Dearfield, the community about 24 miles east of Greeley and founded in 1910 as a colony for African Americans, could become Colorado's next national park.

U.S. Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet introduced legislation Thursday to create the Dearfield Study Act, the first step in evaluating its inclusion in the National Park System.

Under the legislation, the U.S. Department of the Interior would conduct a "special research study" to determine its suitability as a national park. 

The colony was founded in 1910 by Oliver Toussaint Jackson, who believed that land ownership was the best path to prosperity for African Americans. He moved to Colorado around 1887, first settling in Denver and running a catering business. He was one of the few African American Democrats during that time and helped elect Democratic Gov. John Shafroth in 1908. For a time, Jackson was the governor's "messenger" – somewhat like a liaison between the governor's office and the General Assembly. 

Jackson acquired 320 acres in Weld County and invited African Americans to homestead. Dearfield's farmers grew corn, melons and squash. The colony grew to 700 residents from 35 states and became a thriving agricultural community that included churches, restaurants, businesses and a hotel.

Dearfield also served as a cultural bridge to the town's white neighbors. One of the early residents, blacksmith Squire Brockman, a fiddler, was so talented that white people would visit Dearfield's dance hall to hear him play and to dance, and hire him for their events.

"You do have some interesting race relations going on," University of Northern Colorado Prof. George Junne, who teaches the Africana Studies Program, said in 2021.

Integration happened in Dearfield long before it came to Denver, he added.

The crash of 1929, compounded with the Dust Bowl, spelled doom for Dearfield. By the 1940s, the population had dwindled to 12. Jackson died in 1948 at the age of 86, and, in 1993, the last remaining resident, his niece, passed away.

Today, some of the few remaining buildings at the colony, which includes a gas station, diner and Jackson’s home, are in poor condition. In 2020, a microburst  took down a building and damaged the roof of Jackson's home.

In 1995, the site was declared a National Historic District. The Black American West Museum now owns it. Supporters, who have been working for decades to restore the site, have sought state funding to restore what's left, which will take about $1 million.

The Dearfield Dream Project is a collaboration among the Black American West Museum, History Colorado and several universities, including the University of Northern Colorado, whose faculty have spearheaded archaeological and historical research on the site for more than three decades. Members of the General Assembly's Capital Development Committee toured the site last year.

State Sen. James Coleman, D-Denver, who took part in that 2021 visit, said that, even as a Denver native, he never learned about Dearfield until he was an adult.

"We learn about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks but not about Oliver Toussaint Jackson," he told Colorado Politics. 

“Dearfield is a testament to Black Americans who shaped Colorado’s history,” Hickenlooper said in a statement. “We must honor their legacy and educate future generations by protecting the Dearfield Homestead.”

“Black history is American history. This bill is a crucial first step in recognizing and preserving the memory of Dearfield, Colorado and Black homesteading in the American West,” added Bennet.

The Bennet-Hickenlooper bill follows efforts by members of Colorado's U.S. House delegation to make the site a national park. Reps. Ken Buck, R-Weld County, Joe Neguse, D-Lafayette, and Jason Crow, D-Aurora, introduced legislation to do so in January.

The bill proposed by Bennet and Hickenlooper would:

  • Evaluate the national significance of the site
  • Determine the suitability and feasibility of designating the site as a unit of the National Park Service
  • Consider other alternatives for preservation and protection, if applicable
  • Consult with relevant federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofits, and private organizations
  • Identify cost estimates; and
  • Report to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee the results of the study and any recommendations within three years

"Preserving Dearfield for current and future generations is integral to a better understanding of the unique and relatively unknown African American experience on Colorado’s eastern plains, and this work is also a bridge that can connect us toward a fuller, more representative story of our nation," said Tracy Coppola, the Colorado Senior Program Manager of the National Parks Conservation Association.

This effort follows the success of the bipartisan Amache National Historic Site Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in March 2022.

Led by Hickenlooper, Bennet, Neguse, and Buck, the Amache National Historic Site Act established Camp Amache, a former Japanese American incarceration facility outside of Granada, as part of the National Park System.

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