A Lesson in Audacity
History is littered with stories of people overcoming great odds and becoming successful. African American history can be used as an example of what can be accomplished when a dream is driven to reality by passion and dedication.
Oliver Toussaint Jackson, an African American businessman originally from Ohio, had a dream of creating a self-sufficient farming community for African Americans on the high, dry plains of northeast Colorado. Making this a reality is a difficult task in the best of times, but attempting to do this in 1910 would seem impossible. Jim Crow was alive and strong; several dozens of African American people were still being lynched annually. In 1920’s, the Ku Klux Klan controlled the Colorado House and Senate, the office of the Secretary of State, a state Supreme Court judgeship, seven benches on Denver District Court, and the mayor of Denver and the Governor of Colorado were Klan members. In the shadow of this institutional racism and violence directed towards African Americans, a group of determined and hard-working African Americans forged ahead, building a community based on business, determination and a dream of self-reliant independence.
The first year was tough, according to Oliver Toussaint Jackson, only two of the seven families that lived there…“had wooden houses and the suffering was intense…buffalo chips and sagebrush was our chief fuel. Three of our horses died from starvation and the other three were too weak to pull the empty wagon.”
But the people persevered. By 1921, 700 people lived in Dearfield and the town had a net worth of over a million dollars. The residents learned the techniques of dry farming, a way to grow crops in regions of limited rainfall and moisture, something Native Americans had done for hundreds of years. With this technique, the colonist, as Oliver Toussaint Jackson called the Black settlers, grew a host of crops such as corn, alfalfa, beets and strawberries and they also raised live-stock such as hogs, chickens and turkeys.
They built two churches, a school, a blacksmith shop, dancehall, restaurant, grocery store, boarding house and a gas station. The vision and promise Jackson had for the community was coming to life. According to George Junne, an expert on Dearfield and professor of African American studies at the University of Northern Colorado, “It was the most successful, best known African American farming community in the United States at that time.”
Things were going well until the rain stopped. The dust bowl conditions of the early 1930’s combined with the great depression conspired to halt the success of the community. Creeks and wells dried up. Without water rights and a dependence on natural rainfall that was not forthcoming, people started to seek better opportunities and left the settlement in search of a decent living. By 1940, only 12 residents lived in Dearfield. Jackson died there in 1948 and his niece Jenny Jackson was the last known full time resident who lived there. She died there in 1973.
The morning my wife and I drove to Dearfield, the mountains in the west could barely be seen because of the low hanging clouds. We exited the main road, went under a one-way underpass, and ended up on a dirt road driving for five miles and wondering if we made the right exit. But finally, we saw a little sign that read “Dearfield” and if we would have blinked, we would have missed it.
Just like all the descriptions online,Dearfield is a small patch of land surrounded by vast, open, and seemingly barren plains. I had three cameras with me; my digital Nikon 7100 and two film cameras — a Minolta SR T101 and a Pentax K1000. As luck would have it, my digital camera malfunctioned and I was unable to use it. I had my film cameras but since I would not know how the photographs came out until I developed the film, I had to use my old trusty back-up: my cell phone camera. So these photos were taken with my cell phone.
No one else was there. Another car showed-up briefly with another Black couple. A guy came out to take a few pictures and then left quickly. So the entire time, I was alone to go through the dilapidated wooden structures. I walked through the former house of Jackson. Melancholia is the word that comes to mind but that feeling is tempered because I think about the resilience of this structure and that it is the physical manifestation of an outrageous (for its time) dream. Time had beat these structures down, with wind, snow, heatand rain, but the structured stood defiant against those elements and it made me think of the people who built those structures and their determination to overcome the obstacles that hindered them.
After I snapped the photos, we left and continued driving west toward the mountains and Greeley, Colorado, and forgetting it was St. Patrick’s Day, we inadvertently walked into a big celebration of parades, kilts and green beer. But, as I watched those barren plains that stretched for miles, I imagined the fortitude required to live in what many considered an inhospitable wasteland. The lack of resources, little support, cold winters and miles away from the rest of civilization is enough to turn most people off. Exactly what type of person would take this on? I think the type of person that would do whatever it takes for a chance at dignity in the face of overwhelming odds. People who would do the hard work needed for a chance at self-reliant independence.
For these colonists, freedom and independence was better than a pile of gold. In these challenging times, we can always look at the past and our history for strength. No matter how awful things are now, our ancestors had it much worse, and yet they persevered. We would all do well to remember those African Americans, and adopt their resiliency.
Editor’s note: Thomas Holt Russell is a teacher, writer, and photographer. For more information, visit www.thomasholtrussell. zenfolio.com.