Edwards helps catalog untold stories of Black homesteaders

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Edwards helps catalog untold stories of Black homesteaders

Black refugees rest on a levee along the Mississippi River in this image from April 17,1897.
Library of Congress
Black refugees rest on a levee along the Mississippi River in this image from April 17,1897. A new book co-written by Nebraska's Rick Edwards highlights how Black homesteaders settled across the Great Plains following the Civil War.

A story of Black achievement, struggle, persistence and risk-taking.

That’s how Rick Edwards describes his upcoming book, “The First Migrants.”


The culmination of years of research, “First Migrants” tells the stories of Black homesteaders’ quest for land and freedom in Nebraska and across the Great Plains after post-Civil War reconstruction failed in the South.

“Between 1877 and 1915, this was one of the major ways in which Black people found opportunity and relief from the repression, violence and murder that was inflicted upon them in the South,” Edwards said.

In the book, which will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in August, Edwards and co-author Jacob Friefeld tell this “mostly unknown chapter of Black History and homesteading.”

When slavery was abolished with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, there was hope and a widespread belief that Black people would be given land in the South — a deal commonly referenced with the phrase “40 acres and a mule.”

“But white people in the South defeated reconstruction with help from some federal officials,” Edwards said. “Black people in the South faced a very disappointing and tragic future.”

Despite the bleak outlook, some saw opportunity in the Great Plains, where homesteading promised the potential for 160 acres in exchange for five years of working and living on the land.

“So, in 1877, 308 people left Lexington, Kentucky, for what they saw as the new promised land,” Edwards said. “And that promised land was Nicodemus, Kansas.”

Nicodemus was the first major Black homesteader community. Its founding was followed by DeWitty, Nebraska; Empire, Wyoming; Sully County, South Dakota; Deerfield, Colorado; and Blackdom, New Mexico.

Detail of the cover of Rick Edwards' new book, "The First Migrants."

Every state across the Great Plains would be home to Black homesteaders. And, about 3,500 of those pioneers made homestead claims and gained ownership of some 650,000 total acres.

Around 1915, more opportunities for jobs were found in other regions, and millions relocated as part of the Great Migration.

The idea for “The First Migrants” came from a request from the National Park Service for a project on Black homesteaders. During five years of work, Edwards and his team studied records and interviewed the descendants of Black homesteaders to form the story told in the book.

Edwards is director emeritus of the Center for Great Plains Studies and professor emeritus of economics at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He earned his doctorate in economics from Harvard University and followed his interest in Great Plains conservation to the Center for Great Plains Studies. His family’s history in homsteading also helped focus his interest into telling the stories of those who settled across the Great Plains.

A previous work, “Homesteading the Plains,” by Edwards, Friefeld and colleague Rebecca Wingo, sought to correct some misconceptions about the history of homesteading.

“We discovered that while homesteading is a central and crucial part of Great Plains history, it has largely been ignored by historians for 75 years or so,” Edwards said. “Historians increasingly lost interest and in fact settled on some interpretations of homesteading that were false. In one case, their idea can be traced to a logical error that a historian made in the 1970s. It was a non sequitur that was carried along through textbooks.”

To Edwards, homesteading is a vital piece of American history because even for those who purchased land, homesteading was the inspiration for moving to the West.

“The idea of homesteading seemed incredible to them,” Edwards said. “It brought 5 million people from all over to the Great Plains. The states grew rapidly, and that can be traced to homesteading.”

While some homesteads didn’t create multi-generational farms, they weren’t failures.

“These Black communities in the Great Plains created transitional spaces in which the homesteading generation was able to get out of the oppression of the South and create their own opportunities,” Edwards said.

Edwards is continuing to define and correct homesteading history while highlighting the Black experience through “The First Migrants.”

“The very things that these Black homesteaders prioritized, like education, equipped and led their children and grandchildren to go off and lead successful lives as teachers, nurses, lawyers and doctors,” Edwards said. “The homestead communities succeeded in setting up their families for success. Homesteading was a small but important way in which Black people proved they were full and equal citizens deserving of full and equal rights.”

Learn more about “The First Migrants” on the University of Nebraska Press website.

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