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DeWitty-Audacious is now officially in the history of Nebraska

DeWitty Marker

What a wonderful time we all enjoyed!  The fellowship was just so amazing!

Last Monday, April 11, 2016, the Historical Marker was officially installed that celebrates the importance of the DeWitty African-American Settlement in a ceremony attended by close to 200 people. DeWitty was the longest lasting African-American, most successful rural settlement in all of, Nebraska.

Parked cars lined the side of the highway. Elementary and college students stood with bright eyes filled with interest and wonder. Many traveled from the various Ranches of the surrounding areas including Brownlee, Seneca, and Thedford. Valentine residents also came to learn, share and enjoy the greatness of the occasion.  This occasion was a culmination of a lot of research, phone calls, fundraising and reaching out to the families of the homesteaders and the Sand Hill communities.

The great Ladies of Brownlee prepared a scrumptious midday meal to be enjoyed after the ceremony in the Brownlee Community Center.  Sonny Hanna spearheaded a tour of the Sand Hills taking many of the descendants to the land their ancestors once made their homes and many were still interned there.

 

Emanuel buriel ground

Emanuel Burial Grounds

Emanuel foundation

Emanuel Home Foundation

Walker & Hatter property

View of Hatter and Walker Homesteads

Grandson & NLoopRiver

Grandson walking the land of his Ancestors

North Loop Pam

Beauty of the Sandhills in April

 

DSC_4420 Rev.Khadijah Matin gave the invocationDSC_4417

Stew Magnuson, author of Hwy 83, “The Last American Highway”, was the master of ceremony and spearheaded The Descendants of DeWitty Team (Catherine Meehan Blount, Joyceann Gray, and Marcia Thompkins) in the making of this dream come to fruition. The great folks at the Cherry County Historical Society and the Nebraska State Historical Society quickly approved the application for the marker. And so it began, raising the money, buying plane tickets, gathering up old photographs as the excitement increased daily until 17 descendants came from all over the country to reconnect with a place that feels like home! They came representing the homesteaders who many traveled over 1700 miles from Canada and more from Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia to settle in the Sand Hills taking advantage of the Homesteader Act of 1862 and the amended Kinkaiders Act of 1904.

What is so important about this community is the bond between African American homesteaders of DeWitty and their white counterparts in Brownlee. The two communities were very isolated back then and despite differences of heritage and beginnings, they enjoyed a civil and caring relationship that continues up to this day. “Something the rest of America should learn from” stated local resident Shelley Christiansen. Ron Lee also voiced his opinion: “As far as race relations…I will say this..there was not one single person there at that dedication ceremony who was anything different than anyone else. We were just all people celebrating a time in the past where everyone worked together, And, though we’re not neighbors now, land-wise or ownership of the land-wise, we’re still neighbors. Lyn & Bruce Messersmith, Bree & Martin DeNaeyer, Byron & Mary Eatinger,and Ann Manning-Warren to just name a few of who open wide the doors of hospitality.

Lyn & Bruce Messersmith, Bree & Martin DeNaeyer, Byron & Mary Eatinger,and Ann Manning-Warren to just name a few of who open wide the doors of hospitality.

In the audience were some students that were taught by Goldie Walker Hayes, goldies-classroomcropped-goldie-hayes.jpga renown teacher throughout the area. She is our maternal grandmother. They expressed their fond memories and shared so many pleasing stories of her grace, beauty,  teaching ability and her kindness. This was so heartfelt and enriching for us who lost her while we were just small children.

Catherine, the granddaughter of Hester and Charles Meehan, spoke of the homesteaders struggles and delights and recited a poem her Dad wrote at age 17, speaking of an old footbridge across the North Loop River.

20160411_110421 Yours truly, granddaughter of Roy and Goldie Hayes reminded the crowd: “Although the town was reclaimed by the land the legacy of the homesteaders carries on for they were a success!  This town was not a failure. It wasn’t an experiment; it didn’t wither away because people couldn’t handle the weather – it was a testament to their vision. Which is to set roots down in a foundation for educating their children and giving them a chance at the American dream.”  

We found our great grandfather, one of the original homesteaders 

 WILLIAM PARKER WALKERWilliam P. Walker Grave Stone William P. Walker’s burial plot in the Brownlee Cemetery.

20160411_105631

  Mother & Daughter Sharing the Experience

 

 

Charlotte Woodson (Granddaughter of Charlotte Riley Walker) with her daughter, Marcia Thompkins granddaughter of Boss Woodson, Rancher and Fernnella Walker Woodson, also a teacher in the county districts expressed her joy: “It WAS an awesome day!      We, the descendants, made great connections, saw pictures we hadn’t seen before, heard more stories from the warm and welcoming people of the community that we hadn’t heard before, toured the land, found our ancestors resting places… I could go on and on! My life has been enriched beyond expectation, and I am forever positively changed!”

Decedants of DeWitty2016

 

BackRow: Delbert DeWitty, (nephew of the Postmaster), Hershel Riley, Byron DeWitty, Artes Johnson& brother Maurice, (Grandson’s of Corena Walker- Williams) Garland Miles (Riley)  Middle Row: Rev. Khadijah Matin, (Granddaughter of Roy and Goldie Hayes) Catherine Meehan-Blount, Jacob & Leah Ferrell, 3x Great grandchildren of William P. Walker, William Pegg, (Grandson of Roy and Goldie Hayes), Emerald Miles (Riley,) Phyllis Brown Denise Brown (descendants of Radford Speese, older brother of Charles Speese.) Joyceann Gray, (Hayes and Walker descendant).  Seated front Row: Charlotte Woodson (Granddaughter of Charlotte Riley Walker) and her daughter Marcia Thompkins.

Browlee Community HallAnd so we  met back up at the Brownlee Community Center and ate a delicious meal and chatted and shared while Ann Manning-Warren gave us a trip down memory lane!

 

Words from Lyn Messersmith, whose family opened their homes to us: 4/27/2016

The Lay of the Land

By Lyn Messersmith 

Build It and They Will Come

They got it backward, but it worked. A group of  Canadian-born Black families, former slaves, and their descendants came to a desolate and lonely region in the Nebraska Sandhills and built a community they called DeWitty, later renamed Audacious. Six hundred and forty acres seemed like a lot; surely enough to survive on, perhaps even prosper. Prosperity probably wasn’t a concept they dwelt on, so much as survival. That’s how it was in those days, and you didn’t have to be Black to know hard times in the hills. There were neighbors who understood that and welcomed them. The little town of Brownlee, a dozen or so miles downriver, had amenities that served the newcomers until they established businesses of their own, and interactions continued in the form of competitions at rodeos, baseball games and Independence Day celebrations. Brownlee had a community hall, and DeWitty had music makers, so there were dances too.

DeWitty residents were strong for education, which eventually contributed to the demise of the community. Young people went away to college, became doctors, teachers, ministers, and writers and the elders finally drifted away too, but memories of those years lingered around Brownlee and became the legend as I was growing up nearby. My dad and his peers spoke names like Speese, Riley, Turner, Hayes, and Woodson, with admiration and respect.

Stew Magnuson, an author with Sandhills roots, has traveled Highway 83 many times and chronicled the people and places along that route in a series of books. He became fascinated by stories about DeWitty, and recently spearheaded a project to raise funds for a historical marker about it.

On April 11, 2016, nearly two hundred people gathered at the marker for a dedication. Descendants of DeWitty came from both coasts and everywhere in between, and my family was privileged to host several of them. Sandhillers traveled more than a hundred miles to honor our common roots, and the ladies of Brownlee and surrounding communities put on a “Y’all come” feed in that old community hall. The rancher who owns much of the ground where DeWitty stood organized a tour for those who cared to see where their ancestors had settled, and others uncovered buried grave markers in the Brownlee Cemetery for family members to photograph.

As our guests departed for various destinations, they said the weekend had given them closure, and they felt like they had, in some sense, come home. I felt closer to my own family and more proud than ever of my heritage and neighbors.

Many people snapped pictures during that celebration, but I carry mine in my head; of women carrying more chairs to the community hall to accommodate overflow crowds, of a man with a shovel uncovering gravestones and a rancher’s plane sitting in a meadow near the marker. Of people walking half a mile back to their cars after the ceremony because of limited parking at the highway site, and children from a nearby school eating sack lunches brought along on the field trip.

DeWitty is gone, and Brownlee nearly so, but the spirit of neighborliness is not. There are memories of moments less proud in the minds of descendants on both sides, but healing is possible, and the marker celebration is proof of that.

A group of locals leaned on parked vehicles outside the Brownlee community hall and visited while waiting for the room to go in and eat. A thought came to me as we stood there, and as we drove away. It lingers now, as I look back on the event.

“If these walls could talk…”

 

(slightly edited by J.Gray)

Thursday, Elsie and Polly

            A few days ago, I was on my back porch, and I noticed a lovely butterfly landing on one of the plants. Wow, I wonder if she’ll stay long enough for me to go get my camera?? I dashed into the house, and, of course, the camera wasn’t ready. I had to stop and put the SD card back in. Feeling a bit deflated because I was taking so long, I just knew that the beautiful butterfly would be long gone. But I headed back out to where I saw it and low and behold she was still there!! As I snapped picture after picture I talked gently to her.

2015-07-08 09.22.27

 

2015-07-08 09.22.44

Black and beautiful as can be!

            She was just fluttering from plant to plant, then holding still at times and posing for me. I was so excited for I had heard that when butterflies come to you they are in fact your ancestors coming to say hello with a meaning we have to find. Then later that day I went out to get the mail and up from the small group of flowers at the base of the mailbox stand, came two pure white butterflies. They both flew all around me as I walked back up towards the house. I changed my mind and veered off the driveway towards my small vegetable garden to see what was growing. The White butterflies continued to fly around in front of me. I saw there were string beans and a large green tomato that I wanted to harvest, so I headed back towards the house to get a bowl. Those butterflies followed me right up to the front door. Of course (as usual), as I entered the houseI got distracted, I changed shoes and went into my office and sat down at the computer. On top of papers directly under the computer screen; was a form from the Oklahoma Historical Society Research Center. My intention was to fill it out and request a copy of any records available for Polly Johnson, (paternal our great-grandmother). As I reached for a pen, I picked up the phone instead and called the number listed on the form.

            I spent almost an hour on the phone with a lovely young lady Katie, who guided my search through various links and what we found…well I just had to take a moment and breath….I didn’t realize until then that I had been holding my breath and gritting my teeth so hard my jaw began to ache. Finally, after getting my breathing under control, I said a prayer of thanks, both to God and to the Butterflies!

Freedmen records- Polly JohnsonFreedmen records- THURSDAY

            These two images are Polly Johnson’s enrollment card as a Creek Freedmen qualifying her for payment of 40 acres we found.  Sadly, though it states that Polly was not mentally well enough to speak for herself. Her cousin Sally Roberts gave witness on her behalf.  The back of her card (to the right) list Polly’s father; “Thursday” listed as a Seminole Freedmen, and her mother Elsie Doyle a full blood Creek. Other records support her mother’s bloodline.

                Now I believe I understand why I couldn’t find our names on the rolls. Polly born 1845, was registered on the 1865 Dunn rolls before her first child was born, by the time the Dawes rolls were put in place (1906-1907) Polly had seen such hardship we hesitate to imagine. Her husband had died,  left her penniless with five children, then her brother moved in as a widow, invalid and with two young daughters. As 1900 rolled in she was still struggling to make ends meet. Living with her extended family in a boarding house and washing clothes for 10-12 hours each day, seven days a week for so little pay. By 1903, Polly was in poor health, just plain worn out and with the help of Sally Roberts her cousin and other family members they moved her to Oklahoma nearer to her family. Her children were all grown and gone on to find their way in life, but she had her daughter Ida and many other family members to count on. Her oldest was John Grant Pegg, married to the former Mary Charlotte Page of Kansas, father, and a respected Republican in Omaha employed by the Mayor as the Weights and Measures Inspector. Her daughters Ida and Maggie both married and with families of their own. Not sure what happened to Robert but Bayless her second son by this time was up north with younger brother Charles homesteading on their cattle ranch in the Sandhills of Nebraska. They eventually gave up the harsh life and Charles first moved to Illinois then onto Oakland, CA and Bayless moved to Chicago, IL.

Listed as a Freedmen was a mixed bag for many, it must have felt like being the ball in a ping-pong tournament First the mixed blood was accepted, and then the Five Tribes declared them noncitizens. This argument has continued to present day. Can the descendants of the mix blood and slaves of the Indians be counted as citizens of the Indian Nation, can they have the rights and privileges, voting and such?

So now what we do know is Polly Johnson’s father was Thursday and her mother Elsie Doyle and her cousin is Sally Roberts with a younger cousin Sid Kernel!     Not bad for a phone call on a hot afternoon!

There is much more to this story, please follow me and get my updates.

Mvto (Thank you) for reading my Latest News!

 Joyceann

Our conversation: Black Rug and White Rug

There came a time when Descendants from both sides of the slavery era came together. Came together to share, talk and massage the pain. Pain for Sarah, who has to live with the embarrassment of finding out her family were enslavers and not very nice about it at all. Enslaving our families; that is Monique and mine.  So Sarah walks with that heavy yoke  as she tries to make sense of how and why her ancestors could participate in such human degradation.Monique and I walk with a certain sadness and stifled anger, trying to understand what our people went through and how could one person treat another in such a manner.

So we talk and cry and talk some more and here is once such conversation:

BLACK RUG/WHITE RUG; A DIALOGUE AMONG THREE LINKED ANCESTORS

By Joyceann Gray, Sarah Brown, and Monique Hopkins

Joyceann Gray, Monique Crippen-Hopkins and Sarah Brown are “linked through slavery”. Joyceann and Monique’s ancestors were enslaved by Sarah’s ancestors, the Washington family. When Sarah published her most recent post, about her connection with Monique’s family, Joyceann spoke out about her feelings about the piece. The three of them decided that the Facebook dialogue that followed was important, and would be valuable as a post of its own.

Read Joyeann’s blog for her full story:  https://jgraydiscovery.com/

Read Monique’s blog for her full story: http://genealogybreakingdownthewalls.blogspot.com/

Joyceann Gray

 Joyceann Gray writes:

There are a few who are in a delicate position being a direct descendant of slaveholders and wanting to give what you can of slave history and family connection to descendants of those enslaved by your families. You are in possession of access to all your family papers which affords you a glimpse into your ancestors’ thought processes, emotions, and desires.

The descendants of those enslaved, can only guess what our people thought or felt. We are desperate for any tidbit of information about our ancestors. The norm was to account for our people by number, not by name, and it was very rare to find a surname. But we have a responsibility to record what we can find of our ancestors and their histories. To tell their stories and as much as possible ensures that when others write about them the facts and impressions are correct and in keeping with the truth. We have a responsibility to them to never let their pain and struggles be forgotten and to ensure their legacy lives on!

 Sarah Brown adds:

me and Denise

When I wrote my last blog piece, Part Two of my series “Redrawing A Community – A Washington Descendant’s Journey ( “People” -The Thompsons), athttp://linkedthroughslavery.com/2015/03/18/redrawing-a-community-a-washington-descendants-journey-part-two-people-the-thompsons/  – I included a photograph of Solomon Thompson that was provided by Monique Crippen-Hopkins, his 3x great-granddaughter. I described what I saw in his expression. As linked descendants, the three of us have been talking to each other through Facebook, and by phone occasionally. Since I was writing Part Two about Monique’s family, I sent her a final draft to review, but Joyceann saw it for the first time on the Bittersweet site.

Joyceann was troubled by my comments, and sent me some of her own. This started a discussion among the three of us that was sometimes difficult and emotional. In the end we were all glad that Joyceann didn’t shy away from expressing her frustration. Since our talk reflects the difficult work that Coming To The Table is committed to, we decided to edit it slightly and post it here.

Monique Crippen-Hopkins

Our dialogue brought home one of the pitfalls of writing about slaveholding as a descendant of slaveholders. Attention must be paid to acknowledging the pain inflicted by our families, in words on the page; assuming that the reader knows that the writer is aware of the specifics of abuse may not be enough. History demands a clear retelling of the dark side of the story, and a missed opportunity to do so can undermine establishing the truth.

 Dialogue among Sarah Brown and Joyceann Gray and Monique Crippen-Hopkins

(Sarah wrote in her post, about the picture of Solomon Thompson: 

From my contemporary perspective he seems sad or wary, or possibly just unaccustomed to being photographed. His undirected stare might be the common expression of a servant who has learned to be both present and absent, without being able to freely choose either.”

Joyceann starts a dialogue by commenting on that paragraph.)

 Joyceann: From your perspective you did a good job of guessing, but you didn’t remark on the pain that he had to have felt or the bad he must have seen and endured!! From my understanding of his history, troubles and struggles, all of which were much more than you or I could ever imagine!

 Sarah: I guess I thought that was implied – that he had to be both present and absent, which is pretty much impossible. My whole project is an attempt to address the pain inflicted by my family, but what I hear from you is that I should stress the pain endured more clearly.

 Joyceann: Stand on a black rug you really see and feel much differently than standing on a white rug… We feel through the ages what we as a people and in cases individuals felt as they went through their daily struggles, I often have nightmares about the struggle of my Indian heritage, my people and their losses. Not sure what directly; but something bad had to have happen for the dreams are intense.. I have evidence in another part of my family where the husband tried to buy his wife and children, but he was only allowed to buy his wife and a daughter. He had to leave the four boys in slavery.

When he paid the cost for wife and daughter he was forced to leave the state… so can we imagine the pain and agony there??? Nope, as a mother and grandmother I can’t and really don’t want to.

Sarah: It’s a good comment, Joyceann. The next post will have more details also. I’m thinking that the word “servant” should be in quotes, since it was a euphemism.

 Joyceann: Coming from an elite and intellectual standpoint we have to be careful to not assume or think things are implied….We weren’t servants… servants had options. We only had two options in most cases; do as told or suffer dire consequences

Sarah: Of course he wasn’t <a servant>, although the white families used that term. I shouldn’t assume that readers know the way I’m using it, though. I was saying that he shared a common expression of people regarded as servants – a class thing as well. They had to stand by and pretend to be invisible, and that’s the expression I saw. I don’t see him as only a victim, though – he seems to be conveying a dignity that refuses that classification, although he was robbed of choices in his life.

Joyceann: But he was a victim through and through caught up in a vicious cycle of horrendous cruelty!

Sarah: It’s not easy to write about the black experience as a white person. I tend to feel that I’m writing about the human experience in general. I don’t want to sound only like an elite intellectual. I do use my own voice, though, since anything else wouldn’t be genuine. I would really like it if you added these comments to the blog page – it’s a good conversation.

Yes, all those enslaved were victims of horrendous cruelty. Gosh – there is no way I’m downplaying that! I’m talking about what I see in his eyes – he’s a complex human being rather than JUST a victim.

Joyceann: True but I see more pain I think than you do, I see a man that has endured and seen too much! I see a man that has survived and has YET to really live.

This picture of Solomon Thompson is from Monique Crippen-Hopkins' family collection. Date unknown.

 Sarah: It’s a great comment, and I see exactly what you mean. I see that pain. But I chose to write about him as transcending that pain as much as possible. I see him as wearing a kind of mask. Truth be told, I never expected to see an actual photograph of someone enslaved by my family. His dignity and cautious expression really stand out to me – to me, he’s masking his pain.

Joyceann: His eyes are not masking the pain! It is all in the eyes!!

I really enjoy the fact you are conscious of your heritage and of the pain but we have to tread lightly when your ancestors dealt with my ancestors as if they were cattle or horses… and whenever they spoke of freeing their property there was always a condition that had to be met first. For instance George Washington lamented over freeing the slaves, so he waits until he’s almost dead to say oh yeah free my slaves AFTER I die and only then can they be freed AFTER my wife dies too! Now what kind of mental anguish is that, what a torn and conflicted humanitarian he was…Yes?

At least your ancestor Bushrod Washington said flatly; hell no to freeing slaves! Samuel Washington George’s brother didn’t even want to sell Reuben Hatter to his sister-in-law Christian Blackburn!!It took his wife’s badgering him to get him to do it! And even then he made her pay top dollar too!

So Sarah what I’m attempting to do is to get you to see another view of all the “Solomons” of those times…have you ever found a photo of a person who’s been enslaved; smiling?!

Sarah: Joyceann, I’m writing about all of that. I hope that you see that what I’m doing is an attempt to address all of these injustices. I’m going to send you a copy of an article I wrote a few years ago. It was supposed to be published in a journal called Race/Ethnicity, but the journal went under before it came out, so it was never published. It’s important to me that you know my personal perspective. We have to get know each other better, I think. I see that you feel I don’t know how these people suffered, and that I’m downplaying that. If that’s the impression I’ve given, then I want to correct it.

Joyceann: No not downplaying at all. Let me try saying that another way. When looking at old photos of enslaved folks: When you see an uplifted chin you see pride, I see pain with stubborn refusal to give in.

I see at least I felt you were seeing through ” rose” colored glasses so to speak, you were elevating when in fact we need to stand low? Make sense?

I’d love to read your work I’ll do that while we’re on our road trip back home!

Sarah: Yes! It’s the stubborn refusal to give in that I see in the foreground.

Joyceann: Now you got it!!

Sarah: That’s what I was trying to say, but I guess I didn’t say it. Thanks for pointing that out.

Joyceann: Are you ok with our discussion?

Sarah: Yes! It’s kind of painful, but I love that you’ve told me how you really feel. I understand that I left out the chance to comment on the cruelty of Solomon’s situation. But I do want to know that you hear me, too. And I see that Monique is commenting now – great….

Joyceann: It’s hard to write someone else’s story.

Oct3_6_2

 (Monique Crippen-Hopkins enters the conversation)

Monique: Yes, that is true, I’m having a hard time writing my ancestors’ story….I’ve been trying to figure out how to do it to give them the honor they deserve.

Sarah: The only way I can write it is to write what I’m experiencing personally – the journey I’m taking myself. So I write about what I see in the picture, my communication with the two of you, and how I feel about my own family.

Monique: I’ve just been reading the comments; it’s a lot to take in, because what is being written is about my family that has come alive to me, and a very painful experience at that. Some of it may come across as just a story to others, but that is my family. I can actually feel for these people and for my grandparents!

I don’t have any real comments…I was just taking it in.

Sarah: Our stories intersect, and I want to honor both of your families without taking over your own stories. I’ve very conscious of my responsibility there.

Joyceann: True but our intersection is only up to the civil war ending when the Washingtons and other slaveholders were forced to free their slaves. Now did the Washingtons work with their formers slaves to help with their transition? Train them? Give them the land to work? Then till now we didn’t have a relationship. We have come together again now as we try to piece things together and make amends….

Sarah: I’m researching what happened at Claymont after emancipation. I’d like to think that my family tried to help those they enslaved, but I think it was the other way around – some of the Thompsons and others stuck around and worked for what was probably hardly any pay.

(to Joyceann) I’m thinking about your comment about how hard it is to write someone else’s story. It’s ironic – what I’m trying to do is tell the full story about my family. So many people have written about George and all as patriots, but not as slaveholders. I think my job is to correct that.

Joyceann: I hear you louder than I’ve been able to express, I do indeed understand also why you are doing this… I’m just playing devil’s advocate here somewhat trying to help you be careful in how you relay others’ history. I am excited to know you are going to tackle writing the hard truth of your ancestors… That will be a bestseller.

Monique: No, just seeing all of this became a little emotional because it made me see and think about some things I never really thought of before.

Sarah: Yeah….wow. This is such a raw subject and that’s why we have to talk about it. Thanks Joyceann!

Monique: Thank you Cousin Joyceann! You have a lot of insight.

Joyceann: So yes it’s a raw discussion but I’m so glad we are not running from it!!

Sarah: When I got the archive with all our wills I felt that someone had to address the wrongs my ancestors had committed. And they were many. Connecting with the two of you allows me to make baby steps toward that goal. You’ve allowed me in – thank you so much!

Joyceann: And by writing your story SARAH you will indeed be helping a lot of people to heal and move on, someone needs to acknowledge the real story !

Sarah: Can I tell you both that I’ve got tears in my eyes? None of us asked for what our families gave us, and we’re all working on making sense of it. I’m so grateful we can do this, raw or not.

Monique: Yes, that’s what this is all about…taking those steps, it’s a lot and we can only try to move on, we will never be able to correct what our ancestors did, we can only help some people move on. What’s done can’t be undone we can only try to help others to heal

Great job both of you in this conversation!!      Thank you because you have given me food for thought.

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