Descendants of black pioneers discover their biracial history

Aug. 26, 2016, 5:22 a.m. ·

Listen To This Story

One of the most well-known settlements of African American pioneers in Nebraska is DeWitty in Cherry County. But not everyone knows DeWitty’s biracial history – including some of its own descendants.

Charles and Hester Meehan. (Photo credit: Catherine Meehan Blount)

“I've heard that he spoiled her to the point that neighbors were jealous,” said Catherine Meehan Blount, the granddaughter of Charles and Hester Meehan, a couple bound by a love that broke boundaries and still resonates today. Two of the earliest settlers of DeWitty, pioneers who trekked across the plains to build a life in the Sandhills, Charles Meehan was a white Irishman from Detroit and Hester was a black woman born in Canada.

The two met when they were eight or nine years old, said Meehan Blount, who serves as the de facto family historian, and they spent most of their lives together. “For Charles, it was just a natural thing to marry this woman who racially wasn't the same as him but in every other way was the love of his life,” she said.

Charles and Hester were born in 1856, three months apart. They were married in Canada, where interracial marriage was legal though frowned upon. But for reasons that are unclear, they later headed south to Nebraska with three children in tow.

Charles Meehan and his sons. (Photo credit: Catherine Meehan Blount)

The Meehan family went first to Overton in Dawson County. After the Kincaid Act was passed in 1904, they moved north to the Sandhills where they could claim acres of arid land. There, they and a group of other African American pioneers established the settlement of DeWitty. By most accounts, it was a society where segregation didn’t exist, where neighbors leaned on each other and worked together to survive.

But the story of Charles and Hester takes a turn. Their daughter, Annie, was fair. Fair enough to pass as white. Perhaps because she wanted to marry a white man or because she wanted to give up the burden of second-class citizenship, Annie decided to live her life as a white woman. Now, more than a century later, Annie’s descendants are only just finding out their true heritage.

DeWitty, which was later renamed Audacious after its bold, pioneering founders, had a post office, a baseball team and three district schools.

Farming was difficult in the Sandhills, but what ultimately devastated the settlement was the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

DeWitty is not the only African American settlement in Nebraska, but it is known as the largest and most successful.

Dickson recently met his extended family for the first time at a reunion of 60-plus people in Omaha. In a smaller gathering the following day that included Meehan Blount and a number of white, brown and black descendants, the reunited family discussed the impact of the discovery.

Amy Pot, another of Annie’s descendants, said she found out the family secret when she saw a picture on Facebook and recognized her grandmother. She had the same picture, but in her version her grandmother had been cut out. “So I private messaged Catherine, and I said that's my grandma, what's this picture, who are you?” Pot said. “And she said I'm your cousin, and I've been looking for you.”

Not everybody in the family believed or wanted to come to the reunion. For some, the secret lives on. But for Renae Larson, there’s no going back. She said she wants her children to know that race is immaterial. “It’s just a pigment,” she said. “It is not what we are, who we are, where we're going, it's just family.”

An African American church congregation in DeWitty. Charles Meehan can be seen third from the left. (Photo credit: Catherine Meehan Blount)

Pot said it was incredible to think each person in the room was part of the same family but raised with entirely different identities. “It’s the same family,” she said. “Race is a completely false construct, and we need to get over it.”

Each of the family members said they were welcomed with open arms at the reunion. White, black – none of it mattered. Gary Speese, a descendant of a darker-skinned sibling, is an assistant principal at a high school in Minnesota. He said he’s used to searching for common ground among people who don’t look like him. But walking into the family reunion was different. “When you walk in the room, you see smiles and everybody saying, ‘Hey, welcome, good to see ya.’ Man, that changes everything,” he said.

Many in the Meehan family struggled with race over the years, and many lived in both worlds.

Meehan Blount says her father was "white by day and black at night." His chauffeur license listed him as white, but he raised his family as African American.

Anita Powell said her grandmother would visit her white-passing brother in Chicago and go around the back door pretending to be a housekeeper so she could keep their secret safe.

Meehan Blount said for so long she was the only one telling her family’s unique story. But now that her family is back together, she knows others will take it on and keep it going. “This is really just a dream come true for me,” she said. “I like to think that Charles and Hester are smiling because I think this is what they intended for their family.”

For more on our series on African American pioneers in Nebraska, read The Exodusters Who Came to Brownville.