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Remembering DeWitty, Nebraska
$1,910 raised
69% of $2.8k goal
30 contributors
0 days left
Ended Jul 22, 2015

Descendants of a legendary Sand Hills settlement, the Cherry County Historical Society and a Nebraska-born author are teaming up to have a historical marker placed along Highway 83.

The Nebraska State Historical Society recently approved a roadside historical marker for DeWitty, the longest lasting, most successful African-American rural settlement in Nebraska.

DeWitty — in later years called Audacious — was first settled in the early 1900s by a group of homesteaders along the North Loup River in Cherry County, just west of present-day Brownlee. They were taking advantage of the Kinkaid Act of 1904, which allowed settlers to claim 640 acres of land, or one square mile, in the 37 counties that comprised the Sand Hills.

Now that the marker has been approved, the group is trying to raise the $5,100 the state historical society requires to pay for it. We have raised almost $2,000 through contributions sent to a local bank, we now need another $3,100 to make our goal.

The first group of DeWitty settlers came from Overton, Nebraska, in Dawson County. But they were originally from Kent County, Ontario, where many escaped slaves and free people of color resided. One of the first to claim land near the North Loup was the family of Charles and Hester Meehan, an interracial couple, who had met and fell in love in Canada. Charles was a first-generation Irish-American, and Hester Freeman, of African decent. Others from different parts of the country joined them. The barber, Robert Hannahs, had been born into slavery. DeWitty had a baseball team and band. Both played all over the Sand Hills. The settlement placed a high value on educating its children, an ethos they had brought from Canada. More than 100 families lived in the settlement during its roughly 20 years of existence.

Some of the other families were: DeWitty (the first postmaster), the Rileys, the Browns, Woodsons, Speeses, Fords, Crawfords, Emmanuels, Hansens, Mastersons, Peggs, Prices, Steeles, Williams, and the Walkers. There were families from Missouri, North Carolina and West Virginia and other places – all dreaming of a better life for themselves and for future generations

Most children after graduating 8th grade were sent to nearby towns to study for their high school diploma. The community sent three of its sons off to fight in World War I.

“The homesteaders of DeWitty were just that —Audacious,” says Catherine Meehan Blount, one of the Meehans’ last two living grandchildren. “They were Audacious for believing that the American dream belonged to them, too, and they were Audacious for committing all they had to attain that dream. Remembering DeWitty pays homage to those who confronted barriers in the pre-civil war United States, in Canada and in the Nebraska Sand Hills with a ‘we can’ attitude. Remembering DeWitty gives anyone who knows their story a reminder that they can, too.”

Joyceann Gray, great granddaughter of DeWitty homesteaders William Walker and Charlotte Hatter, says:

“When we can clearly mark where our ancestors have been — and by name — we can ensure the full story will be told and we can then better understand the purpose of our journey.”

“This is really the tale of two communities: DeWitty and Brownlee,” says Stew Magnuson, former Nebraska nonfiction book of the year winner, and author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma, which has a chapter on DeWitty. “Relations between the two communities were by all known accounts, excellent. The mostly Danish settlers of Brownlee and the African-Americans in DeWitty held a July 4th picnic together every year. Some of the one-room schoolhouses were integrated. There is a photograph in history books that shows the Brownlee residents on the day they came to help build the DeWitty church. People had to depend on each other in that remote, harsh land,” says Magnuson.

Gray's aunt Goldie Walker Hayes continued to teach in Cherry County and was elected as a delegate over four white teachers to represent the county at a state educators convention. The Rileys moved to the nearby town of Valentine and remained there for two more generations.

By placing a roadside historical marker for DeWitty on Highway 83, generations to come will come to know this remarkable and unique settlement. Please donate any amount, large or small!

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$100 USD
Book: The Last American Highway: Nebraska edition
  • 3 claimed
Contributors of $100 or more will receive a signed copy of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma edition by Stew Magnuson, which contains a chapter about the history of DeWitty.
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