A name can be so much more than just an identity. Sometimes it can be a calling, or in a way, even a compass guiding you towards the direction of how you will leave your mark in this world.
For Oliver Toussaint Jackson, that mark was to build a lasting legacy for black people in America.
The story of Oliver Toussaint and Colorado’s historic all-Black settlement of Dearfield is very interesting. But this is Black Folklore and our job is to dig a little deeper–to find the story within the story that every great masterpiece encompasses. This is the legendary tale of O.T. Jackson and the Colorado Black ghost town of Dearfield.
O.T. Jackson was born in Oxford, Ohio in 1862. His parents Hezekiah and Virginia Caroline Jackson were former slaves from Virginia who managed to escape the clutches of the Jim Crow South. Although not much is known about O.T.’s parents, who they named their son after says everything you need to know about them.
O.T. was named after the great Haitian general François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture.
Louverture was one of the most prominent and important leaders of the Haitian Revolution in 1791. The former slave helped lead the Haitian enslaved majority in rebel victories over the planter class and thousands of invading French troops. He was also able, through diplomacy, to keep Spain and England from invading the already ravished nation. Louverture was eventually able to conquer the Spanish side of Hispaniola, uniting the entire island and naming himself the governor, creating the world’s first sovereign Black state.
Little did O.T.’s parents know, but naming their son after the Haitian general would guide him for his entire being. Like Toussaint, O.T Jackson was a trailblazer and a pioneer who wanted more for his people. He was also so much more. And as he grew into adulthood so did his legend.
In 1882 the 20-year-old Jackson moved to Cleveland where he worked as a waiter and also wrote for the Cleveland Gazette which was at once one of the longest-running Black papers in the United States.
Even though his parents gave him a forever idol who lived within his name, Jackson yearned to find his own–insert one Booker T. Washington. Washington had just founded the famous Tuskegee Institute and his teachings were very intriguing to Jackson but polarizing to some.
In the late 19th century, Black America was at a crossroads intellectually. Some Blacks believed and followed the teachings of W.E.B Du Bois, and others followed Booker T. Washington. Both were two of the most influential Black men in American history. They each wanted and worked for civil rights for Blacks in America, but had two totally different approaches. (Similar to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.)
Washington promoted self-help and racial solidarity. He believed if Blacks looked to elevate themselves, whites would have no choice but to accept and respect them.
Du Bois on the other hand advocated for political action and social change. He believed Washington’s strategy would only make white oppression worse.
But O.T. Jackson saw things more like Booker T. Washington. He saw true freedom in wealth building and ownership. For Blacks, there was nothing more dangerous than living in a white world. Records show forty-nine Black Americans were known to have been lynched in 1882. (There were probably hundreds more never reported.) Jackson believed Blacks needed their own community away from the despair and racism.
The Tuskegee Institute was a testament to what a motivated Black mind could create and Jackson knew he needed to find a way.
In 1887, the 25 years old Jackson moved to Denver, Colorado, then later Boulder, where he honed in on his instinct for entrepreneurship.
During the time, Colorado was a promising land for Blacks escaping bondage after the Civil War. Whites were afraid of the Native Americans and Asians who occupied the lands, which gave Blacks a unique opportunity to seek refuge and build communities.
Sadly it’s almost impossible to know exactly how O.T. Jackson lived. But it’s fascinating piecing his life together through the many newspaper articles that mention his name. In the 19th century, newspapers were the holy grail for local and national information and Jackson always seemed to be in the mix. While diving through his life I was able to find over 19 different articles in more than 5 different newspapers all praising his accolades–some of which he even wrote himself. The man was a true legend. He bought his first restaurant before he was 30 called the Stillman Cafe, which once boastfully promoted one thousand gallons of ice cream a day for the 4th of July weekend. Some would argue that it was the best ice cream in the state.
A newspaper clipping from the Boulder Daily Camera writes of Jackson buying his first hotel in 1894 called the Brainard Hotel. Despite still being Boulder’s #1 caterer and running the Stillman Cafe, Jackson was now a hotel owner. His name began to ring among the Black communities of Colorado. Who was this slick Black businessman who could never lose?–not even in a footrace.
A fascinating Boulder Daily Camera newspaper clipping from 1896 tells the story of a footrace between O.T. Jackson and another businessman named W.H. Allgeyer. The two wagered a hand full of cigars for the first man to cross the finish line down Pearl street. Legend has it that Jackson, who lost a shoe in the middle of the race, beat Allgeyer so bad that he quit halfway through the race so he could sit on the sidewalk to watch Jackson’s ‘fast-flying soles.’
This race would add to Jackson’s allure.
Not only did his name begin to hold serious weight in the state of Colorado, but so did his boozy parties. The Brainard Hotel frequently had live entertainment and hosted events, making it a popular destination for folks seeking entertainment in the western frontier during the time. In 1907 Boulder banned liquor which devastated the Brainard Hotel. Jackson was forced to sell the hotel, but like losing his shoe during his infamous footrace, he was determined to win regardless of the circumstances.
Even though he had lost his hotel, he understood business and how to maneuver next to the white man. With Booker T. Washington’s ideology pumping through his veins, Jackson set his sights on creating an agricultural settlement for Black folks in America. If he was going to find the resources to make this happen, he needed some political support. In 1908 he worked as a caterer and campaigned for Democratic candidates. Shortly after he was given a messenger’s post in the Colorado governor’s office.
With the dream of a better world for Black Americans as his guide, Jackson 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.
Here he would build what is now known as the Black ghost town of Dearfield, Colorado–but it wasn’t always a ghost town.
When Jackson founded Dearfield in 1910, the land was far from an ideal place to start a community. The desert environment provided little resources needed to support a town, but that didn’t stop Black families from moving to Dearfield and finding a way.
Seven families moved to the newly established Black town in 1910. They built houses out of mud, farmed the land, and survived the brutal winters sheltering in abandoned caves. But the families stuck it out and eventually, the tides began to shift for Dearfield. The world had just begun its second World War, and U.S. involvement would drive up the demand for crops like corn, barley, and potatoes. Dearfield’s agricultural roots would benefit them greatly and money began to pour into the town.
Jackson was also a master promoter. He advertised his Black town in almost every newspaper in Colorado. His advertising helped make Dearfield a destination hub for Black entertainment. Black folks from all over Denver would travel by train to Dearfield for their famous dance hall which had live entertainment almost every weekend. The tourist destination also boasted amazing fishing and hunting, as well as a rodeo.
By 1915, almost 30 Black families lived in Dearfield, Colorado, with a population of around 700 people. The little desert town had a concrete block factory, dance pavilion, lodge, restaurant, grocery store, boarding house, and a baseball team.
But hard times would fall on O.T. Jackson and his beloved Black town. World War II would end and the profits farmers were making from the war would dry up along with the weather. Since Dearfield lacked a proper irrigation system, crops could not grow consistently. The Great Depression also played a huge role in the demise of Dearfield and by 1940 only 12 people were left. Jackson died in 1948, but he never stopped fighting for his community.
The town went virtually untouched for years, leaving the remaining structures decayed and ghostly. Even though there are no ghost stories attached to the town, some call it the creepiest ghost town in Colorado.
But that didn’t stop Black American West Museum from trying to preserve its legacy. The organization purchased the land in hopes to preserve some of its last standing structures and in 1995 they successfully nominated Dearfield to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2010 a small monument was placed by the townsite celebrating the town’s 100th anniversary, but it doesn’t seem like enough. The legend of O.T. Jackson and the Black ghost town of Dearfield deserve so much more.