Located in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Loft Gallery inside the Nebraska East Union resides Descendants of DeWitty: The Audacious Nebraska Saga. This new photography exhibit reveals what life was like for the African Americans who settled in DeWitty, Nebraska. What makes Descendants of DeWitty even more special is the fact that the curator, Artes Johnson, is a direct descendant of these settlers.

Descendants of DeWitty was compiled by documentary filmmaker and photographer Johnson and celebrates the history of DeWitty during Black History Month. Johnson has made it his life mission to educate as many people as he can about his ancestors and their impact on Nebraska’s history. 

Johnson shared that no student has ever been taught about the entirely African American settlement that was located in Cherry County. DeWitty was a settlement made up of African American homesteaders and existed as an independent village from 1907 to 1936. 

Reshell Ray, UNL’s associate director for Student Leadership, Involvement, and Community Engagement, purposefully chose this exhibition to educate the campus about this important part of the state’s history.

“This is a tribute not only for Black History Month, but also Nebraska history, and that is the most important thing to me about this particular exhibit,” Ray said. “Oftentimes people think of Nebraska as a very heterogeneous state, and yet, there was a black settlement here that lasted for many years.” 

The history of DeWitty is rich and filled with stories of perseverance and community, and it is evident in the photographs in the collection. The first photograph in the series shows the landscape of the shore of Lake Erie in North Buxton.

“Part of my personal goal was to see that we become a part of the curriculum of the state of Nebraska so that all of the kids everywhere learn about Dewitty, Nebraska,” Johnson said. 

Johnson, along with the help of his siblings, the team’s researcher Dr. William Hunt and others have taken this exhibit across the state to various museums. This exhibition consists of the collection of photographs shown in the Loft Gallery, a showing of Johnson’s documentary about this history, a live reenactment of the photographs and a Q&A session to conclude the experience. 

“I wanted to visualize, I wanted to channel what it was like, what they saw when they looked that way, 60 miles across that lake they came from slavery and terror and unbelievable stuff, and now they were over there free,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to think, what did they think when they were standing here looking out at that water.” 

Through the hard work of Johnson and his colleagues, the story of DeWitty has been brought to life. The Loft Gallery has its fair share of different sorts of artwork, but this particular exhibition shows a side of African American history that has been hidden until now. Students are highly encouraged to make a trip to the Nebraska East Union to learn more about their state’s history. The exhibit will be available for viewing until Feb. 28. 

“I think the thing that stood out to me the most for this particular show at this time for Black History month is that you see African Americans dress differently in roles that again aren’t typically talked about,” Ray said. “You know, a black cowgirl on a horse, you know, kids don’t really think about that, you don’t see that. Who shows that, who thinks about that?”