Sunday, February 26, 2012

In Honor of Nebraska's African Americans

February is Black History month. I've always been fascinated by ethnic experience different from my own, and so I spent a few minutes gleaning some of Nebraska's African American history for this post. The stories suggested by the facts get this writer's overactive imagination churning.

  • Nebraska City witnessed an auction on December 5, 1860, of "One Negro Man, and one Negro woman, known as Hercules and Martha." The next month the Nebraska Legislature passed an act to abolish slavery in the Territory of Nebraska. But I wonder about Hercules and Martha. 
  • According to a booklet published by the Nebraska Writers' Project, "escaped slaves followed the Underground Railroad into Nebraska from Albany, Kansas, continuing through Falls City, Little Nemaha, Camp Creek, and Nebraska City, where the fugitives crossed the Missouri River to Percival, Iowa. From there they were taken to Tabor, Iowa, and outfitted for the balance of their journey into Canada." The booklet mentions a broom-maker who was living in Omaha in 1913 who had escaped slavery via that route. While my history professor reminded me only last week that a very small percentage of slaves ever escaped via the Underground Railroad, one can't help but be drawn to the stories of that desperate journey and the courage it took to attempt it. If I lived in that era, would I have had the courage to help? If I had been a slave, would I have taken the risk? 
  • Photographs of pioneer African Americans in Nebraska are relatively few. I look at their faces and I want to hear their voices. What about the young woman pictured above? What was her role in this white family's sod house saga? How did she come to live with them? 
  • What about the young man named Moses mentioned in an early census record ... and said to be Native American? Explorers mentioned Africans living among Native Americans very early in western exploration. Their voices are forever silent. What stories would they have told? 

This family homesteaded in Custer County, Nebraska. A relative remembered hearing the story of her grandfather leading the first black "emigrant train" to Cherry County, Nebraska. He drove one wagon, a son drove another, and a sixteen-year-old girl drove the third. "She took care of her own team and greased the wagon wheels." What a woman!

A little more is known about Nebraskan Robert Ball Anderson (I couldn't find a photograph). He was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1843. His mother was sold when he was six years old, and he never saw her again. (How does anyone overcome that?) As a young man, he ran away from the plantation and joined the Union Army, serving in the 125th Colored Infantry. After a stint as a Buffalo Soldier in the west, Anderson settled in Butler County and filed on a homestead. A casualty of the grasshopper plague, Anderson moved to Box Butte County.  By 1918, he owned over two thousand acres. I often tell people that "what really happened is far more interesting than anything I could make up." Folks are always surprised when I mention that my maternal grandfather was 44 when he married my 22-year-old grandmother (so am I). Mr. Anderson's story is even more unique. In 1922, 79-year-old Robert Anderson married Daisy ... a 22-year-old young woman from Arkansas. Daisy died in 1998 ... a Civil War wife. Think about that for a minute! 1998. A Civil War wife passed away. Speaking of her husband in a recorded interview before she died, Daisy said, "I never had anything in my life. He wanted to make my life better." I couldn't write that novel, because no one would believe it ... but it happened. Would I have survived losing my mother at the age of six in the way Robert Anderson did? Or would I have just given up? Would I have had the courage to run? Would I have regrouped after grasshoppers destroyed my homestead?  

Some African Americans today think that a "black history month" is a bad idea. After all, black history is American history. Isn't it just. Courage and perseverance, surviving and succeeding. Here's to their stories.

For more information, see An Illustrated History of African Americans in Nebraska by Bertha W. Calloway and  Alonzo N. Smith, Ph.D. Unforgettable stories, compelling photographs.


  1. Stephanie, A retired teacher friend of mine has done a lot of research on African American settlers/homesteaders in Nebraska. She spoke in schools and other venues with a slide show presentation. She spent a lot of time interviewing descendants of these settlers and the stories are wonderful. I'd be glad to send you her contact information via your web site e-mail if you're interested. Jan in Nebraska

  2. Thank you, Jan. I'd love to have that as a possible resource for the future.