Some had been born into slavery. Most hailed from southern states that had fought on the side of the Confederacy. At least one man had served in the Union Army.
The most common tie, though, among the 23 African Americans was their decision to settle in a remote, arid valley in the eastern Mojave Desert during the first half of the 20th century.
The choice appeared to be a chance to start anew and work hard for a plot they could call their own.
Their stories had been relatively untold until being unearthed in research in the past decade. And never visually until now.
“Contradictions – Bringing the Past Forward” is a new exhibit from artist Barbara Gothard that opened at the Victor Valley Museum last week.
The installation comprises 23 digital paintings printed on raw linen canvas, each representing a Black homesteader who toiled in the Lanfair Valley, a remote area near the California-Nevada border, now encompassed by the Mojave National Preserve.
Their hard work eventually earned them ownership of land in one of the most unforgiving environments on earth.
“When Barbara brought this current project to our attention, we immediately recognized the great value in her research and knew that there would be public fascination in this intersection of regional history and art,” said Melissa Russo, director of the San Bernardino County Museum. “This is truly innovative storytelling, and we are thrilled to help promote her interpretations through this exhibition.”
Gothard, who is based in Palm Springs, said the inspiration for the project came “by way of serendipity.” Three years ago, she was researching artists in the Mojave Desert when she stumbled across a 2017 article written for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.
The piece, penned by Joe Blackstock, highlighted an advertisement posted in a Los Angeles newspaper in 1910 with the headline, “An Appeal to Colored Men.”
The ad was posted by the Eldorado Gold Star Mining Company, an organization owned by African Americans.
Their intent was to develop a “Tuskegee Institute West,” modeled after the historically Black university in Alabama, Gothard said.
“They would recruit African Americans to settle there and then they would teach them the mining and agricultural elements so they could become self-sustainable,” she added.
The year the ad was placed, the Lanfair and two other Mojave valleys opened to homesteading. Under the federal acts first adopted in 1862, a person could earn rights to 160 acres or more of land with certain conditions.
They had to pay a small filing fee, build a house 10 feet by 10 feet or larger, have a certain number of acres under cultivation and live on the land for three years, according to the National Park Service.
The advertisement piqued Gothard’s interest and with more digging, she eventually became “telephone buddies” with Dennis Casebier.
Casebier, who died last year, founded the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association in Goffs, a tiny community south of Lanfair Valley.
His pioneering research into the Black homesteaders included interviewing hundreds of east Mojave residents and their descendants and finding copies of files with patents, or deeds, a homesteader would receive once they fulfilled the terms.
Six Black families first moved to the area in 1910 where the communities of Lanfair, Maruba and Dunbar were set up, the last specifically being for African Americans.
Gothard said while she was surprised at learning the people had left the “comforts” of more settled, urban areas to move to a “desert area about which they knew very little,” their seemingly drastic decision was also logical.
Many lived in areas of the postbellum south under Reconstruction after the Civil War where racism and acts of violence were still rampant.
“So the concept of a much more free environment that California represented at the time was very appealing,” Gothard said.
Living in the desert and trying to grow crops was easier said than done, however.
Although the homesteading families moved in during unusually rainy years, the Lanfair Valley typically receives less than 10 inches of precipitation per year.
Within six to seven years, drought conditions arrived, Gothard said. Casebier’s research found that no Black homesteader owned a well.
Water for living and irrigation had to be transported from miles away. Cattle ranchers in the area feuded with homesteaders.
And though a one-room schoolhouse taught both Black and white children, monthly dances were only open to members who could be “any white person in the valley,” according to an article written by Casebier.
Despite the challenges, all the African Americans who moved to the valley earned their patents. Casebier noted that this was “remarkable” considering only about 40% of homesteaders nationwide ultimately obtained title before the program ended.
People eventually left the Lanfair Valley and after 1946, there were no permanent residents.
In addition to the 23 paintings, Gothard’s exhibit at the museum in Apple Valley features items recovered from the homesteaders: A rusty flask, a cast iron pot, a brooch.
Gothard created the art on her iPad. It was then printed on specially primed linen canvas that took several months to find, an intentional decision by the artist who wanted the texture to be seen and not framed behind glass.
The paintings each feature a replica of the Lanfair tract map, showing the property the homesteader settled on along with the state flower from the place they were born.
Displayed along the canvases are the histories of each resident, which provide a brief glimpse into their lives.
Seven of the homesteaders were women. At least two were born into slavery and one was a son of a slave.
William H. Carter and Alfred Summers were both veterans: Carter served in the Union Army during the Civil War and Summers was in the U.S. Army’s 10th Cavalry Regiment, part of a group of men known as Buffalo Soldiers.
Gothard — intrigued by the homesteaders’ “inordinate resilience” — hopes the exhibit casts further light on people who traveled from across the country to live in an inhospitable place and subsisted to call it their own.
“That’s my goal is for people to hear about their untold stories because it is part of our desert history,” she said.
Daily Press reporter Martin Estacio may be reached at 760-955-5358 or MEstacio@VVDailyPress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DP_mestacio.