There were a lot of reasons for Americans to head West after the Civil War, with the Homestead Acts initiated by Abraham Lincoln being a primary motivation. These acts—which changed and expanded over time, extending into 1970s Alaska—were envisioned as a way to get the vast, largely untraveled Western territories settled for good, and for the good of all. A man—or even a woman under the right circumstances—could pay a modest fee, occupy a tract of 80-160 acres, and claim full ownership after a specified time during which s/he had to make noticeable improvements to the property. It was an enormously attractive draw for landless folk, for those for whom Eastern city life had begun to pall, and for those former slaves whose freedom was their only boon, bringing with it few chances for advancement or worldly comforts.
At first, Black Americans headed to Kansas and surrounding states. Kansas had an abolitionist bent that gave hope of acceptance for the newly emancipated families. The movement of such folk was encouraged by certain charismatic leaders who dubbed their followers “Exodusters” referencing the biblical tales of the children of Israel. But as the central plains began to fill up with new migrants of all races and nationalities, there was a trickle of settlers who headed to the wilds of Wyoming where land was cheap, new farming methods were being developed in the rough and rocky soil, and isolation could be a positive.
Blacks tended to stick together, defensively, so the founding of the little burg of Empire, Wyoming was undertaken by one family group, Charles and Rosetta Speese and Charles’s three brothers. The Speese family had joined the Exoduster calling in Nebraska and been successful, accumulating enough money to strike out independently when they felt the time was right, in 1908. By that era, back in North Carolina where Charles’s parents had been slaves, Jim Crow laws—the unlawful, horrific practice of lynching—were becoming the brutal reality. Charles and Rosetta were lucky to push as far west as possible and were soon joined by another family, the Taylors.
Charles Speese had been a hardworking, successful farmer in Nebraska, and would prove to be so in Empire, Wyoming. He, Rosetta, and his brothers excelled again in Empire, where, on a few hundred acres, they harvested abundant, prize-winning crops of potatoes, millet, corn, and other valued foods for people and livestock. All this was done on basically dry, unirrigated land. And in the times between sowing, growing, and harvesting, the families were establishing a true village, with a church, school, and its own post office.
But the racial divide was alive and kicking in Wyoming, too, with segregation the norm for schooling (if any education was provided at all for Black children), inter-racial marriage was illegal, and the Ku Klux Klan, if not acting by that name, was acting covertly. Yet despite these barriers, members of both founding families achieved college degrees. Russell Taylor had a divinity degree and Joseph Speese was a lawyer. But it was the color divide that sealed the doom of Empire and other little towns like it, many of which exist now only in the form of small graveyards.
The Speese family refused to be victimized, always working toward positives for the Empire community. But a major warning flag was raised when one of the Taylor family men was accused of a crime and died after being beaten by police in the nearby, white-dominated town of Torrington. One of the man’s brothers filed a wrongful death suit and was able to produce witnesses to substantiate that claim. But the case, reported in newspapers as being one of an insane man dying from a pain in his head, was thrown out by a District Court Judge.
Reading all the signs of encroaching, Southern-style racial hatred and violence, and discouraged by the region’s unpredictable weather and failed crops, Charles and Rosetta left Wyoming and moved to Nebraska, again allying with a Black settlement, DeWitty (later renamed Audacious). To do so they had to leave a large, for the time and place, house and 380 acres of well-kept agricultural land. They lived in a modest sod house and Charles often had to work away from their homestead to keep economic hopes afloat. In 1920, upon their return to Nebraska, the Speeses took up responsibility for a new homesteading challenge, resolved to live in humbler circumstances, and set about doing what both did best: farming and promoting the education of their, and all, African American children.
In one school that the Speese family implanted in DeWitty, children of both Black and White races could attend. This highly innovative initiative speaks clearly of their genuine determination to reach out, above and beyond most of the White citizens at the time, and their refusal to be bested by the legal, political, and social systems that sought to keep races separated.
Another Black homesteader, single at the time, Peryle L. Woodson was one of the teachers in the DeWitty schools boldly established by Charles and Rosetta. Perlye (also known as Pearly) had attended college and was able to make her own homestead claim in DeWitty at the age of 23. She retained a strong passion for teaching. She also had the willpower and daily discipline required for agriculture. Notably, Perlye managed on her own to raise cattle, build a house and barn, sink a well, and cultivate trees on her homestead-granted smallholding.
Ava Speese (Day) was one of the children who grew up on the Nebraska homestead and would later write vivid, sometimes poignant letters about her childhood with Rosetta and Charles. She remembers watching herds of cattle coming and going through the town, sometimes miles long, and seeing her family’s sod house rising from the soil of the plains brick by brick. Her writings are still available and provide wisdom and encouragement for people anywhere who have chosen the homesteading life.
The Speeses, Taylors, and Woodsons were early homesteaders who exemplified the ideals and purpose of Lincoln’s Homestead Act. Their work was concentrated in farming, performing ceaseless hard physical labor with only family for assistance. The “Empire” that Charles and Rosetta Speese so diligently founded and participated in was a shining example of what freed slaves could do and should have been loudly praised and encouraged by observers and neighbors. Instead, their efforts were denigrated and at times, undermined, leaving little doubt that it was Black self-sustenance that would have to save Black families, and Black pride that would be their legacy. In February, Black History Month, we can especially appreciate their contributions.
Empire, Wyoming, DeWitty, Nebraska, and other such laudable efforts at achieving autonomy and imprinting American values on American soil lasted only a short while, and mostly only a few windblown houses and small graveyards now attest to their existence. But the true and lasting gifts of their intent can and should still be remembered, like those of all our forebears who built roads, established schools, churches, and towns, and tamed the wilderness one blade of grass at a time.