In 2010, Dearfield, Colorado, will be 100 years old. Nowadays, it’s a ghost town. Between May 5, 1910, when it was founded east of Greeley, and the Depression, its residents managed to survive, and even thrive, as dryland farmers. In its prime, it had 700 residents; in 1940, the census counted 12.
Dearfield was one of many black towns founded in the United States after the Civil War. When black people in the South realized that Colorado would allow them to homestead, they began moving west (see “The Exodusters,” a note from the BAWM). The problem was that, by the turn of the twentieth century, most of the productive land had been claimed. Oliver Toussaint Jackson, the founder of Dearfield, tried to buy land but was unable. After he got a job as messenger for the governor of Colorado, he sold the governor on his idea and established his town on government land that had recently opened up.
The homesteaders were poor, and their first winter was difficult. But by 1916, 53 families farming 5,000 acres brought in their first marketable crop, worth $50,000.
One of the remarkable stories I learned from the Dearfield documentary (shown at the Black American West Museum in Five Points) is that the local school was integrated—and that during a time when the KKK was gaining power in Colorado. White residents interviewed for the movie remembered that race didn’t matter at school, but black residents recalled feeling slighted at times. (And here we are today in the “postracial” era…)
Water usage, however, was not integrated. Dearfield residents had no rights to water flowing through the local ditch. Luckily, one homestead had lakes on it, and before the white residents could make good on their threat to pump that water for their own use, the owner took the train to Denver and filed a claim on the water in her lakes.
Today the Black American West Museum owns most of the lots in Dearfield and is exploring ways to preserve the site. In 2010, the museum plans to have a celebration in Dearfield to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of its founding.