This Colorado ghost town was once an oasis for black lives in the Jim Crow era

Photo Credit: Katie Klann; The Gazette

A son of slaves, Squire Brockman came from Missouri, a slight man of maybe 5-foot-6, “wiry,” as one researcher has learned. Not a man you’d expect to carry bricks and mortar for a living. Not a man you’d expect to be a blacksmith.

“You think of a blacksmith as this big, bulky guy,” says that researcher, Bob Brunswig of the University of Northern Colorado.

Yet there Brockman was, running the shop on these barren outskirts of Weld County, hammering out a new destiny.

This Colorado ghost town was once an oasis for black lives in the Jim Crow era

The man to the far right is believed to be Squire Brockman, who was in Dearfield by 1918. He was one of the early and last residents of the town that became an oasis for black families in the Jim Crow era. Photo courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Department.

Here he was by 1918. His home stood over there in the thickets, the overgrown patch George Junne points to now.

A UNC colleague of Brunswig’s with a shared interest in this ghost town, Junne falls quiet along the dirt road that old maps show to once be Washington Avenue.

This Colorado ghost town was once an oasis for black lives in the Jim Crow era

George Junne, professor of Africana studies at the University of Northern Colorado, points out the structures remaining in Dearfield. “This place would’ve been dear to us,” Junne says. “So that’s why it’s d-e-a-r, not d-e-e-r.”

Traffic hums on nearby U.S. 34. The prairie whispers in the wind. The mountains loom far west, the view that stirred pioneer imaginations.

And there Brockman used to be, his home now crumbled, lost in the thickets.

There he was — the perfect underdog for what became something of a utopia for black lives in the Jim Crow era. Colorado never saw a more successful community of the kind Dearfield was.

Brockman “was one of the last remaining,” Junne says. The rest of the nearly 300 men, women and children who occupied Dearfield at its height had been forced out by the powers that be.

The Dust Bowl laid waste to farms in the 1930s, the once proud pastures of cattle blown away with the fields of corn and alfalfa and gardens growing every crop that families dreamed of: beans and potatoes, pumpkins and squash, cantaloupes and watermelon. They raised pigs, chickens and turkeys, too.

This Colorado ghost town was once an oasis for black lives in the Jim Crow era

An advertisement selling people on the virtues of Dearfield, the farming community in northeast Colorado that O.T. Jackson started in 1910 for the betterment of black lives.

“You would’ve seen green all over,” Junne says. “No cactus or anything like that. I know it’s hard to believe.”

The drought further strained farmers; the price of America’s wheat and meat had fallen in the years after World War I.

Then came Pearl Harbor. The men of Dearfield were called to duty.

“World War II sealed the fate of Dearfield,” Junne wrote in a history he compiled with other UNC scholars.

Now he tours the remains: the general store with a locked, metal door and bolted plexiglass windows to keep vagrants out; the fenced-in lunch room, where Denverites traveled to get their pies; and Brockman’s blacksmith shop, across from the auto shop where he also proved handy.

White people took over the shop at some point. Look through the door, Junne implores visitors today.

The roadside display is still there, advertising gas, souvenirs, beer and pop, all once sold here at “Deerfield.”

“This place would’ve been dear to us,” Junne says. “So that’s why it’s d-e-a-r, not d-e-e-r.”

A dream in the desert

Dearfield. That was the name Oliver Toussaint Jackson gave his town. His story was chronicled by The Weld County News in 1921:

“Eleven years ago a lone colored man filed a homestead on a tract of land lying about 30 miles southeast of Greeley … he selected his homestead with a view to making it into a farm, and from that little incident grew a colony of Negro farmers which ranks high among the 14 of its kind in the United States today.”

Jackson “lives to put as many of his race as possible on their feet,” read a previous interview in 1915. His mission was shared across the burgeoning West.

In a paper on black homesteaders by the University of Nebraska’s Center for Great Plains Studies, the authors write of a group who fled the South with an eye toward Craig in northwest Colorado. They described themselves as “desirous of moving into some locality where there was more freedom of thought.”

That group failed, encountering similar problems of many others: no support from banks or donors, while “some faced local or political opposition,” the Nebraska authors write, “and nearly all failed to recruit enough black families who were willing to undertake the hardship and risk of homesteading.”

Still, the free-thinking perception of Colorado prevailed. This was surely because of the state’s 1876 constitution that declared no “distinction or classification of pupils be made on account of color.” John Evans, the second territorial governor, and Richard Sopris, Denver’s mayor from 1878-1881, are popularly remembered for their support of black migration.

But “the white community’s reactions were mixed, if not ambiguous,” reads the UNC historical account led by Junne.

“The most favorable reactions came from individuals who believed that Blacks could contribute to the economic development of the state as unskilled laborers and low-class citizens.”

This Colorado ghost town was once an oasis for black lives in the Jim Crow era

Four separate prints depicting life in Dearfield. In the top left print, a group of men, women and children gather outside a church; in the top right print, Oliver Toussaint Jackson holds a child while standing in a cornfield with a man and woman; in the bottom left print, a man sits in a wagon with several other vehicles and with several men and women visible in the background; and in the bottom right print, a woman and two men inspect the crops. Year range 1910-1929.

That included Evans, who stated: “I think a limited number might be brought here with good results.”

Sopris, meanwhile, thought “a moderate immigration of Negros into Colorado would rebound to our advantage as well as to theirs.”

Then there were the likes of William Byers, the postmaster. “They might help fill the demand for house servants,” he opined, “but I do not think they will readily adapt themselves to the great labor tasks of this state.”

And there was Horace Greeley, famed father of the “Go West, young man” mantra, whose progressive reputation isn’t without a dark side.

“Although an abolitionist,” reads Junne’s UNC paper, “he expressed views that the West should be reserved for whites.”

Thirty miles southeast of Greeley’s namesake town lay a brave frontier, a proving ground.

“African American men, women and children saw an opportunity, and they made it work,” says Daphne Rice-Allen, board chairwoman for Denver’s Black American West Museum. “And the reason they made it work was because of the myth that we didn’t have the skill.”

‘A spirit of helpfulness’

No matter how desolate, no matter the lack of water, Oliver Toussaint Jackson and his followers were determined.

They would walk if they had to, coming with nothing or close to it, erecting tents if they had them, otherwise digging holes into hillsides. They would live in caves if it meant one day having a house to call their own.

They were led by something Booker T. Washington said: “Get some property … get some of the substance for yourself.”

“Even today, it’s the ultimate,” Rice-Allen says. “It’s the ultimate in self-purpose and self-preservation.”

Jackson, who’d accumulated wealth as an entrepreneur in Boulder, was able to build his cabin. But others looked around for timber and had to squint several miles north, where cottonwoods stood along the South Platte River.

The first residents of Dearfield “were as poor as people could be,” Jackson recalled in 1915.

Some traveled to jobs in Denver, leaving claimed property to their wives. Many more found work with white farmers in the vicinity — “our main support,” Jackson said.

“We have cooperated with each other by exchange of work, the use of tools and horses, sharing our food and fuel. Until now we are like one large family.”

The papers reported condescendingly — they pointed out black families had no issues with the law and were “actually” proving to be “stand-up citizens” — while heaping praise.

In 1917, a Denver Post headline proclaimed “Negro Colony at Dearfield is Big Success.” Dearfield was “a Land of Peace, Prosperity and Plenty,” heralded the Topeka Plaindealer in 1920.

That year, more than 40 cabins had sprouted beyond the platted downtown, with upwards of 8,500 acres established. Dearfield’s two churches and school were “adding materially to the education and moral standards of the community,” The Weld County News reported.

Across the country, race riots raged. Violence flared, black bodies beaten and hanged.

But in Dearfield, there were “both white and colored farmers working harmoniously together,” read a brochure by the Colorado Board of Immigration, “striving for interdependence which successful farming brings to the people of both races.”

Meanwhile, the Ku Klux Klan lurked in Colorado, and in high places.

Clarence Morley, governor from 1925-27, was among them, as was Rice Means, who was U.S. senator the same decade. Denver Mayor Ben Stapleton donned the hood. A year after he took office in 1923, some 20,000 people gathered to watch the Klan march through Greeley.

This Colorado ghost town was once an oasis for black lives in the Jim Crow era

Oliver T. Jackson kneels near a child holding a large melon, while a woman and man inspect the crops in Dearfield. Jackson founded the town in northeast Colorado that became a bustling farming community for black families in the Jim Crow era.

For all the hate that permeated its borders, Dearfield is remembered as an oasis, seemingly “the opposite of conditions in other parts of the United States,” Junne and his associates found.

Their research took them to a former Dearfield resident, Eunice Norris.

“People got along well,” she said. “They didn’t have time for trouble. There was a spirit of helpfulness.”

Uncertain future

Another resident, Carrie Wright, reminisced on her mother reading to the kids after dinner, singing to them at the piano.

“And we were just a family. The thing they’re trying to bring to America now, we had then. We were a family.”

It was a sweet memory, like those that came to Jennie Jackson when she returned to Dearfield in 1943. She was there to visit her uncle, Oliver Toussaint Jackson. The man was dying with the town he founded.

This Colorado ghost town was once an oasis for black lives in the Jim Crow era

Oliver Toussaint Jackson’s original home in Dearfield. It now sits on a new foundation.

In an interview with Empire Magazine, Jennie was “shocked” to see hardly anyone else around.

Dearfield was once “lively and growing,” she said. “People were writing to their folks to come out and settle, and there were always visitors at Uncle Oliver’s. It was nothing in those days for a governor or other distinguished officials to drop in.

“Everyone believed in Dearfield.”

None more so than Uncle Oliver, who died Feb. 18, 1948, at the age of 86.

His house is among the few structures still standing. Junne fears for their fates.

“Unfortunately, we are the kind of society where it’s out of sight, out of mind,” says Brunswig, the UNC colleague trying to protect the place. “When you can visually see something, you believe it.”

And someday, maybe soon, people might not see Dearfield.

A developer has proposed building in the vicinity. The Black American West Museum owns some of Dearfield’s historic downtown, but all around is a patchwork of private properties largely held by Clayton Homes.

Rice-Allen, with the museum, says negotiations are ongoing regarding land swaps and preservation. She’s optimistic, she says. “I will say, there’s some concerns.”

This Colorado ghost town was once an oasis for black lives in the Jim Crow era

“This all used to be green,” said Dr. George Junne on Saturday, February 15, 2020 in Dearfield, Colorado. (Katie Klann, The Gazette)

So for as long as it stands, Junne will visit Jackson’s home and share the founder’s story. “He fought until the day he died,” Junne says.

As did the man who lived across the street, over there in the thickets. Squire Brockman.

In 1969, long after Brockman’s demise, a white man had taken over his shop. A reporter found the man inside, along with a sick joke: a rubber skeleton swinging by a noose, marked as Dearfield’s “last original settler.”

Brockman was more than a blacksmith and mechanic. He showed off other skills here, at this site that is now a pile of broken lumber.

“This was a dance floor,” Junne says.

Brockman played the fiddle, and the people danced. Black or white, they danced.

“Not together, of course, because at the time, no way you could do that,” Junne says. “But at least they were on the same floor.”


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