jones took on the task.
When you think of pioneers, you might think of Little House on the Prairie. Or Oregon Trail, that computer game you maybe played in the nineties. So when you think of pioneers, you might think of White people. But pioneers weren’t all White.
This is a tale of two towns: one in Wyoming and one in Colorado. The story is told by academics, reenactors, pilgrims, the Bible, and, above all, Westerners. This is a story about the American Dream.
Part of the American Dream, especially in the West, has to do with homesteading. So historian Jake Friefeld is going to help tell this story because he specializes in homesteading.
“The history of homesteading grows out of the Homestead Act of 1862, which Abraham Lincoln signed,” Jake said.
It was the middle of the Civil War. A year after the Homestead Act, in 1863, enslaved people were emancipated. The Civil War ended.
“There is this moment of hope. The Freedmen’s Bureau is founded.”
The Freedmen’s Bureau: a government institution that funded some hospitals and schools for African Americans.
“There’s a hope for land reform in the South. Many enslaved people have been working on the land their entire life or thinking if they can get land that they own as back wages for generations enslaved, they can make a go of it in the South,” Jake said.
So in 1866, still in the flush of optimism of founding the Freedmen’s Bureau, Congress passed the Southern Homestead Act, for anybody in the South who had supported the Union, and formerly enslaved people.
“Stay on that land for five years, prove up and have the land forever. Well, for a number of reasons the Southern Homestead Act didn’t work out too well. Part of it was some of the lands needed clearance. So if you don’t have much to begin with, you can’t clear a bunch of timberland or swampland in Florida. And the other side of that is a breathtaking amount of White resistance and violence to this land reform.”
In the 1870s, Congress succumbed to pressure from Southern Whites and dissolved the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Southern Homestead Act. All in all, Reconstruction–the attempts to make up for enslaving people for generations–lasted less than fifteen years.
Then the South plunged into violence.
“Yeah, the post-Reconstruction South is not a good place to be. It’s violent, it is filled with increasingly segregationist laws as well. It becomes pretty clear that there’s not going to be much to curb the violence,” Jake said. “And that’s when a lot of Black Americans begin moving in large part to Kansas at that period. There were some preachers in the South, saying that Kansas was gonna be this land of freedom, almost in this Biblical sense, like a New Canaan. I’m not sure exactly how Kansas becomes the place.”
But it did. Formerly enslaved people followed their dreams and came to Kansas. Over the decades, they spread into Nebraska. Have you been to Kansas or Nebraska? Imagine: fields and prairie as far as you can see. Like all your dreams, your parents’ dreams, of space, of room to plant and grow, to be your own person…they can come true here.
Among these families were the Speeses and the Taylors. They started farming in Nebraska, and they prospered.
But the sky over the plains is so big and so blue everyone wanted to carve their piece out underneath it. And there are only so many times you can subdivide your farm among your children, and their children.
The Speeses and Taylors
So, Nebraska, 1908. By now the Civil War and chattel slavery have legally been over for forty years. And here in western Nebraska, the Speeses and Taylors and other Black families have been successfully farming for years. But they’re running out of room. And there’s another issue: racism.
“The Speese family were classically trained musicians. The children would travel and put on concerts. They show up to give a concert one night, and the mostly white audience or all white audience is upset that it’s not a minstrel show,” Jake said.
The Speeses were tired of the racism and they were feeling constrained by limited land. So they got together with the Taylors and a few other Black families and made a plan. They were going to move just across the border to Wyoming and make a new home, said historian and anthropologist Todd Guenther.
“The town of Empire–or let’s start over right there, because it was never really a town,” Todd said.
What a name for a place: Empire.
“The community of Empire had its origins in 1908 when several families of Black immigrants from Nebraska moved up into the Sheep Creek Valley and claimed homesteads and started farming and ranching in that area right on the Nebraska-Wyoming border,” Todd said.
They weren’t after building a town with a main street. It didn’t have a grocery store, or a newspaper. Jake and Todd are adamant that it was a community, not a town. But I’m not so sure. Remember Sam Western, the economics historian from earlier in this series? He says a place is a town if it has a post office and school. And guess what? Empire had both of those things, plus two churches.
But Jake and Todd have a point, too, because there wasn’t a main street, or like a town square, or any kind of central cluster of buildings. It was really spread out and rural.
But whether it was a town or a community, what matters is that it was a dream fulfilled.
And this eastern Wyoming place the Speeses and Taylors chose, it’s idyllic.
Softly rolling hills, green crops. The odd milk cow mooing for supper. In the late summer, sunflowers line the roads like they’re happy to see you. Like you’re welcome here.
“What they were raising was the same kind of stuff that all homesteaders raised,” Todd said. “You know, they tried to deal with dryland farming, and a few cattle and and pigs and horses and mules and chickens, things like that. But the homesteads back in those days just weren’t big enough for people to really make a living.”
I asked him why, when the Speeses and Taylors realized it wasn’t going to work in Nebraska, they wanted to keep farming at all. Why not move to a city?
“That’s what we call the agrarian dream,” Todd said. “You know, Thomas Jefferson thought that the whole continent would be peopled by the yeoman farmers. People thought farming was a good and godly way to live. And in the cities, there was crime and pollution and lots of misbehavior, and changing social structures and things like that. And people saw kind of nobility in farming. And they had those skills, the Speeses and Taylor families. The Black families at Empire had those agricultural skills because they learned all of those crafts in slavery, and brought them westward with them. And they didn’t like the crowds, and they didn’t like factory jobs and things like that. And they wanted to get back out onto the farms and be in control of their own destiny.”
Being in control of your own destiny. We’ll get back to Empire, Wyoming, soon. But let’s stay on this wistful farming ideal for a second. This dream.
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OT Jackson And His Dream
Remember how lots of African Americans were leaving the South after Reconstruction because it was a dangerous place to be? They left in droves for the North, for the Midwest, and for the West. So Wyoming was hardly the only place in the West where Black pioneers were making a go of it.
At the same time as all this was happening in Wyoming, down south in Colorado, there was a man who was trying to make his own agrarian dream happen.
“Well, my name is OT Jackson, and I’m a self-made man.”
(Full disclosure, OT Jackson was born in 1862; I wasn’t actually talking to OT Jackson. That was reenactor John Thomas in the role of OT. John volunteers with the Black American West Museum, and during non-COVID times he performs at museum events.)
John-as-OT is wearing a felt hat and a pocket watch, in his Longmont, Colorado backyard full of roses on a gorgeous September day. It’s fun to watch him; he’s animated and hearing OT’s story in his voice feels like insider access to something impossible. John-slash-OT is telling stories of long ago. OT Jackson was originally from Ohio, but like lots of other African Americans, he followed his dreams West. He owned a restaurant in Boulder, he was involved in politics…
“I was interested in the political environment in Denver, trying to improve the lives of Negroes,” said John/OT. “I was a member of the Negro Business League. The Negro Business League was actually a national organization. It was started by Booker T. Washington, and there were chapters all over the country. Book to sell, or to book up from slavery. And he talked about the fact that, you know, even though slavery disappeared, and we were free, most of us wound up taking care of somebody else’s house or cleaning up or cutting somebody’s hair, or washing their clothes. And what Booker T. wanted was for us to set up our own little communities.
“So I tried to get the Negro Business League to do that. And for some reason, they never really supported the idea. So I said, ‘well, to hell with them, I’m gonna do it on my own.’”
So OT and his wife Minerva bought 320 acres in eastern Colorado, not far from the border with Wyoming, and under that same wide blue sky as the one in Kansas and eastern Wyoming and Nebraska, few trees or structures to interrupt the view of long plains.
Dearfield is on a highway east of Greeley, Colorado. The road ribbons through fields with tall green crops. Now, in summer, I slowed down to pass spidery farm vehicles, rumbling on the shoulder. There’s a green department of transportation sign that just says “Dearfield,” and I slammed on my brakes. It’s a dusty parking area next to two piles of weathered wood that clearly used to be structures, and a dirt road disappearing between them. I was meeting George Junne here.
“I am Dr. George, Junne, J-U-N-N-E. And I am in Africana Studies at the University of Northern Colorado,” said George.
Inspired by Booker T. Washington, and maybe by the 20 or so other Black communities in Colorado at the time, George said OT Jackson had a dream.
“He wanted to have a prosperous African-American community and he did everything he could. There are people who came out here that were so poor, they could not do anything. And so he would loan them money so they could file on their homestead. And some of them had to walk part of the way from Denver, because they didn’t have money to get here. They couldn’t take the train. So that’s how desperate these people were. And they saw this as this is going to be the way that I can become a full-fledged citizen and have a little bit of power and can pass this on to the children. So that’s what this was.”
I asked him why it was called Dearfield.
“Oh, because the man who named it that–it’s spelled D-E-A-R, not D-E-E-R. He said because this land will be dear to us. And so that’s the name that stuck,” George said.
“Now what we did there was dryland farming,” said John/OT. “You know, you take a seed, you put it in the ground, you pray for rain. We didn’t have a river nearby. We didn’t have irrigation. We didn’t have any of that fancy stuff. The first winter was rough. It was really cold. I mean, we had five horses and two of them froze to death. We had one wooden structure, which is my house, and the rest of the folks lived in teepees and dugouts and made their shelters however they wanted to make them comfortable.”
“And when folks first came out here, the first 1910-1911 winter, some people did not have the money to build their cabin,” said George. “So the first winter, there was some people who dug out holes in the hillside and lived in the hillside for the winter. That’s how desperate they wanted to own their own home.”
“And on the eastern plains, you know, they don’t have trees. So if you want to burn something, we had to get sagebrush and cow chips and anything that we could burn. And so we stuck it out. We made it through that first winter, and Dearfield grew,” said John/OT. “We had potatoes and corn and cabbage and rye and beans, and turnips, melons, and sugar beets, oats and alfalfa. We had cattle and chicken and horses and hogs and geese, ducks and turkeys. I mean, we were doing it. We had a general store, we had a filling station, we had two churches, we had a school, we had a boarding house, we had a cafeteria. I mean, people would come from miles around on Sunday to eat with us, you know, and I was the guy that ran the kitchen. So you know, you know it was good. And you know we had a dance hall!”
George said, “So there was one building that was the church. And it was also, on Saturday night, a dance hall.”
“So we had lots of fun on Saturday night,” said John/OT.
And the people!
“Squire Brockman, if you looked at a picture of him, you wouldn’t think that much of him because he was kind of a small guy and kind of hunched over. He didn’t look very good,” said George. “But the ladies loved it. Some people said he was married a few times. The last time he was married, he was in his seventies. And he married a 20-year-old, and they stayed married for about a year before she ran off.”
I asked George where people were from. Denver, mostly?
“All over the country,” George said. “Many of them were from the Denver area. Sometimes they came to Denver from places in the South. Some of them, their parents were slaves, and so forth. So they came from everywhere. And a couple of them were born slaves too.”
“So they must have been on the older side by 1910 or so,” I said.
“Yeah, because slavery ended by 1865.”
“It’s interesting to think about, starting a whole new life in your fifties out in the Colorado plains.”
“Yeah,” George said. “And some of them had relatives out here. And Colorado had the reputation of not being as racist as many other communities on the East Coast, particularly the South, and also in the North.”
Of course he means the broader North of the United States. But as Dearfield triumphed over its first winter and grew, just to the north, less than two hundred miles away, the people of Empire Wyoming were facing problems.
A Lynching In Empire
“Right from the earliest days, there were racial tensions. Whenever something would disappear, somebody would misplace an item, or lose an item, the Black families would be accused right away of stealing,” said Todd Guenther.
There were threats of violence, of White mobs coming for Black people, for their families.
But a sort of savior came to town, somebody who had ideas for Empire.
“1911 is when Russell Taylor arrives,” said Jake Friefeld. “He is the driver who really helps create the community culture in Empire. He founds the church, he takes over the schools. He is the glue that holds Empire together.”
Russell Taylor was a minister and a teacher.
“And after doing that, for several years, he brought his wife and their children to join his brothers in Empire in Wyoming and became the teacher and the postmaster and held several other prominent positions in the community as well,” said Todd. “He was doing a lot to try and build respect for the Empire community. They were living the American dream, you know, taking raw land and trying to turn it into what in the New Testament they call the city on the hill.”
The city on the hill: this is a sermon that Jesus gives in Matthew. He says his followers are, quote, “the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”
Those words are a really big part of the American dream. Ever since 1630, when colonizer John Winthrop spoke to his followers onboard the ship to New England. He dreamed of a city on a hill.
“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” wrote John Winthrop. “The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
And here Reverend Taylor had a town called Empire. He knew what his work was.
But as he wrote letters to the editors of newspapers across the Mountain West, as he taught students how to read, as he spoke at religious conferences, as he used everything he had to try to make Empire a model community and the world a better place, that Western seam of racism became even more exposed.
Russell had a brother named Baseman Taylor. Baseman had farmed for a while, but he sold his equipment. By 1913, he worked in a restaurant in Torrington.
“At some point his family became concerned that he was a danger to himself, suffering from what was probably depression,” said Jake. “They wanted him put in a hospital; I believe for that time it was called for the mentally insane. They get the Goshen County Sheriff to come get him. He is beaten. He dies in custody [and] is killed by the Goshen County Sheriff.”
Baseman hadn’t committed any crime or violence. This was a lynching.
Between 1904 and 1920, White Wyomingites lynched at least five Black men. That means that in those years, Wyoming had the number one lynching rate in the country.
“So I’m not talking about, like, the law-and-order lynchings in Laramie in the 1860s or 70s,” said Todd. “We’re talking about racially-motivated lynchings. Murder at the hands of a mob.”
After that, Russell Taylor poured himself into justice for his brother.
“It broke his heart and infuriated him, as it did most of the other Black individuals and families who lived there and knew what had really happened,” said Todd. “And Russell actually filed suit against the county and the sheriff in an attempt to get some justice when the criminal court failed to do anything about the case. But his lawyers told him after a few depositions and things that he could spend a lot of money pursuing this, but would never win the case. Because he was a Black man.”
Of course, this racism was present across the country. But there weren’t many Black people in the West. Russell Taylor was trying to change that, but Empire was isolated in a sea of hostility. And its citizens were getting tired.
The End Of Dearfield
“In 1920, we had 20,000 acres under cultivation,” said John Thomas/OT Jackson. “There were 700 of us there, farming the land. And, you know, we had houses and cars and fur coats and just doing really well. But you know, it didn’t last. The first thing that happened is the war ended; World War One ended in 1918. The price for crops, you know, went through the floor. Second of all, we had a big drought, rain didn’t come anymore. Thirdly, the depression hit, and then everything turned to a Dust Bowl.”
“With the Dust Bowl coming in, everything in eastern Colorado into Kansas, Nebraska, just blew away,” said George Junne. “And so all the land just picked up and just blew away. I think one quarter of the farms in the United States went under. And that’s what happened.”
“And gradually, people couldn’t hang on to their property, they lost it,” said John/OT. “The banks sold it and gradually they started leaving Dearfield. I tried to advertise the property as a resort area, to have people come and vacation and relax. But you know, it’s kind of hard because there’s flat land and no trees. So that didn’t succeed. So gradually, Dearfield became extinct.”
I asked George what happened to the people who were so poor they had to walk part of the way to Dearfield.
“Some of them just gave up and they went to Denver and went to other places and stayed there. And that’s all they could do,” George said.
“So they lost everything.”
“Yeah, they just left things.”
Perhaps the descendants of Dearfielders live in Denver now or somewhere else in the West. Or if they’re not in the West, their roots are Western. Their ancestors were pioneers.
And now, the Black American West Museum and others, including George Junne, are working to raise awareness about Dearfield and save its remaining structures. They’ve already poured funds into stabilizing OT Jackson’s house. School groups come on fieldtrips from all across the Front Range. One model for what Dearfield could be one day is Nicodemus, Kansas, a former Black town that’s now a National Historic Site with a visitor center and a homecoming celebration every summer.
Visiting Empire’s Remains
I was driving down a lonely country road right on the Wyoming-Nebraska border in August, late in the day. Faraway wildfire smoke tinged everything hazy, made the sun seem closer to setting than it was. There were sunflowers everywhere. I was looking for a cemetery.
After the murder of Baseman Taylor, Empire dissolved. One or two at a time, people left. No one knows exactly what the population of Empire was, but historians think at its height in 1915, around 40 to 60 people might have lived there. By 1930, only four people were left, and the Dust Bowl quickly swept those four away.
No one knows where all those people went exactly. Todd has spoken with descendants in Casper, Wyoming, but those folks have since passed away. In any case, like the Dearfielders, anybody descended from the people of Empire have their roots in the West. They’re integral parts of the Western story.
Onsite in Eastern Wyoming, though, little remains of Empire anymore except for this cemetery. But walking around the area, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Just these bucolic fields fecund with corn.
I turned around. And it was right there.
It’s called the Sheep Creek Cemetery. Inside the fence are the White settlers, and outside it are the Black settlers.
For years, most people in Wyoming didn’t know Empire existed. And while I’ve been working on this story, most Wyomingites I’ve spoken to still don’t. There was a thick silence around Empire for decades. Todd Guenther’s White, and he says when he started researching the town, some of his colleagues resisted.
“When I was in grad school, I had people that tried to get me fired from my job and kicked out of grad school and they didn’t want to hear all of this. They prefer to hear the happy history and the censored version of history, the whitewashed version of history. I’ve been called a traitor to my race.”
But in 2016, the Wyoming State Museum hosted an exhibit about Empire that has since turned into a traveling exhibit.
In addition to Todd and Jake’s research and the museum exhibit, there’s also a new Empire historical marker now at a rest stop on I-25 near Wheatland. The marker was just erected last summer.
At the cemetery, I can just find two Empire graves—that is, graves outside the fence, where Black people were allowed to be buried. The two are spread far apart, like the living were making room for generations to come. Like there would be other families, new families, crowding in between. But there’s only these two graves, far apart from one another, in a cornfield.
Not A Void
How are we supposed to think about the extinction of a short-lived community? People were here. People lived here.
I thought Karla Slocum might be able to help me think about this. She’s an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina. She wrote a book called Black Towns, Black Futures: The Enduring Allure of a Black Place in the American West. She made time for me to ask some bumbling questions about places like Empire and Dearfield.
“You use the term ghost town a lot,” said Karla. “The ghost town to me suggests a kind of place that has a void. It’s a place that doesn’t have anything to offer. It’s a place that was and doesn’t have anything that it offers us today. And so even if a place that formerly existed was incorporated before, but is no longer formally existing, and is not no longer Incorporated, and maybe has no physical residence in it anymore. It’s still a place that has a lot of significance to people who have an affiliation with that place.”
So all these towns we’re talking about in this whole series–not just Empire and Dearfield, but Walden, too, and all the shrinking towns in the rural West–they’re not voids and they won’t become voids. They’re important. They have meaning.
Maybe it’s time to rethink what success means.
“The very popular fascination with Black towns is about what they were, that they have these really remarkable histories,” said Karla. “The word ‘remarkable’ is often used to describe them. They are places where people of African descent–Black people–came together and created these communities. And in many cases, they were vibrant places. They were places that provided people a sense of security, a relative sense of security, I should say. And were part of their quest for achieving freedom and safety during the Jim Crow era.”
Karla says Black towns are success stories, whether they’re former Black towns or current ones.
“Dearfield was a successful, highly successful farming community. You can’t tell it now. After the Dust Bowl, it has disappeared. But it was a highly successful farming community,” said George Junne.
…Because it had bumper crops. Because it grew so much food that in addition to what they sold, Dearfielders donated food to Black orphanages in Denver. Because there was a blacksmith who was a ladies’ man. Because there were dances. Because there were places to find God. Because there was a man who had a dream, and did everything he could to make it happen.
“It was a wonderful dream,” said John Thomas/OT Jackson. “It was a good dream. It was a great project. It was a dear dream.”
OT Jackson died in the 1940s in his house in Dearfield. He was the last person living there.
Creating A Myth
I asked George Junne why he thinks it’s important to tell the story of places like Dearfield.
“Oh, that’s part of the good part of history. I mean, it’s fantastic history with these pioneers. No experience coming out here, just saying, ‘I’m going to take the big chance,’ and doing it and succeeding.”
“There’s been this whitewashing of Western history,” added Jake Friefeld. “And to a certain extent, Midwestern history as well. This tells the story of generations of African Americans who–some came out of slavery–went in their lives from being owned to owning land.”
People think of myths as something that’s not true. But a myth is something that’s deeply true. It’s so true it tells us who we are.
And myths come from stories.
“If we’re going to tell the American story and if we’re going to tell American history, we need to have it complete,” said Karla Slocum. “And there are so many silences around the Black presence, that this Black town story is one of those parts that helps add to and round out the American story.”
Do you ever think about all those people in America, dreaming? Dreaming of freedom, safety. Dreaming that they can use their skills toward dignity and independence. Dreaming of sunflowers, a wide blue sky, endless room to be your own person.
Imagine: two towns, houses clustered together against the wild plains. Night falls.
And people dream.
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