Black Settlers Remembered At Memorial Day Dedication
Imagine the constant Sandhills wind eroding sand away from a secluded cemetery near the Wheeler-Holt County line nearly a century ago. Bits of clothing and bones are left scattered at the discretion of the breeze. That horrible scene is a piece of true Nebraska history.
Local residents discovered the remains in the 1930's.This cemetery belonged primarily to former slaves that homesteaded northern Wheeler County near Goose Lake following the Civil War. The exposed remains were gathered and reburied at Valley View Cemetery south east of O’Neill.
The site of the original cemetery has been lost to time and its elements despite recent searches to locate it. Stanley Lambert recalls a story from his youth about the location of the cemetery. “When Goose Lake got real dry in the early 30’s there wasn’t a hatful of water in it. Around that time is when the bones were found, on island in the lake.” Lambert admits that locating a cemetery on an island sounds far fetched but believes that the story has merit.
Even though there were white burials there too, the original cemetery is often referred to as the Negro Cemetery. It has also been called the Goose Lake Cemetery. Many believe the lost cemetery still contains several burials.
The existence of these black settlers was largely forgotten until the release of Hector’s Bliss, Black Homesteaders at Goose Lake, Nebraska in 2007. The book’s author, Dennis Vossberg of Plainview, worked for two years to produce the historical novel but had heard occasional stories of these vanished black settlers since about 1980. When he learned that a toy pistol had been found at a sod home foundation near Goose Lake he began researching and writing in earnest.
Through the book’s release and the many presentations Vossberg has given across the state interest in the settlers has risen. A fundraising effort began as readers and others began sending financial contributions for the placement of a monument on the unmarked graves of the black pioneers and this finally happened on Memorial Day.
Ninety two year old Charles “Bud” Bartak was on hand at the event. He remembers that his family had one of the black settlers for a while as a hired hand. Bud says “They were hard workers and nobody thought of them as being any different than the rest of us. We all struggled back then and we worked together. Sure they’re gone, but a lot of the whites couldn’t hack it either It’s not just the black folks that pulled up stakes and moved on.”
Bud’s daughter Cathy Palmer and her husband Keith live on land once owned bt Hecotr Dixon, the books main character. Cathy said" “I think it is wonderful to have the graves acknowledged, and I would think almost everyone that lives around here would feel the same way.” says Cathy. She adds “We who live on and love this land have a great respect for life, and for how you treat people when that life comes to an end. Funerals are well attended, cemeteries are taken care of, and the remaining family is cared for.
Dotti Scellin came from Stuart Nebraska; her only connection to the morning event was having read the book. “I read Hector’s Bliss and really liked it. I really admire Vossberg for doing the research to put it together and make this all happen.”
Eileen Watson of Selma Alabama traveled to Nebraska for the dedication. She wasn’t the only one from out of state; visitors came from as far away as Colorado, Texas, Indiana, Florida and Maryland to attend. But Watson’s connection is a special one-several of her ancestors were buried here.
With her son Dean Cloud by her side, an emotional Watson addressed the crowd. She thanked Mr. Vossberg and said her great grandmother had three siblings buried here. “While growing up in Grand Island I heard a lot of stories about my family being farmers out here but I never heard about a great deal of racial tensions so I know that they were welcome out here.”
Vossberg added “It seems improbable that these black pioneers, considering where they came from ended up here and worked along side their white neighbors and were accepted. It was improbable that we have this integrated cemetery. The whole thing is improbable- we had the baseball team in 1900, black and white playing baseball together before Jackie Robinson was even born. This was something the rest of the country had trouble with, here-it was no big deal.
Puzzling many, some in attendance placed oranges at the foot of the marker. It was a reference to a chapter in the book titled “An Orange for Mama” which told of Hector Dixon’s wife Julia being terribly sick. Her sons Charlie and George remembered their mother giving Charlie an orange when he was ill and believed it saved his life. The boys traveled all the way to O’Neill by horse for a single orange, all they could afford.
At the conclusion of the gathering Vossberg remarked “Imagine what these black pioneers would have thought about this. How unlikely it would be that after they lived and struggled and worked out here and then disappeared, that you folks would come out here to recognize the history and the culture that they contributed to this community. And now they’ll never be forgotten.
Alan J. Bartels