Some were born into slavery. Most were 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 connection, however, 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 seemed like a chance to start fresh and work hard for a plot they could call their own.
Their stories had been relatively untold until uncovered in research over the past decade. And never visually so far.
“Contradictions – Bringing the Past Forward” is a new exhibition by artist Barbara Gothard that opened at the Victor Valley Museum last week.
The installation includes 23 digital paintings printed on raw linen canvas, each depicting a black farmer who worked 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 the planet.
“When Barbara brought this ongoing project to our attention, we immediately recognized the great value of her research and knew there would be a public fascination with this intersection of regional history and art,” said Melissa Russo, director of the San Bernardino County Museum. “It’s truly innovative storytelling, and we’re thrilled to help promote its interpretations through this exhibition.”
Gothard, who is based in Palm Springs, said the inspiration for the project came “by chance”. Three years ago, she was looking for artists in the Mojave Desert when she came across a 2017 article written for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.
The article, written by Joe Blackstock, highlighted an advertisement published 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 intention was to develop a “Tuskegee Institute West,” modeled after the historically black University of Alabama, Gothard said.
“They would recruit African Americans to settle there and then teach them the mining and agricultural elements so that they could become self-sufficient,” she added.
The year the announcement was placed, the Lanfair and two other Mojave Valleys opened up to the farm. Under federal laws first passed in 1862, a person could acquire rights to 160 acres or more of land under certain conditions.
They had to pay a small deposit fee, build a house 10 feet by 10 feet or more, have a certain number of acres under cultivation, and live on the land for three years, according to the National Park Service.
The publicity piqued Gotthard’s interest and with more digging, she eventually became “phone buddies” with Dennis Casebier.
Casebier, who died last year, founded the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association in Goffs, a small community south of the Lanfair Valley.
His pioneering research on black homesteaders included interviewing hundreds of East Mojave residents and their descendants and researching copies of records containing patents or deeds a homesteader would receive once he completed the terms.
Six black families first settled in the area in 1910 where the communities of Lanfair, Maruba and Dunbar were established, the last being specifically for African Americans.
Gothard said while she was surprised to learn that people had left the “comfort” of more sedentary urban areas to settle in a “desert area they knew very little about”, their seemingly drastic decision was also logic.
Many lived in post-war southern areas under post-Civil War reconstruction where racism and acts of violence were still rampant.
“So the concept of a much freer environment that California represented at the time was very appealing,” Gothard said.
However, living in the desert and trying to grow crops was easier said than done.
Although farming families have settled in exceptionally rainy years, the Lanfair Valley typically receives less than 10 inches of rainfall annually.
In six to seven years, drought conditions arrived, Gothard said. Casebier’s research revealed that no black farmers owned wells.
Water for life and irrigation had to be carried miles away. Cattle herders in the area quarreled with the farmers.
And even though a one-room school taught both black and white children, the monthly dances were only open to members who could be “any white person in the valley.” from an article written by Casebier.
Despite the challenges, all of the African Americans who moved to the Valley earned their patents. Casebier noted that this was “remarkable” given that only about 40% of homesteaders nationwide ultimately earned the 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, the Gotthard exhibition at the Apple Valley Museum presents objects recovered from homesteaders: a rusty flask, a cast iron pot, a spit.
Gothard created the art on his iPad. It was then printed on a 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 Lanfair’s lane map, showing the property the farmer settled on as well as the state flower of where they were born.
Along the canvases are displayed the stories of each resident, which give a brief glimpse into their lives.
Seven of the farmers were women. At least two were born into slavery and one was the son of a slave.
Both William H. Carter and Alfred Summers were veterans: Carter served in the Union Army during the Civil War and Summers was in the United States. 10th Army Cavalry Regiment, part of a group of men known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
Gothard – intrigued by the “overwhelming resilience” of homesteaders – hopes the exhibit will shed additional light on the people who traveled 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’s part of our desert history,” she said.
Daily Press reporter Martin Estacio can be reached at 760-955-5358 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @DP_mestacio.