Monday, January 11, 2016

Dedication Ceremony for DeWitty Historical Market Set for April 11, 2016

Location of Marker in Ne
Marker site on Hwy 83 near Brownlee turnoff

A dedication ceremony for a new Nebraska State Historical Marker in Cherry County commemorating DeWitty, the state’s longest and most successful African-American rural settlement  in the state is scheduled for Monday, April 11 at 10 a.m. at the site of the marker, near the Brownlee turnoff road on U.S. Highway 83.

The ceremony will be held in the Cherry County Historical Society Museum in Valentine in the event of inclement weather.

The ceremony is expected to draw descendants of the original DeWitty settlers from all over the nation.

“I’ve already heard from descendants from as far away as Delaware, Virginia, and California who are planning to come,” said Stew Magnuson, the author of two books about Highway 83. Last year, Magnuson, the Cherry County Historical Society and DeWitty descendants coordinated efforts to raise the $5,100 needed to pay for the marker.

 North Loup River scene about 40 yards from the turnoff
North Loup River just south of marker site

“Donations came from descendants, Cherry County residents, history buffs in Nebraska and members of the Fans of U.S. Route 83 page on Facebook. It was a wonderful gathering of different people who believed that this unique community should be remembered,” said Magnuson.

Black settlers first arrived in the area about 1907 to take advantage of the Kinkaid Act, which granted homesteaders 640 acres of land in the counties that comprised the Sand Hills of Nebraska. DeWitty, also known as Audacious, grew as more settlers came to take advantage of this offer. The Homestead Act only granted 160 acres of land. Some settlers had roots in Canada and were the descendants of escaped slaves. Others came from big cities to try their hands at farming. The town barber, Robert Hannahs, had been born into slavery.

 DeWitty Turnoff facing southwest
They built homesteads along the North Loup River, extending some 14 miles west of the town of Brownlee, a mostly white settlement. Relations between the two communities were excellent, Magnuson says. They came together to celebrate Independence Day, shared one-room schools and helped each other whenever needed.

“This is really the story of two communities: DeWitty and Brownlee. The marker text notes the bond the communities shared,” says Magnuson, who wrote a chapter about DeWitty in his latest book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma.

Joyceann Gray, a DeWitty descendant now living in Sterling, Virginia, said, “My siblings and I are so excited to attend the DeWitty-Audacious Historical Marker Installation ceremony. What a humbling honor to be a part of recognizing our ancestors, their struggles, and their lives.”

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