Friday, August 5, 2016

Two New Photos of DeWitty Emerge: What Message Do They Have For Us?

Courtesy of Sharon Hughes

 Earlier this year, some 200 people gathered on the side of the Highway 83 in Cherry County to dedicate a new roadside historical marker commemorating DeWitty, Nebraska.
DeWitty, also known as Audacious, was the longest lasting and most successful African-American rural settlement in Nebraska, and was spread out in the Sand Hills along the North Loup River west of Highway 83. It lasted from about 1906 to the mid-1930s.
Within its 184 words, the marker mentions the close relationship between the black settlers and their white neighbors, which included the town of Brownlee. (For the complete text of the marker, scroll down to the end of the blog.)
As a result of the publicity surrounding the campaign to install the marker, two previously unpublished photos have emerged that confirm much of what authors such as myself have been saying about life back then in the Sand Hills: despite racial differences that were then plaguing the wider world, pretty much everybody in the Sand Hills got along fine.    
The marker reads: “On Independence Day, residents of DeWitty and nearby Brownlee would come together for a rodeo, baseball game and picnic.”
A few weeks ago, Helen White of Thedford, Nebraska, passed on a photo that a friend Sharon Hughes had found recently in a shoebox full of pictures. Hughes’ family once lived nearby DeWitty, north of Seneca, although she now resides in Grand Island.
The photo says “Ballgame at Brownlee, July 4, ‘14.” (The “4” is cut off on the image but it is also written on back.
For the first time, we have a photograph of one of these Independence Day activities. There are at least two known photos of DeWitty men dressed in their baseball uniforms, but in this photo we actually see a game being played. The DeWitty team was known as the North Loup Sluggers.
There is a lot to be gleaned from this picture.
Courtesy of Catherine Meehan Blount
Ron Lee, a Brownlee resident, whose family has been in the town since its founding, has passed the photo around to other residents, and the consensus is that the game took place on a field northwest of the town, close to where the paved Brownlee road is now. The church steeple near the baseball player’s elbow is a clue, but also caused some confusion. That church was apparently torn down or moved later in the decade and its replacement is configured differently. There is some disagreement among residents, Lee said, however, the spot northwest of town is where the town’s oral history indicates that rodeos and ballgames took place.
With all the backs turned away from the camera, identifying individuals with certainty is nearly impossible. Catherine Meehan Blount thinks the man (second from the left) might be her grandfather, the white Irish-Canadian Charles Meehan, because he  enjoyed smoking a pipe. Meehan, with his black wife, Hester Freeman, were one of DeWitty’s first residents. The tale of this interracial couple is just one of the many fascinating stories about this unique settlement.
Two men down from the man smoking a pipe, another fellow is wearing chaps. Was he participating in the rodeo later? Another charming part of the picture is the horse sticking its nose in the frame on the right — an early example of photobombing!
As for the baseball game itself, the most prominent player, or perhaps a base coach, is holding up two fingers. It’s hard to see him among the crowd, but there appears to be a batter with his hands in at his waist, warming up to hit. Is he reminding the batter that there are two strikes or perhaps two outs? And if he is batting, that sure is a dangerous spot to be a spectator. There appears to be at least two other players in uniform in the crowd, one walking behind the batter and another with his arms crossed. We also see the leg of another player on the far left. Is that a pitcher winding up? There are two white spots in the grass, one close between the two spectators on the left, and another one closer to the edge of the far crowd. It would appear that the closer one is third base and the farther one first base, but then where is the pitcher, first baseman, third baseman and so on for the opposing team? So maybe this interpretation is wrong: those aren’t bases, the man isn’t batting but is a center fielder and the figure on the left is an infielder.
In any case, we have a picture of the North Loup Sluggers playing baseball, and the two communities coming together in celebration of Independence Day.
DeWitty descendants at the marker dedication
The communities coming together is a reminder of what happened on April 11 this year — almost 102 years after this photo was taken — when eighteen descendants of the DeWitty settlers came from six different states to dedicate the historical marker. They flew or drove from Delaware, Virginia, Colorado, California, New York and eastern Nebraska to honor the memory of their ancestors. Descendants of the Meehans, Browns, Rileys, Walkers and even DeWittys, the first postmaster for whom the town was named, traveled to see the marker. There to greet them were some 180 Nebraskans, including two TV crews, a reporter from the Stapleton Enterprise-Thomas County Herald, State Senator Al Davis, and representatives from the Nebraska State Historical Society, and the Cherry and Thomas County Historical Societies. 
Overflow crowd at the Brownlee Community Hall
When the baseball picture was taken, Brownlee had about 100 residents. Today, a sign says “Population, 20, or so.” But the tiny community, which includes nearby ranchers, went all out to welcome anyone who came, inviting them to a potluck lunch at the town’s community hall. More than 100 people came to eat the lunch and hear a presentation from Humanities Nebraska speaker Vicki Harris, an expert on Nebraska’s black settlers, traveled from Arizona just for the presentation. It was a homecoming as well for Brownlee descendants such as the White family, whose old family general store still stands.
Later, Don Hanna, a local rancher, who now owns most of the property where DeWitty residents once lived, was gracious enough to take descendants on a tour to the remote DeWitty sites, which are inaccessible to the public. Part of the tour was a stop at a small graveyard, where about eight DeWitty pioneers are resting.     
The second unpublished photo was passed on to me about a year ago from Ron Lee. It
Courtesy of Ron Lee
portrays two boys, Merrill “Jim” Lee and Claude Conrad of DeWitty, sitting on the porch of the Lee ranch house in 1918.
They were by all accounts good buddies. Several of the one-room schoolhouses west of Brownlee were integrated and schoolmates ended up being lifelong friends. One of the DeWitty descendants, Goldie Walker-Hayes, remained in Cherry County long after the DeWitty settlement disappeared, and taught in these schools.
When it comes to race relations in America, the nation has endured much pain along with many triumphs in the years after these two photos were taken. It would take more than three decades before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues. Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, which lead to desegregation of schools, didn’t happen for another 40 years. Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws forbidding interracial marriage, came only in 1967.  
No one can say that the residents of DeWitty never encountered prejudice while living there, it’s just that we have very little evidence of it in the historical record. Instead, we have in the depths of the Sand Hills — a land back then mostly cut off from the wider world — the story of DeWitty and Brownlee, people getting along fine and leaning on each other when needed, an interracial couple, desegregated schools and folks coming together to enjoy a holiday celebration.
These people, now just images frozen in time, kept shoe boxes for a century, have come back to deliver a message to us. Let’s listen to them.

Stew Magnuson will give a presentation about Highway 83 and DeWitty, Thursday, Sept. 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha, located in Crossroads Mall. Free and open to the public!

 Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition, which has a chapter about DeWitty. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.
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  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)


  1. On my calendar Stew Magnuson will give a presentation about Highway 83 and DeWitty, Thursday, Sept. 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha, located in Crossroads Mall. Free and open to the public!

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