Oliver Toussaint Jackson had a dream when he founded Dearfield on the high plains of Colorado: to create a self-sustaining settlement free from racism for Black people and their children to live. At a time when Black families found it difficult to buy property in Denver areas in Colorado, Jackson was able to persuade Black families in Denver, where the majority of the state’s Black population lived, to move to Dearfield in the 1910s.
Soon, Dearfield became a thriving farming community that was home to a few hundred Black residents. Today, Dearfield is a ghost town. Sadly, what was one of Colorado’s most successful all-Black towns is now left with a few empty wooden houses and a plaque.
“It’s hard to look around today and see that fertile farmland when you’re kicking cactus and sagebrush,” professor George Junne of the University of Northern Colorado, who has done many studies about the town, was quoted by USA Today. “Dearfield, at the time, was the most famous black agricultural community in the United States,” he said.
Jackson, born in Ohio in 1862 to former slaves, was named after the Haitian Revolution General François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture. Like Louverture, who led one of the greatest wars of independence and whose destiny it was to deliver the slaves and people of Saint Domingue, now Haiti, Jackson’s mission was also to deliver his fellow Blacks from poverty and hardship to enable them to control their own livelihoods.
From Ohio where he was born, he moved to Colorado with his wife in 1887 and worked for a newspaper before becoming an entrepreneur, owning a restaurant and hotel. He later founded Dearfield in 1910 inspired by the writings of Booker T. Washington, especially his 1901 biography “Up From Slavery”. Washington, born a slave, preached a philosophy of self-help, racial solidarity and accommodation, according to a report by PBS.
“He urged blacks to accept discrimination for the time being and concentrate on elevating themselves through hard work and material prosperity…This, he said, would win the respect of whites and lead to African Americans being fully accepted as citizens and integrated into all strata of society,” the report added.
With this ideology, Jackson decided to build an agricultural settlement for Black people to thrive. But he needed political power to be able to get the resources to do so. Thus, he began working as a messenger in the office of the Colorado governor. He convinced the governor to help him file a claim through the Homestead Act of 1909, on 320 acres of desert land in Weld County, Colorado, according to historians. And that is where he built Dearfield.
This was a time when the federal government was urging settlers onto the plains. Scores of Black towns appeared suddenly on the plains. It was tough for the first Black families that moved to Dearfield as harsh winter conditions almost claimed their lives in their first year. But they persevered, first building houses out of mud while farming the land and surviving the unfavorable weather by sheltering in abandoned caves.
Things started getting better for Jackson and the Black families in Dearfield as World War I began. With the increased demand for crops like potatoes, corn, and barley, Dearfield, being an agricultural community, was there to meet those demands. The Black town boomed. More structures were built. Women and children worked the farms while the men often went to work in Denver as porters, cooks, messengers, and janitors.
By 1915, about 30 Black families lived in Dearfield, and the town had almost 700 people. It had a school, two churches, a filling station, a boarding house, a restaurant, a grocery store, a concrete block factory, a baseball team and a dance hall. Thanks to advertisements made about the town by Jackson in newspapers in Colorado, the town, especially its dance hall, attracted a lot of Black people from Denver. It became a site for Black entertainment.
But Dearfield’s success was short-lived owing to several factors. Low prices for agricultural products after the war affected farmers in the town. The brutal drought of the 1930s and the Great Depression also brought the town to its knees. Only 12 people remained in Dearfield by 1940. Jackson passed away in 1948 but not without doing all he could to fight for his community.
“Dearfield is the place!” says a poster by Jackson from 1931 promoting the town. “Located about 70 miles east of Denver on the Lincoln Highway 38, this little town is the ideal spot for a summer outing. … You can order dinner in advance by phoning Weldona 68-R-5, and it will be ready when you arrive.”
Today, apart from the plaque celebrating the town and the few wooden houses, there is also the partially restored Dearfield Lodge, also known as the Jackson Family House, which was built in 1917. People including organizations are also working to preserve and restore what is left of the ghost town.
The Black American West Museum, which now owns the land and buildings, successfully nominated Dearfield to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.