THE NEGROES OF NEBRASKA
(12) The majority of the Negro immigrants entering Nebraska during the First Great Exodus were from the rural districts of the South. Yet a surprisingly large percentage of them came directly to Omaha, Nebraska's largest city, and settled there. Even though homesteads were easily available to these rural-born settlers, their economic status prevented them from becoming homesteaders. Very few of them commanded the necessary capital and equipment, slight though it need be.
During the Second Great Exodus by far the majority of the Negro immigrants were from the urban centers of the South. Almost without exception they settled in the larger cities of Nebraska. Omaha received, proportionately, more than its share of the newcomers, as compared with other cities of the State. This was to be expected, however, since Omaha, which industrially has far outstripped all other Nebraska cities, offered to Negroes more and better opportunities for gainful employment.
Since most of the Negro immigrants to Nebraska have either settled immediately in the larger cities, or have gone there following unsuccessful attempts at farming, Negro colonies in this State have been few. For one reason or another those that in the past have been set up are no longer in existence as purely Negro colonies, though occasionally one or more families may still be found living at the site of the original colony.
One such colony once existed in Custer County, though little can be said concerning it. The group left no written records, and (13) such members as are still living are scattered. Where the people came from, how many there were, when the colony was settled, and how long it maintained its identity are questions which, in the absence of written records, will never be answered save by chance.
Negro immigrants appeared in Franklin County as early as 1867. By 1871 a dozen-odd settlers, most of whom had lived temporarily in Omaha, had arrived. Although few in number they were hopeful of attracting additional immigrants, and accordingly they laid plans for a Negro colony and village. They took up homestead claims, and gave the stream which flowed through their land the name of Lovely Creek, the name by which it is still called. They laid out their proposed town, the city of Grant, on the southeast quarter of Section 35, Township two, Range 14. The different locations were marked by ash poles to which were fastened strips of hide. Work was begun on a brickyard, and their plans included the construction of a courthouse.
Unfortunately the youthful ambition of the little colony was no match for its impoverished state. There was but one team of
horses in the entire group. The settlers became discouraged when their funds were gone, abandoned their claims, and left that part of the country the same year, 1871.
About April 17, 1880, several Negro families from Tennessee leased farm lands north of Aurora, in Hamilton County. Although the group was never formally organized as a colony, its members settled in that vicinity with a common purpose. The majority of them soon lost hope of a successful career in farming, and departed. Most of these returned to Tennessee.
The largest Negro colony ever to be founded in Nebraska was set up in the Republican Valley in Harlan County during the summer of 1889. Nearly 200 immigrants from Tennessee comprised this group. The winter of that year, however, was very severe. The resultant suffering and hardship was too much for the pioneers, But by the end of spring in 1890 the last of them had departed for his original home in Tennessee.
Of all the Negro colonies established in Nebraska the most successful was the one formerly at Brownlee, in Cherry County. The (14) story of its member begins in Canada, near Chottom, where lived a number of former slaves and their children. These ex-slaves had escaped from their Southern masters and entered Canada via the Underground Railroad.
In 1880, having heard that homesteads were available to settlers in Nebraska, a number of these people returned to the United States. Under the leadership of William Walker and Charles Mehan each family in the group took up a claim near Overton, in Dawson County, Nebraska. They proved up on their claims and lived on them for the next quarter-century.
During the drouth years of 1905-1907 the colonists began to consider the possibilities of a better living to be made elsewhere. They learned that free land was open to homesteaders in Cherry County. Accordingly, in 1909, most of the Dawson County group, still under the leadership of William Walker and Charles Mehan, settled at Brownlee in Cherry County.
Once again they took up claims and proved up on them. Other Negro immigrants joined the colony until its members eventually numbered about 176 people. They constructed and houses, and had their own post office, grocery store, mail carrier, church, pastor, cemetery, school district, and school, with members of their own race as teachers.
The colony prospered, but eventually its members one by one sold or leased their homesteads, and the settlement dwindled away until now, 1940, there are no Negroes left at Brownlee. The last of the group to leave, Mrs. Roy Hays, a daughter of William Walker, moved to Valentine, Nebraska, several years ago.
There are no Negro colonies or settlements now existing in Nebraska. In the larger cities, however, in which all but a few of the State's colored citizens are found, the Negroes dwell in relatively circumscribed areas, usually referred to as Negro districts. This is especially true with regard to the cities of Omaha, Lincoln, and Grand Island. In other Nebraska cities where Negroes may be found in significant numbers, North Platte, Fremont, Hastings, Scottsbluff, Alliance, Beatrice, South Sioux City, Falls City, and Nebraska City, no such vicinal concentration exists.
Omaha, Nebraska's largest city, with a total population of 214,006, has the majority of Nebraska's Negroes, numbering 11,123. Lincoln, the second city of the State, has 997 Negroes in its total population of 75,933. Grand Island numbers 120 Negroes among its 18,041 inhabitants. In Hastings, of 15,490 people, 70 are Negroes. Of the 12,061 people living in North Platte, 35 are Negroes. There are 68 Negroes living in Fremont, a city with a population of 11,407. There are 6,669 people in Alliance, 203 of which are Negroes. In Beatrice 82 of the 10,297 inhabitants are Negroes. The population of Falls City is 5,787, with 51 Negroes. Nebraska City numbers 61 Negroes in its population of 7,230. Of 3,927 inhabitants in South Sioux City 72 are Negroes. The population of Scottsbluff, 8,465, includes 62 Negroes.
Considering the State as a whole with regard to the Negro element in its population, the First Territorial Census of Nebraska, 1864, tabulated thirteen Negroes in a total population of 2,732. In 1860 there were 28,841 Nebraskans, of whom 82 were Negroes. Negroes numbered 789 of the State's population of 122,993 in 1870. In 1880 the Negro population was 2,386, with the total population 462,402. There were 8,913 Negroes in 1890 in the total population of 1,062,656. In 1900, of the total population of 1,066,300, 6,269 were Negroes. There were 7,689 Negroes in the total population of 1,192,214 in 1910. Nebraska's total population in 1920 was 1,296,372, of which 13,242 were Negroes. The last census, that of 1930, set the State's total population at 1,377,963. Of this number (15) 13,752 were Negroes. This figure was exceeded during the latter part of the World War by an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 temporary inhabitants. Present estimates place the total Negro population of Nebraska at less than 15,000.
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