Dearfield, Colorado: A Ghost of the Black American West

Society and Culture, Travel

Dearfield, Colorado is a ghost on the western plains. What remains of the once thriving agrarian community rests in bleak disrepair alongside state highway 34 in a dry, wind whipped and deeply red Weld County. All but three buildings — once a gas station, a diner and the founder’s home — have succumbed to the pressures of time and neglect, scarcely echoing the promise this land possessed in 1910 when Oliver Toussaint (O.T.) Jackson, inspired by Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery”, first purchased 320 acres and began to lay the foundations for what would become Colorado’s most successful Black settlement.

Oliver Toussaint Jackson

Today one would be hard pressed to imagine that between 200 and 700 people ever called this parcel home, seeing in it’s wide open spaces framed beneath the distant Rocky Mountains to the West a newfound hope for freedom and prosperity, but at its height in the 1920’s Dearfield sustained two churches, a blacksmith, a filling station, a hardware store, a hotel, a dancehall and a diner. 44 cabins and 15,000 cultivated acres of dryland farm covered the landscape now dominated by desiccated grasses, sagebrush and sparse plains cottonwoods.

The weather at the time was far more conducive to dry cultivation of the oats, rye, corn, beans, squash, potatoes, melons and strawberries that Dearfield became known for, but as rains receded year by year and the price of produce plummeted with the close of the First World War, Dearfield’s early momentum weaned. By 1940 the town’s population had dwindled to only 12, two percent of its population just 19 years prior. Though records indicate OT Jackson was the last remaining resident when he passed away in 1948, his granddaughter lived on what remained of his property until her own death in the early 1970s.

Despite a lifespan of only about three decades, Dearfield prospered at a time when such a feat seemed unlikely, when the Ku Klux Klan held significant power throughout the state and racial “covenants” restricted access to land and housing for Colorado’s Black residents. While it was no aberration (many Black western settlements both existed and persisted before and after Dearfield) its connections to the thriving Five Points community in Denver, heralded by many as the Harlem of the West, carried its name farther than those now forgotten or consumed by time.

Weekends throughout the twenties brought hundreds of visitors the 90 miles by train from Denver to Dearfield’s dancehall, so popular that Black and white couples shared the dancefloor there decades before integration, and the township’s aspirations included an industrial cannery and a college to rival HBCUs such as Morehouse and Howard.  Many Black Colorado intellectuals, community leaders, business owners and politicians of the time resided in or were otherwise involved with the raising of Dearfield, including Dr. Joseph H.P. Westbrook, who infiltrated Colorado’s Ku Klux Klan long before Ron Stallworth.

The official accounts of Dearfield’s history insist that it’s untimely demise was due not to mismanagement or prejudice, but to the dust and destitution of the depression.  It is still difficult to believe that a community which so quickly gained national attention, which was supported, championed and nurtured by so many committed, loving, determined and highly capable people would collapse so abruptly when small neighboring communities, white communities, survived. Even the knowledge that Dearfield never acquired the water rights needed to irrigate their fields suggests something sinister in the racist bureaucracy of the time, echoing the sentiments that have turned the county where Dearfield’s remains rest into hardline Trump country.

What is left of Dearfield is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and maintained through a partnership between the University of Northern Colorado and the Black American West Museum in Denver, which officially owns the property. These institutions hope to reconstitute what they can of the decaying buildings and eventually establish a museum to honor the legacy of Dearfield and Black life in the high desert West.

While there is little left to see at Dearfield today but the dwindling shell of a once vibrant community, there is still a sense of hope emanating from those atrophied buildings and the dry earth beneath them. To stand there, knowing what that land meant to so many, knowing what was accomplished, can serve as a healthy reminder of all that still needs to be done in the fight for racial justice and Black liberation, and that, as the old adage goes, where there is a will, there is a way.

To visit Dearfield from Denver, take I-76 East toward Fort Morgan and turn left on state highway 34 just past Wiggins, and to learn more, visit the amazing Black American West Museum in Denver’s historic Five Points neighborhood.

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