County Weld and state groups team up to preserve black community

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A largely forgotten place with an important history in Weld County is attracting attention in Colorado as groups work to spread this awareness even more.

Dearfield, once a small black farming community east of Greeley, is the site of discoveries and ongoing studies led by two professors at the University of Northern Colorado who want the ancient city to someday assume a profile national.

“It’s like rolling a log downhill,” said retired UNC anthropology professor Robert Brunswig. “It took a little while for it to start but I think we are on the right track now. “

For about 30 years Brunswig and his UNC colleague George June, professor of African studies, devoted their time and sweat to learning more about Dearfield and the founder OT Jackson, who founded the city in 1910. In 1930 Dearfield was largely deserted, a ghost town, due to drought and “dust bowl” conditions according to Brunswig, who wrote a 25-page guide to the town’s history.

“We’re trying to figure out what the community was and what people were doing,” June said. “We have a general idea and a lot of it doesn’t shake the earth. “

University of Northern Colorado professors Robert Brunswig, left, and George June, right, speak to a group of people from Weld County and state organizations on Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in Dearfield. Brunswig and June have led Dearfield’s preservation and restoration efforts on behalf of groups and organizations, who are seeking funds to continue the work. The Black Homestead farming community was founded in 1910 by OT Jackson. Dearfield was one of six Black Homestead communities in the Great Plains States before it became a virtual ghost town in the early 1930s (Anne Delaney / reporter).

In time, Dearfield could become a national historic site like Nicodemus, Kansas, due to the importance of the six Black Homestead communities in the Great Plains States – where residents were free to own land.

For now, Dearfield is seen and understood in more depth at the state level in hopes of financially benefiting the archaeological, historical and environmental studies of the colony, which spans 20 square miles.

Dearfield is the subject of the Dearfield Dream Project, a collaborative research effort of several organizations and groups dedicated to preserving the city.

Representatives of these groups along with local and state officials came to Dearfield on Wednesday to learn about its past, see it in the present, and hear plans for its future. Dearfield is located on US 34, approximately 2 miles from the South Platte River and 12 miles from Wiggins.

Among the leaders and officials who attended the nearly three-hour event were UNC President Andy Feinstein; Weld County Commissioners Perry Buck, Scott James and Lori Saine; the six members of the legislative capital development committee; Daphne Rice Allen and Denise Leadon of the American Black West Museum in Denver; and Greeley City Councilor Tommy Butler.

The exterior of the former home of Dearfield founder OT Jackson, who established the Black Homestead community in 1910. Dearfield was home to approximately 300 Black residents at the turn of the 20th century and one of six Black Homestead communities in the United States. Great Plains before becoming a ghost town in the early 1930s (Anne Delaney / journalist)

Representatives from History Colorado, which is a state charity and agency, and the nonprofit Colorado Preservation Inc. were also in attendance.

“It means people are paying attention and are starting to understand that there is more than one culture in America,” said Leadon, vice president of the American Black West Museum. “It’s a revelation. With the past, with George Floyd, things are not fair. If we invest in the cultures of others, we can unite for the United States ”

The other major black settler communities in the Great Plains were DeWitty, Nebraska; Sully County, South Dakota; Empire, Wyoming; and Blackdom, New Mexico. Dearfield and Nicodemus are the only former Black Homestead communities where structures remain, according to the National Park Service.

The NPS also reports that approximately 3,500 black settlers have successfully claimed their titles from the General Land Office. The office granted them ownership of approximately 650,000 acres, where up to 15,000 people lived on the farms, including family members.

Most black settlers settled in clusters or settlements with other black families, the NPS said.

“They have also pooled their resources to build a rich cultural and civic life,” according to reports on the NPS website. “They exuberantly built churches and schools and organized baseball teams, reading circles, choral groups, newspapers, investment clubs, sewing circles, dances and celebrations.

A room inside a building in Dearfield that was once the home of founder OT Jackson. Dearfield was home to around 300 Black residents at the turn of the 20th century and one of six Black Homestead communities in the Great Plains States before becoming a virtual ghost town in the early 1930s.

In late February, Jackson was honored by Colorado Chautauqua in Boulder for his work as the organization’s dining room manager, according to the Boulder Daily Camera.

The story points out that the tribute to Jackson was held to celebrate Black History Month and to permanently pay “tribute to the businessman – a son of former slaves – who played a role. important not only in the early days of Chautauqua, but in the front. Range’s culinary scene, local government, independent black-based family property, and community development within Colorado.

June described the more difficult side of settling Dearfield. He said that when people started there in 1910, they had to get water from the South Platte River. The winter of 1910-11 was brutally cold, resulting in the death of several horses.

“That’s how desperate they were to have a place of their own,” June said.

In a 2017 UNC magazine article, June said the town’s name was assigned to a Denver doctor who explained that the land and settlement were “very dear” to residents.

Saine, a former state representative, organized the event and brought Dearfield’s attention to state representative Edie Hooton, who chairs the Capitol Development Committee, a committee tasked with reviewing funding requests for investment projects from all state agencies and making priority recommendations to the Joint Budget Committee.

Saine credited Brunswig and June with taking charge of restoration and preservation at Dearfield.

“These are two men who have seen beyond the remnants of a dream,” she said.

The front of the Dearfield gas station built by founder OT Jackson, who established the Black Farming Town and Colony in 1910. Dearfield was home to about 300 Black residents in the early 20th century and one of six Black Homestead communities in the Great Plains States before becoming a virtual ghost town in the early 1930s (Anne Delaney / journalist)

One of the goals and objectives is to generate more sources of funding to pay for the necessary preservation work on the remaining structures in Dearfield, including a house that was owned by Jackson. Jackson, who was born in Ohio, worked as a messenger for Colorado Governor John Shafroth in the early 1900s before moving to Weld County.

There is also an old gas station and a dining hall on site. In 2000, a bill was passed in the state senate awarding $ 250,000 to create a plan for the Dearfield site and to stabilize Jackson’s house.

Some of the money donated at this point was spent on security measures, including fencing and window protection, Brunswig said. All Dearfield era structures are held behind locked fences to prevent further vandalism.

PDC Energy donated $ 15,000 to the American Black West Museum, which owns land in the area, and Occidental Petroleum donated $ 7,500 to the museum.

In addition, Dearfield advocates are waiting to hear a request for a $ 500,000 grant from the National Park Service.

The Dearfield Dream Project grew out of a grassroots group based in Greeley called the Dearfield Committee which formed in 2008. The committee serves as an advisory group to the Black American West Museum, according to Brunswig’s guide. The committee represents several public and private organizations, including the Weld County government, UNC, City of Greeley Museums, Colorado State University, and Colorado Preservation, Inc.

One of the committee members is former Weld County Commissioner Bill Garcia, who said Dearfield’s story and story “must be told.”

“It’s a unique story,” Garcia said. “A story of Weld County, an American story. Independence and entrepreneurship, people who want to improve.

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