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.
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.
Last week was the 155th celebration of Juneteenth, the commemoration of a federal announcement made in Galveston, Texas on June 19th 1865 that all slaves in the state were officially free — two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was made.
Liberty has always come late. Delaware and Kentucky, slaveholding border states during the Civil War, did not outlaw slavery until December of 1865 when the 13th amendment was ratified, and it is widely acknowledged that clandestine slavery persisted in the United States until as recently as the 1960’s.
Still, the symbolic strength of Juneteenth and what it meant and still means for millions of people is worth memorializing. Not in the name of a false benevolence, not as the end of racism, oppression or violence, but as a sign of hope and a beacon for something better.
As momentum increases to officially make Juneteenth a federal holiday in the US, it is important we remember the legacy of resistance that preceded that Monday in June 155 years ago. It is important to keep fresh in our minds that the evils of racism, bondage and servitude have been known and rebelled against as long as history can recall, and that we, today, can carry the righteous rage of those who have fought before us forward and towards a truly free tomorrow.
Below are 5 pivotal though lesser known slave revolts which helped to pave the way towards a liberty we are still very much fighting for today.
The Zanj Rebellion (869-883)
We often think of slavery in terms of centuries —one and a half since slavery was abolished in the US, four since the transatlantic slave trade was established— but the Zanj Rebellion forces us to see just how long and brutal the African slave trade truly was.
Begun by the Black poet-prophet ‘Ali ibn Muhammad in 869, the Zanj Rebellion was a major uprising of East African, Bantu-speaking slaves against the Abbasid Caliphate. The conflict started around the city of Basra in present day Iraq and steadily blossomed along the banks of the Tigris. For 14 years ‘Ali ibn Muhammad and a multiracial, multisect, multi class coalition of Zanj, Bahraini, Bedouin and other freedom fighters engaged in multilateral guerilla warfare against the Abbasid Caliphate; freeing slaves, capturing cities, erecting forts, forming a navy and minting their own coins.
The widespread success of the first years of the rebellion as well as it’s early Islamic egalitarian inspirations drew people from across West Asia to join in the revolt. It’s breadth, ferocity and death toll led to it becoming one of the most well documented and extensively described military campaigns of early Islamic history. When ‘Ali ibn Muhammad was captured and killed by the Abbasid Caliphate in 883, effectively squashing the rebellion, the death toll is estimated to have reached anywhere between 500,000 and 2,500,000 people. It wasn’t until 1858, a thousand years later, that the Ottoman Empire finally outlawed the Zanj slave trade, though it persisted even after the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 that eradicated the open selling and trading of Zanj women in Constantinople.
São Tomé and Príncipe Rebellion (1595)
On July 9th, 1595 a man now known as Reí Amador, having avoided enslavement, organized a large-scale uprising of Angolar slaves on the volcanic island of São Tomé off of the northwestern coast of Gabon. The island had been established as a Portuguese “slave depot” around 1500, and by the 1590’s were sending thousands of people a year to Europe and the Americas. Amador and the Angolares marched into the interior of the island and raised a flag before a contingent of Portuguese colonizers, declaring himself “Reí (king in Portuguese) Amador, liberator of all Black people.”
The Angolar success in the ensuing battle allowed for Reí Amador and the Angolares to establish a free state on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe that lasted until January of 1596 when Reí Amador was captured and killed by Portuguese forces. Successive Kilombo free states continued on the islands for centuries until they finally gained independence from Portugal in 1970. In 2005, January 4th was declared an official holiday honoring Reí Amador in São Tomé and Príncipe.
Gaspar Yanga’s Revolt (1609-1618)
In 1570 Gaspar Yanga, a member of the royal family of Gabon who had been captured and sold into slavery in present day Mexico, led a group of escaped slaves into the highlands of Veracruz to establish a palenque that would come to be known as San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo. For over 30 years, thanks in part to the densely forested terrain and the strength of its inhabitants, the settlement maintained control of the region and attracted escaped slaves and defectors who helped to sustain the community through routine raids in Spanish supply caravans along the Camino Real that connected Veracruz and Mexico City.
In January of 1609, some 550 spanish colonial forces began a campaign to capture the territory. As Gaspar Yanga had reached an old age the resistance was led on the ground by a younger Angolan man named Francisco de la Matosa. After refusing a treaty with Yanga, Spanish colonial forces descended on the settlement, burning it to the ground in the process, but the inhabitants escaped into the surrounding mountains and maintained a decade-long stalemate. In 1618, after sustaining continual losses at the hands of Yanga’s free forces, the Spanish Colonial government signed a treaty granting the settlement sovereignty, and by 1630 the town of San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo was officially established.
In 1871 the Mexican government designated Gaspar Yanga “El Primer Libertador de las Américas” and a national hero of Mexico. San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo in the state of Veracruz was officially named Yanga in his honor in 1932.
First Maroon Wars (1728-1740)
In the late 1710’s and early 1720’s Nanny, an Ashanti woman born in Ghana, established a free state community, or maroon, in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. For years Nanny, along with a cadre of escaped slaves dubbed the Windward Maroons, maintained steady control of the region, venturing into the surrounding territories to free slaves and raid plantations and colonial armories for supplies and weaponry. In 1728, after seizing colonial control from the Spanish, English troops advanced on the territory of the Windward Maroons and the large settlement, Nanny Town, within it.
Over the following six years English forces routinely attempted to capture Nanny Town, succeeding on several occasions but never being able to maintain control. The military tactics of the Windward Maroons, which included long distance communications, camouflage, organized ambushes and well trained troops, allowed them to maintain dominance in the region and cause major losses for the British.
By 1734 the skirmishes had dwindled and British troops retreated from the area after burning Nanny Town to the ground, though for the next 6 years a military campaign consisting of regular raids and slave freeing operations by the Windward Maroons continued to mount British losses. On April 20th, 1740 the British colonial government agreed to a treaty which granted Queen Nanny and the Windward Maroons sovereignty, along with over 500 acres of land upon which the community of New Nanny Town was established and still stands today.
Queen Nanny has been recognized as a national hero of Jamaica and her likeness appears on the $500 Jamaican dollar bill, affectionately referred to as a Nanny. Her fierce military might and strength as a leader has awarded her a reverent and broad admiration from anti-colonial resistors for nearly 300 years.
The German Coast Uprising (1811)
In January of 1811, Charles Deslondes, a creole man born into slavery in Haiti, along with Marie Rose, Jessamine and others organized between 200 and 500 slaves and maroons to rise up against the plantations in present day St. John the Baptist Parish along the Mississippi River. Known as the German Coast due to the history of German settlements in the 1600s, the area was home to a number of large plantations host to thousands of enslaved peoples.
On January 8th, Deslondes, Rose and many of the 86 slaves who lived with them on the Andry plantation took up arms and killed one slave driver and severely wounded Manuel Andry, the plantation owner, with an ax. Over the following four days Charles Deslondes and his cadre marched up the German Coast toward New Orleans, sacking plantations and freeing slaves along the way. While their numbers grew greatly, the rebellion only claimed two lives, the slave driver and one other man on the outskirts of New Orleans when they were confronted by a planter militia formed by Manuel Andry and forced to turn around.
On January 11th the militia attacked and eventually claimed the lives of 95 anti-slavery resistors, including Deslondes who was brutally tortured and killed. It is thought that more than 100 slaves escaped the attack though many more were returned to the plantations they’d so desperately tried to escape.
While the German Coast uprising was ultimately repressed, word of the scale and ferocity of the insurgency spread and played a critical role in influencing Nat Turner’s Southampton revolt and John Brown’s abolitionist attack on Harper’s Ferry. On November 8th of 2019, artist Dread Scott and filmmaker John Akomfrah organized a re-enactment of the revolt, with hundreds of people making the 26 mile march along the German Coast from St. John the Baptist Parish to New Orleans in full period regalia and arms.
These five instances are merely glimpses into a long lineage of bravery, strength and resistance. They are meant to remind us that the battle for justice, liberty and freedom is recurring and constant, and though wrought with sorrow and pain, eternally and profoundly necessary.
Oftentimes, when attempting to convince our white colleagues, families or peers of the horror of a particular racial injustice, we ask them to put a loved one in the victim’s place. We ask of them the impossible task of placing their white child in a park with a toy gun or walking home with Skittles and a Brisk and dying for it, or to imagine a white brother or father begging for their breath as it is stolen from them in broad daylight, on camera and replayed over and over and over again for the world to see. On its face, this seemingly innocuous exercise appears to be one of empathy, a way of approximating oneself and one’s peers to something beyond the realm of personal experience so to better understand and relate to it, but the impulse clearly illustrates how the plight of a black body cannot be seen for what it is through the deeply obscured lens of whiteness and instead must be replaced with another, one seen by the white observer as somehow more human, more worthy of dignity and thus more worthy of life. Whiteness, for all the power it has centralized, is incapable of recognizing the humanity of those who exist on or outside of the arbitrary margins it has constructed, enforced and maintained for centuries.
“Whiteness is less complex than the abstract social benefit dictum it is made out to be. It is, very simply, a refusal of the humanness, the realness, the actuality of the perceived ‘other’.”
The problem of whiteness, and race at large, presents itself to many white people as an abstraction — a layered, murky, historical web of individual power dynamics, cultural nuance and implicit bias which only really manifest in the trespasses of chattel slavery and segregation or the overt racism of the Ku Klux Klan and insular Alt-Right message boards. As a result we excuse perceivably subtle racism, microaggressions and normalized incarnations of racist violence like police brutality, restrictive housing markets, and the school to prison pipeline as a lack of understanding or cultural awareness and thus deflect focus from the simple, mutual root coursing through every manifestation of racism and white supremacy: dehumanization, the prima metería of bigotry.
The historic and contemporary implications of the white>other binary have become a fixture of the public discourse, but the narrative is so often a procession of straw men and scapegoats; shifting blame and pointing fingers. Education, economics, cultural differences, the sins of our ancestors, and this one, particularly abhorrent president are all held responsible for the racial disparities of the world today. We’re not wrong for recognizing the truth that may exist in these statements, but they are symptoms, real world manifestations of a deeper societal sickness. Whiteness is less complex than the abstract social benefit dictum it is made out to be. It is, very simply, a refusal of the humanness, the realness, the actuality of the perceived “other”. If it were not, accepting a black, indigenous or otherwise non white person’s lived experiences at face value would never be met with resistance, and yet, en masse and for generations, black life, in all its human variety, richness and dimension, is socially and publicly refuted as an aberration or reduced to a one dimensional caricature.
“When we reduce others, consciously or subconsciously, to a stereotype, a caricature or a trope, we lose our own complexity, our own humanity, and enter a world of monsters.”
A common and key refutation of whiteness studies is the lack of homogeneity in white identity, the assertion that not all white people are the same, that white identity is a spectrum, and thus no single attitude, philosophy, structure or culture can be rightfully applied to it. While this is true, and the ways in which white identity has grown throughout history to incorporate ethnic groups it once excluded such as Irish, Italian and Jewish Europeans proves this, what I feel is missed by this sentiment —beyond the denial of the complex, varied identity and experience of non white people— are the ways in which whiteness has defined and influenced the concept of blackness, and all other racial, cultural and ethnic identities, by relation to itself, effectively reducing its own identity to a singular oppositional dimension. Because whiteness has been established as the default societal standard for human experience, it’s retainers and beneficiaries —white people— have become, willingly or not, incapable of projecting the nuance of their own experiences upon the rest of the world, and the most fundamental expressions of pain, joy, anger, reflection, creativity, love, intellect and longing have become unrecognizable in the amalgamous and imaginary other.
The mutuality of the effects of the systematized social categorization of human beings can’t be understated. When we reduce others, consciously or subconsciously, to a stereotype, a caricature or a trope, we lose our own complexity, our own humanity, and enter a world of monsters. Whiteness itself was born from these very reductions and that is the world we find ourselves living in today, plagued by senseless violence, greed and repression. After hundreds of years of building benign societal boundaries we have lost sight of our most rudimentary sense of being, that suchness which we all, by virtue of existence, share. To try and find alternative fault, though seemingly fruitful, is futile when every incarnation of racism, no matter how large or small, extreme or mundane, shares that refutation of another’s most basic existence.
“We must challenge those assumptions and doubts that keep us from recognizing in another that which exists without question in ourselves.”
To combat this terrible truth and end white supremacy, I believe we must relearn what it means to be human and undertake the practice of a deeply radical, universal empathy. We must remember that those expressions and experiences which are most natural and common to humanity —sorrow, joy, need, hunger, affection, thirst, pride, doubt, loneliness, longing, triumph— are ubiquitously shared, regardless of melanin, geography, religion, language or culture. We must challenge those assumptions and doubts that keep us from recognizing in another that which exists without question in ourselves. When we can see that most basic humanness, the need to question the mere reality of the horror, violence and sadism we continue to see play out on television and computer screens week after week erodes. We can be honest in our demands for reform, internally and externally, and manifest true, deep and systematic change.
I believe that when the Murri activist, artist and academic Lilla Watson said “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together,” she was speaking to this very idea. Our humanity, and thus our liberation, are inseparable. Until whiteness comes to terms with that, we can never hope to rid ourselves of even the most benign of bigotries.
In moments of great turmoil historicity serves us all. Time, above all things, shows us our successes and failures, our seized and missed opportunities, to best elucidate the present state of our being, and yet we are so often woe to remember, or, if a collective amnesia is not at fault, fail to acknowledge what has led us to this very moment. As the streets of nearly every major US city and many more globally have become illuminated with the fires of revolt, it is paramount that we understand the long, grueling path that has led us to today as we begin to construct a future out of yesterday’s ashes.
The legacy of riot has a unique and influential place in American discourse. This nation was steeled in its language from its very conception, yet the racially and culturally pigmented dialects of that language have been translated quite differently. Six years before the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, riots, which often included the looting of shops, throwing of stones and mass concentrations of disgruntled colonists, were commonplace as tensions between American colonists and British loyalists continued to manifest in small, decentralized skirmishes. As recently illustrated in an article from The Atlantic one of these very riots —coming only months after a 10 year old boy was shot and killed by a shop owner in an earlier riot—resulted in the first casualty of the Revolutionary War, an Afro-Native stevedore by the name of Crispus Attucks.
The parallels of the legal case which followed the death of Crispus Attucks and four others during what was to become known as The Boston Massacre are harrowingly similar to those we’ve seen in recent years. John Adams, who would later become the second president of the United States, served as defense attorney for the British officers responsible for the shots which killed Attucks, all of whom were acquitted of murder charges and only two charged with the much lesser crime of manslaughter.
While the acquittal of officers charged with the death of a black and native man can be seen and felt with a mournful familiarity, it was the nature of Adams’ defense which most echoes the current shortcomings of our justice system and the depths of it’s institutionalized bigotries. The riots were initially lauded as valiantly patriotic resistance to British injustice by the likes of Paul Revere, Samual Adams and John Hancock, but John Adams constructed a defense narrative of vicious, belligerent black hostility from Attucks and his compatriots for an all white, non Bostonian jury. His description of the rioters as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes [sic], Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs,” who were “under the command of a stout molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person,” played into a well established anti-black sentiment steeped in the transatlantic slave trade and shared by colonists and loyalists alike. Despite being the first man to fight and die for the American Revolution, Crispus Attucks was posthumously vilified by Adams, a man who would prosper greatly from the very actions he condemned, writing years later that “on that night the formation of American independence was laid… Not the battle of Lexington or Bunker Hill, not the surrender of Burgoyne or Cornwallis were more important events in American history than the battle of King Street on March 5th 1770.”
In the 250 years since, this pattern has continued to re-emerge on the national stage. Through slave rebellions, westward expansion, labor struggles, the civil war, reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, stonewall, farm workers revolts and the most recent BLM uprisings we have seen these narratives replay themselves. The cumulative frustration, hope, rage and fundamental human longing which set the stage for protest, resistance and riot, no matter how warranted or legitimate, are demonized, neglected and villified when manifest and expressed in non-white bodies, while outright prejudicial violence is excused, tolerated or dismissed.
In 1834, 3 years after Nat Turner’s infamous rebellion, white anti-abolitionist rioters swarmed New York City and submerged it in violence for over a week, destroying seven black churches and over a dozen black homes in the process. The source of their anger and violence? The mere acknowledgement of black humanity. Despite this terror at the hands of over four thousand white people, the New York riots were largely understood as “…not only the denunciation of an insulted community, but the violence of an infuriated populace.”
In 1864, at the height of the civil war, a mixed race man named William Faulkner was falsely accused and arrested in Detroit for the molestation of a young white woman. Before this, Faulkner passed as white, voting in multiple elections years before the 15th amendment was ratified, but after his blackness was noted in the pages of local newspapers, white mobs gathered and began to attack black citizens in front of and surrounding the court house where his trial was taking place. This white ire spread throughout Detroit over the following days with assaults on black people and the arson and looting of black homes and businesses, resulting in two deaths, the complete burning of 35 buildings and over 200 black men, women and children left without shelter. In the end, Faulkner, though pardoned two years later, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The Detroit City Council refused to offer any compensation for the 200 left homeless despite being encouraged by the Michigan Legislature to do so, and opted instead to implement the city’s first full time, all white, police force.
99 years ago almost to the day, 1,250 homes were destroyed and between 150-300 people are estimated to have died when white “rioters” leveled the black Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The court proceedings following the tragedy led to an all white jury attributing the violence and destruction to the very black community that had been devastated by it, though an official report by the Oklahoma State Legislature 80 years later found that the city of Tulsa has conspired with the white mob against the black community of Greenwood. Not a single conviction was brought for all the violence, and many black residents were left to live in tents among the ashes of their former homes and businesses. Within a year the City of Tulsa began redevelopment of the once thriving black economic center, pushing any remaining black businesses and residents further out of the city. It wasn’t until this year, 2020, that Oklahoma school districts were provided with an extensive curriculum on the riot, the largest of its kind in US history.
These incidents of excused terror come in sharp contrast, both in nature and response, to black led uprisings and riots. The Harlem Riot of 1935 which started in response to the reported severe beating of a black Puerto Rican child by employees of a white owned five and dime is seen to be the first “modern race riot” in the us. It’s claim to modernity? The targets of violence were almost entirely property and the black and brown rioters did not target other racial groups with physical violence as white mobs routinely did. The same can be said for the Birmingham Riots of 1963, which began as a peaceful protest in response to a bombing that targeted black leaders of the Birmingham Campaign for racial justice, and only resorted to property damage after violent police intervention. The demonstrators in Birmingham were met with the force of Federal troops for the first time in history as a result.
Time and again white riotous violence is met with an exclusive understanding and little to no legal recourse while black resistance and calls for justice are met with violently suppressive force and swift, legal brutality. These aforementioned examples are only shards of our complex and distant past, but we can clearly see in their reflection the events of recent decades. And we can see how, after the pressure applied by multilateral black liberation movements and other movements for social, environmental and economic justice forces the world to reckon with it’s wrongs, these struggles are co opted and white-washed into something both placating and palatable. Like Adams, the very individuals and institutions who once discredit, dehumanize and vilify black rebellion inevitably come to champion it to their own benefit. Who but the most openly vile of racists will defame the legacy of Dr. King today, though he was one of the most hated men in the country the years before he died? They will quote him and reduce the vigor of his calls for justice to something they can use against those who rise in his spirit and those of countless black resistors before and after who have suffered, struggled and died at the hands of white violence and whose names are never spoken. Those who suppress, criticize and condemn the rage of a bleeding populace can only rightfully invoke his words asserting “riot is the language of the unheard” when they truly hear, and see their complicity in the words that follow: “…in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”