In the space of a few short months, two momentous and highly positive events occurred in America, even as the Civil War was at its height. In May of 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the first Homestead Act, which allowed all Americans, irrespective of race or gender, to press westward and lay claim to the country’s heartland, the Great Plains. Then on New Year’s Day, 1863, President Lincoln signed into law the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all those people of African descent held in slavery in the country. Under the conditions of the Homestead Act, ambitious and industrious people could purchase a specified amount of acreage for a small price and take full possession of it after a period of five years of improving the property with buildings, livestock, and cultivation. Both Acts had a political agenda at the time they were created: the Emancipation Act sought the aid of freed slaves in the war efforts against the Confederacy, and the Homestead Act carried the presumption that land ownership away from the South would attract anti-slavery settlers, ensuring that new states would be designated as free.
The combination of these two executive orders had a deep effect on thousands of Americans of all races. And that effect can be seen in microcosm in the life experience of Norvel Blair, who, with his kinfolk, founded a small but vibrant community that would come to be known as “The Sully County Colored Colony” in South Dakota. Though historical records of the time are wobbly, one thing is abundantly clear: Norvel was a very hard-working determined individual who overcame not only the torments of slavery itself but also the residual race bias that hung over the nation like a cloud, in the South and beyond.
Please remember, as you read this historical tale, that Norvel Blair, his wife Mary, and many of the early settlers of Sully County had been raised in the most horrific conditions imaginable. Southern slaves, no matter how “well treated,” were brought to the New World without the smallest agreement on their part, were never formally taught the language of their conquerors, and forbidden by law to read. Their family cohesion was not only discouraged and ignored, but often it was purposely destroyed as part of the “divide, punish and dominate” policy of their self-appointed owners.
Norvel Blair was already a middle-aged man at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. He attempted to settle with his reunited family on a farm in Illinois. Lamentably, they were harassed and threatened by local Whites. Norvel, though poorly educated, wrote a lengthy pamphlet describing the racial hypocrisy of wealthy Illinois Republicans who, though members of the party of Lincoln, distorted the ideals of Lincoln’s proclamation by taking advantage of, and indeed abusing, struggling Black settlers, cheating them with maliciously cooked-up land deals. In the case of Norvel’s family, there were threats, scams, and even some direct violence perpetrated to wrest from him the property he had worked so diligently to improve.
So Norvel sent his sons Benjamin and Patrick to investigate the prospect of re-settling, this time in the Dakota Territory, a wilder and more wide-open atmosphere. They found land for sale in Sully County, just recently opened for homesteading, where acreage could be marked with a few sticks in the raw wilderness and claimed for ownership with a few dollars.
It was here in Sully County that Norvel began to show his real entrepreneurial talents. He had brought a few Morgan horses from Illinois, and became noted in the region and beyond as a successful breeder of racehorses. South Dakota Magazine cites Norvel’s success with horses: “One horse named Johnny Bee was listed as the fastest horse in the state from 1907 to 1909. ‘Racing horses is a fine sport for any man as it teaches him how to be a good winner and a good loser,’ Blair said, ‘and if you can’t be both you should never race horses.”
Even when progress elsewhere meant that the Blair’s chosen town of Fairbank was “dropped” (an old term meaning by-passed by the main roads and commerce), Norvel and Mary and their seven children continued to thrive. It was then that the next generation of Blairs began to show their stuff.
The younger family members had had the advantage of some education, a luxury Norvel and his wife, reared solely as slaves, as the property of selfish, generally cruel owners, had not enjoyed. Norvel Blair’s sons, Benjamin and Patrick, inherited their father’s business acumen, operating a livery stable together. Ben was involved in establishing schools for all local children and became the first African American to serve on a school board in South Dakota. He founded a project he called the Northwestern Homestead Movement. It was devised to attract and assist former southern slaves to make the trek and settle in the Dakotas, where though the climate with its harsh winters took some getting used to, good arable land was open and cheap. The Blairs and other like-minded, idealistic Americans of African descent sent out a welcoming invitation to all hardworking farmers and dreamers. In addition to the land still available from the Homestead Act (with several iterations up until the early 1900s), there was the possibility of building an agricultural college in the Blair Colony, with Norvel personally pledging up to 1,700 acres of his land to realize the vision. Though the college plan was never to come to fruition, the offer and the wealth of property and confidence it represented was yet another proof of the Blair Colony’s shared ethos.
In an age, too, when women of all colors were denied basic human rights, Norvel’s daughters Betty and started a bakery in Pierre, and later Betty would return to the Sully region as a real estate agent, negotiating the sale of thousands of acres of farmland.
Another of Norvel’s sons, John, got work as a Pullman porter, a form of employment that brought status and economic security to those men fortunate enough to procure it. “In 1894 he received special recognition from the St. Paul and Duluth Railroad for saving a number of passengers during a train fire.” [South Dakota Magazine]
Within fifty years, the Sully Colony had attracted about 200 industrious new pioneers, most of them like Norvel and Mary Blair, rising from the enforced ignorance and poverty of slavery to become community participants and leaders. Truly, this tight-knit group had taken all advantage of the blessings of freedom that the Emancipation and Homestead Acts offered.
Today, the Sully Colony, or Blair Colony, rests in the annals of homesteading lore, with only a few scattered buildings and gravestones to commemorate its founders. It has been written about in various academic journals. Norvel’s portrait is well known because of his dramatic, politically-themed tract, with its stirring title, obviously meant to speak beyond his times: Book for the People! To Be Read by All Voters, Black and White, with Thrilling Events of the Life of Norvel Blair. Norvel wanted to be heard; his children reflected his talents and toughness, and we honor his ambition by speaking for him in the present day.