African American Settlers
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Where Did African Americans Live?

Broken Bow
Detail of Men in front of Kilpatrick Bros. Groceries & Railroad Supplies store, Broken Bow, Nebraska. 1886. Photo by Solomon Butcher.

In the first Nebraska territorial census of 1854, there were only four slaves listed. The first free African American settler arrived in Omaha in 1854. Her name was Sally Bayne. By the 1860 census, there were still fewer than 30 African American individuals in Nebraska. That was about to change.

A movement of African American settlers began moving into the plains states. They began in Kansas, and were known as the “Exodusters.” During the early summer of 1879, a small group of exodusters arrived in Lincoln. Others moved to Omaha and Nebraska City.

Black Cowboys
Detail from, Bunch of genuine old time cowboys and bronco busters at Denver, Colorado, 1905.
Photo by Solomon Butcher.
While many former slaves settled in Omaha and the railroad towns where jobs were available, many also settled in other parts of Nebraska. In 1870, Robert Anderson, a former slave, became the first black to homestead in Nebraska. For some of Anderson’s experiences, click here. Interestingly, in another part of the state, it was a white family, the Benton Aldrich family, who encouraged former slave families to relocate to Nemaha County in southeast Nebraska. Several black families settled near the Aldrich place in the 1870s and 1880s.

African Americans settled mainly in Custer, Dawson, and Harlan counties. Charles Meehan formed a black colony at Overton in Dawson County in 1885, which was followed by the creation of other black communities in Cherry County — Brownlee in 1905 and DeWitty in 1907. African Americans were more inclined to settle in western Nebraska, as there was more land available for them to acquire under the Homestead Act.

In 1870, there were 789 African Americans living in Nebraska. That number exploded to 8,900 by 1890.