I’m happy to report that after about two months, we have managed to raise the $5,100 required to install a historical marker on Highway 83 for DeWitty, the longest lasting and most successful rural black settlement in Nebraska!
Back in the spring of 2009, I had an idea pop into my head to write a book about U.S. Highway 83 and some of the forgotten history one finds alongside it. Not more than a few seconds later, the words “Like that black town near Brownlee” came to mind.
I had known about an African-American settlement in the heart of the Sand Hills since reading an article about it in high school in Nebraskaland Magazine. I had been fascinated that such a place once existed 80 miles north of where my grandparents lived in Stapleton, but didn’t know much about it.
After doing some research into the town at the Library of Congress, I realized that there was lot more to the settlement known as DeWitty than the curiosity of a black community in a land settled mostly by whites. This was truly a remarkable community with a remarkable story and people.
So the chapter, “A Place Called Audacious” in what would become The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma was a special one for me.
Years later, I was driving by the Brownlee Road turnoff, and thought: “Why isn’t there one of those historical markers somewhere near here to tell folks about DeWitty?” Then I let that thought go, like so many miles on the road.
As I was putting the final touches on the book in 2014, I was fortunate enough to get in contact with Catherine Meehan Blount, a granddaughter of two of the early DeWitty settlers. At one point in our correspondence, I brought up the idea of a roadside marker. She was all for it. The next question became “What do you gotta do to get one of those things installed?”
Short answer: You have to apply. Specifically, with the Nebraska State Historical Society. So I put together the materials and sent them in along with letters of endorsement from the Cherry County Historical Society and The Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha.
The acceptance of the applications was a shoe-in. One, because there is no doubt about the community’s historical significance. And two, it turns out the NSHS historian who approves the applications had already tried to get a marker for DeWitty and three other sites in Nebraska, but couldn’t get the Unicameral to fund them.
And therein was the catch. The Historical Society approves the markers, but applicants have to pay for them. The full-size marker is $5,100. Fundraising was something I had never done before, so that sum was a bit daunting.
The most satisfying part of the whole endeavor was the many communities who contributed.
There are many we would like to thank. I say “we” because many contributed to the cause.
First and foremost, were the descendants of DeWitty — now spread out all over the country — who chipped in to acknowledge the sacrifices their forbearers made carving out better lives for themselves in that harsh land. One descendant who prefers to remain anonymous donated $500. Albert Riley Jr., who grew up in Valentine after his family moved off the homestead and into town, stopped by the bank while in town for his 50th high school reunion, to chip in. Joyceann Gray and Marcia Thompkins,
relatives of Goldie Walker Hayes, a DeWitty
schoolteacher and principal who remained in Cherry County to teach, were avid
supporters. There were many others.
|Goldie Hayes in her Classroom. Courtesy of Joyceann Gray|
The Cherry County Historical Society, especially Joyce Muirhead, were enthusiastic about the idea, and helped set up the bank account, along with a monetary contributions. Cherry County and Valentine residents stopped in the bank to put their money in the pot as well. A big thank you to the staff of the First Security Bank in Valentine for taking the donations.
The North Platte Bulletin, North Platte Telegraph, Valentine Midland News, Stapleton Enterprise, Lincoln Journal Star and KVSH in Valentine all helped get the word out in the media, which garnered donations from throughout the state.
Many of my friends and family contributed just because I asked them to. It’s great to have such wonderful cousins, parents and friendships that go back years. I took $300
out of the profits from The
Last American Highway books for the cause.
|Maurice Brown. Courtesy of Catherin Meehan.|
Members of the Fans of U.S. Route 83 page on Facebook also donated amounts small and large. These are people who love the backroads of America and all the history found alongside it, especially U.S. Route 83, the border to border highway. The biggest donation from this group came from member Bruce Hoffman and his wife Debbie, owners of the Common Scents greenhouse and nursery on Highway 83 south of McCook. They mailed in $500! Stop in and thank them the next time you’re in McCook.
What’s next? It is all in the hands of the state of Nebraska. The Nebraska State Historical Society will coordinate the purchase and installation of the marker and the Department of Roads will decide the best spot to place it — keeping in the mind the safety of motorists.
Look on the Fans of U.S. Route 83 facebook page for updates. And thank you all again.
Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at Amazon.com and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. And The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition.
To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com. Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com