Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Group Raising Funds for Nebraska Historical Marker on Highway 83

Spot near North Loup River on Hwy 83 in where the marker may be placed.
Note: It appears that we have reached our goal, or are very close to it! No need to send donations now. Thank you to all who contributed!

 Descendants of a legendary Sand Hills settlement, the Cherry County Historical Society and a Nebraska-born author are teaming up to have a historical marker placed along Highway 83.
The Nebraska State Historical Society recently approved a roadside historical marker for DeWitty, the longest lasting, most successful African-American rural settlement in Nebraska.
DeWitty — in later years called Audacious — was first settled in the early 1900s by a group of homesteaders along the North Loup River in Cherry County, just west of present-day Brownlee. They were taking advantage of the Kinkaid Act of 1904, which allowed settlers to claim 640 acres of land, or one square mile, in the 37 counties that comprised the Sand Hills.
Now that the marker has been approved, the group is trying to raise the $5,100 the state historical society requires to pay for it.
Donations can be mailed to or dropped off at:
Security First Bank
PO Box 480
Valentine, Nebraska 69201
Make checks payable to: “DeWitty Historical Marker Fund.”
The first group of DeWitty settlers came from Overton, Nebraska, in Dawson County. But they were originally from Kent County, Ontario, where many escaped slaves and free people of color resided. One of the first to claim land near the North Loup was the family of Charles and Hester Meehan, an interracial couple, who had met and fell in love in Canada. Charles was a first-generation Irish-American, and Hester Freeman, of African decent. Others from different parts of the country joined them. The barber, Robert Hannahs, had been born into slavery. DeWitty had a baseball team and band. Both played all over the Sand Hills. The settlement placed a high value on educating its children, an ethos they had brought from Canada. More than 100 families lived in the settlement during its roughly 20 years of existence.
The homesteaders of DeWitty were just that —Audacious,” says Catherine Meehan Blount, one of the Meehans’ last two living grandchildren. “They were Audacious for believing that the American dream belonged to them, too, and they were Audacious for committing all they had to attain that dream.  Remembering DeWitty pays homage to those who confronted barriers in the pre-civil war United States, in Canada and in the Nebraska Sand Hills with a ‘we can’ attitude. Remembering DeWitty gives anyone who knows their story a reminder that they can, too.”
Joyceann Gray, great granddaughter of DeWitty homesteaders William Walker and Charlotte Hatter, says:
“When we can clearly mark where our ancestors have been — and by name — we can ensure the full story will be told and we can then better understand the purpose of our journey.”
Example of Nebraska State Historical Society marker
“This is really the tale of two communities: DeWitty and Brownlee,” says Stew Magnuson, former Nebraska nonfiction book of the year winner, and author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma, which has a chapter on DeWitty. “Relations between the two communities were by all known accounts, excellent. The mostly Danish settlers of Brownlee and the African-Americans in DeWitty held a July 4th picnic together every year. Some of the one-room schoolhouses were integrated. There is a photograph in history books that shows the Brownlee residents on the day they came to help build the DeWitty church. People had to depend on each other in that remote, harsh land,” says Magnuson.
Blount added: “My dad, Bill Meehan, was born in Overton but spent most of his youth in DeWitty.  He told the story of DeWitty’s renaming to Audacious with much prideful laughter because, he we certain, it had been renamed for him when he was about 12 years old.”
Magnuson first encountered the DeWitty story in a Nebraskaland Magazine article he found in his grandparent’s home in Stapleton, Nebraska, when he was a teenager.
“The thought that there was a black settlement in the Sand Hills blew my mind because I had been raised on a diet of Hollywood westerns and TV shows that portrayed the American West as populated only by white folks and Indians. The towns and homesteads were in fact far more multi-cultural and racially integrated than the media and history textbooks have portrayed. I hope the sign does a little to dispel that myth,” he says.


  1. Thank you for your efforts and this excellent write up!!
    Just a side note: Goldie (my grandmother) and her sister Fernnella Walker were the teachers in district 164 and their brother George Riley was the director of the schools you spoke of!!!

  2. Thanks for this wonderful article and all your efforts on behalf of the DeWitty homesteaders and Nebraska history.

  3. Thanks for that great article, Stew, and all of your efforts to recognize and memorialize an important piece of American history! To add to Joyceanne's side note, Fernnella Walker is my grandmother. Her husband, Charles "Boss" Woodson organized and lead the DeWitty dance band and was widely known (and remembered by many) in Cherry County for his impressive musical talents. :)