According to the 1860 Nebraska census, the total number of “free” Africans in the state was sixty, all of whom were women or children. Many of these women were married to white men and their children formed a major part of the “negro” population as identified by the census takers. Although small in numbers and faced with limited opportunities, Africans made their presence and contribution to the state one of conviction and substance.
Black cowboys herded Texas longhorns to the railways of Nebraska, some staying on and working local ranches. Still others, arriving in Omaha after slavery was abolished, were employed by the Union Pacific Railroad as waiters or porters on long distance passenger trains.
In Lincoln it was reported in the 1880 census that one third of the black population was working as cooks, barbers or carpenters. Homesteading was a difficult challenge, even for the most experienced and persistent farmer.
In spite of the barriers, records reveal successful black homesteaders did prevail. The first “documented” and probably the best known was Robert Ball Anderson. Anderson, who had been born into slavery in 1843, was a Civil War veteran and among the earliest settlers in Box Butte County near Heminford. He arrived in 1870 and persisted under extremely difficult conditions to eventually own more than two thousand acres and specialize in breeding horses.
Wagon train leader Charles Meehan, and other former enslaved Africans, traveled the Underground Railroad to Canada, then returned to the United States through Nebraska to found the town of Overton in 1885.
Two of the most successful settlers were LeRoy Gields and his sister Matilda Robinson. Utilizing the Kinkaid Act, which granted ownership to anyone who homesteaded for a five year period, they accumulated 1,120 acres by 1904.
Identified as the largest black settlement in Nebraska, Dewitty’s first claim was filed by Clem Deaver in 1904. Deaver was a member of the wagon train from Canada led by Charles Meehan. He was accompanied by fellow settlers William Crawford and George Brown, who also homesteaded in the area.
The town sustained itself until the early 1930’s, establishing a post office, a general store, a successful baseball team and three all-black school districts. However, the fragile, sandy soil eventually became depleted and could no longer produce adequate crops to support the families.
Don Hanna, a descendant of R.H. Hanna “Uncle Bob,”was still living in the area as recently as 1993. Uncle Bob rode his mule to the nearby town of Brownlee where he operated a barber shop three days a week.