This barely counts as a “road trip through history” post. It is more of a “a historical marker sends me looking for more information” post.
The historical marker gave the bare-bones account* of Empire, Wyoming—a short-lived community of Black homesteaders in Goshen County, near the Nebraska-Wyoming border. The marker ended with this sentence: “Empire remains a powerful reminder of the struggles and achievements of African Americans who migrated to the plains seeking land, education, and civil rights.” As far as I was concerned, it was more than a reminder, it was a whack up the side of the head. My mental image of homesteaders has always been populated with white faces.** As soon as we got home I went looking for more information, about Empire, Wyoming, in particular and Black homesteading in general.
Here’s my own bare-bones version:***
Empire was initially settled in 1908 by three families who were closely related by marriage. The Enlarged Homestead Act allowed each family to claim 320 acres.*** *Unlike many homesteaders, they arrived with experience with dryland farming and financial capital to invest in their new farms. Several of them had advanced degrees. Their claims became the foundation for the community of Empire, which grew to about sixty people at its peak in 1915.
Eventually ten families “proved up” homesteads. Other residents directly purchased land or did not claim land at all. By 1909, the community had a schoolhouse and had hired a young black teacher from Cheyenne. (They successfully used a Wyoming law requiring segregation in any school district with more than 15 non-white students to wrest control of their school from the local white-controlled school district.) By 1912, the town had two churches and its own post office. It looked like Empire was a success.
But the challenges of dryland farming were nothing compared to the challenges posed by the racism of white settlers in surrounding communities. The most horrific of the race-based incidents occurred in November 1913—in form that feels all too familiar—with the arrest of Baseman Taylor. Accounts vary as to the reason for his arrest, but witnesses stated that the sheriff and his deputies beat and choked Taylor repeatedly He died in custody three days later.
The community broke into factions after Taylor’s death. Residents began leaving. Some relocated only a few miles, searching for better access to water. Others moved to the larger Black settlement in Dewitty, Nebraska. By 1920, the farms had largely been abandoned. By 1930, only four Black residents remained in Goshen County and the town was gone.
Empire did not last, but other groups of Black homesteaders seized the opportunity to own land and created communities that survived. ***** Once again, it turns out that a story I thought I knew had big holes in it.
*Not a criticism. Historical markers, by their nature, always give bare-bones accounts. This one at least included a couple of photographs, a plat of survey of the homesteaded area, and an image of a homestead patent.
**Not unlike our cultural image of cowboys.
***With thanks to blackpast.org, the Wyoming State Historical Society, and the Homestead National Historical Park in Beatrice Nebraska, which is run by the National Park Service and is now on my list for a future road trip. There is no historical site for Empire itself, only two historical markers.
**** The Enlarged Homestead Act was passed in recognition of the difficulties of dryland farming in the semi-arid land of the western plains. The act expanded the number of unirrigated acres a family could claim from 160 to 320.
***** The first and most dramatic examples came in the 1870s, when more than 25,000 Black Americans, known as the Exodusters, poured into Kansas, which had a history of abolitionist sympathies and a state constitution that declared landownership was open to settlers regardless of race. This probably deserves a blog post of its own down the road. So many stories I’ve never heard.