Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Part of Nebraska History - Black Homesteaders and a New Monument

Over a hundred years ago, a small group of Black homesteaders journeyed to the sandhills of Nebraska and ended up homesteading land near Goose Lake. This lake is located just north of the Wheeler and Holt county line (and about six miles west of my house). The area was named "Bliss" for the family who housed the post office. (side note: There were approximately 90 post offices in Holt County around this time.)

For the next few years, blacks and whites lived side by side as peaceful neighbors. The evidence of camaraderie exists in photos of an integrated school, baseball team, church, and cemetery. Hector Dixon owned over 1,000 acres plus held a job at the Amelia Creamery. He was also a school teacher. Another black homesteader - Jerry Freeman - was one of the first mail carriers.

Eventually, most of the black settlers left the area because the land was difficult to farm. Many of them moved to Grand Island or other large cities because factory jobs were plentiful. Eventually it came down to supporting your family instead of following your dreams. By the end of World War I, all had vanished from this North Central Nebraska region.

During these years, the blacks who passed away were buried in Goose Lake cemetery. During the 1920s and 30s during the Dust Bowl, several of the graves blew open. The white neighbors removed the remains and buried them in Valley View cemetery, which is located approximately four miles north and one or two miles east of the Goose Lake area.

Things changed, people moved, others remained. The black homesteaders, who built sod houses and dreamed of a better life than what they had as slaves in the South, were a forgotten element of Nebraska history. Their dreams withered and blew away along with the dust during the 30s and the sand that blows so strongly here today.

Then, a twist of fate brought people to the remains of one of the sod houses. And there, in the dirt, they found a toy pistol. Speculation swirled about who had owned the toy gun. And then, fate took another turn as one of the people who found the gun shared the treasure with his cousin, who became obsessed with finding the story.

That story and research culminated with the publication of Hector's Bliss: Black Homesteaders at Goose Lake, Nebraska, by Dennis Vossberg of Plainview, Nebraska.

That could've been the end of the story, but Vossberg wrote in the book's epilogue, that the black settlers who were re-interred at Valley View deserved a monument.

And so, a movement took hold. People began sending money to Vossberg for the monument. One of my husband's aunts was one of the first people to send a donation. And the people who own Plainview Monument Company were good enough to donate time and materials to the cause.

So, nearly one hundred years after their passing, the black homesteaders have a monument honoring the contributions they made to Nebraska's history and to the memory of their life near Goose Lake. And on Memorial Day, the monument was dedicated with an amazing crowd of close to 150 people in attendance. That's pretty amazing when you consider how rural it really is out here!

Eileen Watson, of Selma, Alabama, was able to at attend the dedication, along with her son, Dean, who resides in Lincoln. I had the pleasure of interviewing this remarkable woman prior to her visit, and I was so impressed with her. She commented about how her older relatives could hardly believe that the people here raised money for a monument for their ancestors. But, as she pointed out, segregation did not seem to be an issue in this area for the residents of Goose Lake and the Bliss area.

And what was most touching and impressionable to me was how people treated her like she was a long lost family member who had returned home. I was able to speak with her prior to the dedication at the cemetery, and when I introduced myself, she hugged me like we had been friends for a long time.

In an era that will probably see its first Black candidate nominated on the general election ballot in November, yet an era that still suffers from racial tension, I can proudly attest that there was none of that here on Memorial Day.

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