African American Settlers

First African American Settler 1855 1 of 3

Jim Shores
Jim Shores near Westerville, Custer County, Nebraska, 1887.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2608-1231

In 1855, Sally Bayne arrived in Omaha and is counted as the first free African American to settle in the Nebraska Territory. Before that, both slaves and free blacks had traveled through on the Oregon trail and settled on the west coast. Gradually, along with whites, blacks stopped and settled in Nebraska. There were 25 African Americans recorded for the 1860 territorial census. And the Homestead Act provided another incentive for settlement.

Suppose you are an African American living in a Southern state after the Civil War ended in 1865. You are a slave no longer. You are free, free to work where you want, free to live where you want. But you also probably have never received an education. You probably have very little money and fewer economic prospects. In addition, by 1877, federal troops are pulled out of the South; and laws segregating blacks from whites are being enacted.

You hear that some black families have moved North where it’s possible to claim free land. Would you join them?

Many did. Nebraska and other western states may have been attractive because there were millions of acres of free land for black farmers to claim. In addition, though there was some slavery early on, Nebraska was known to be a safe haven for blacks, not just tolerant of them.

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