A Civil Conversation: The lessons of Nicodemus, Kansas

One of the few black settlements of the West remains — barely.

 

A Civil Conversation is a new, ongoing series exploring the experiences of African-Americans in the West, in an effort to create more informed public dialog on issues of race and racism. Help support this series.

Four years ago, on my way home from a cross-country trip, I pulled off I-70 at WaKeeney in northwest Kansas and pointed my truck towards Nicodemus National Historic Site. It’s a place I’d yearned to visit for quite a few years.

There, on the open plains, I found the hardscrabble remains of the only black American, post-Civil War Western town still in existence. With a mere 13 residents and a handful of buildings, Nicodemus could hardly be described as thriving. But against all odds, it still exists, along with its compelling story of African-American ingenuity and perseverance.

Exodusters — African Americans who migrated from states along the Mississippi River to Kansas in the late 19th century following the Civil War — in front of a home in Nicodemus, Kansas.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS KANS,33-NICO,1-

These days, as a mean-spirited national argument — largely about who belongs here and who doesn’t — sweeps the country, I’ve been thinking a lot about Nicodemus. How did we African-Americans become viewed, not as Americans deserving of land and opportunity, but as the infamous “other”? How did poor schools, incarceration, and poverty become viewed by so many not as what we endure, but as who we are?

So I’ve come back to Nicodemus, maybe just to shut out the hateful conversation for a while. Maybe to have my faith renewed that we’ve always been a part of America. That America was built on our backs. That there is no slice of America, heroic or shameful, that we haven’t contributed to — including the American West, a place where I have long lived and that I am now on a journey through, hoping to somehow make sense of it all. Starting here.

I grew up on a small dairy farm in New Hampshire. As far as I know, we were one of the only black families in a nearly all-white state. I didn’t dwell on that back then; that would come later. But what struck me four years ago in Nicodemus is what strikes me again today: Looking around at this huge, harsh landscape, I doubt I could have made it as a Nicodemus settler.

A flyer advertises the availability of land in Nicodemus, Kansas, and encourages African-American emigration into the state.
 In 1877, as federal Reconstruction was getting booted out of the South (so that Jim Crow and the newly implemented Black Codes could re-implement a legal form of slavery), two men saw opportunity. W.R. Hills, a white land speculator, and W.S. Smith, a black minister. Through the Homestead Act, they received a 160-acre quarter section from the federal government to start a town for former slaves. For $112 in today’s dollars, folks could buy a town lot. According to the land agent’s brochures, the northwest Kansas frontier was a land of plenty: wild horses for meat, trees for building and shade, an ideal climate. Paradise in the West. And compared to slavery, no doubt it was. But the reality sure didn’t meet the pitch. Imagine getting off the train in Ellis, 35 miles distant, and walking to your new plot of land with few clothes, no firearms or tools, only to find nothing but the harsh, windy prairie.

Willina Hickman recollected her first sighting of Nicodemus in the spring of 1878: “When we got in sight of Nicodemus the men shouted, ‘There is Nicodemus!’ Being very sick, I hailed the news with gladness. I looked with all the eyes I had and I said, ‘Where’s Nicodemus? I don’t see it yet.’ My husband pointed out various smokes coming out of the ground and said, ‘That is Nicodemus.’ The families lived in dugouts! The scenery was not at all inviting, and I began to cry.”

Some would-be settlers fled to Lawrence or Topeka. But most stayed, and in a remarkable few years turned the grasslands into a thriving town. Homes scratched into the ground and covered with dirt became homes aboveground, carefully built from sod. These, in turn, became wood-framed houses, alongside which rose boardinghouses, a hotel, two newspapers, a law office, schools, churches, livery, post office, bank, theater and all the infrastructure that makes a town into a community. Outside town, the people broke prairie into fields for wheat and hay and pasture. Amid the hard work, there were dances, theater, leisure time, camaraderie, faith and pride. Lots of pride. 

The Nicodemus Town Company was formed on April 18, 1877, and had 700 residents by 1878.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS KANS,33-NICO,1-

The pull to possess your own chunk of land has always been a key component of the American dream. No difference here between black and white. But the odds of success are not always even. Nicodemus’ demise follows a familiar arc. In 1888, the railroad bypassed the town in favor of the barely existing town of Hill City, which was sold to white sellers by none other than W.R. Hill. Turns out, Hill was in cahoots with the railroad and persuaded it to run the tracks through his town. The bias against Nicodemus continued with the building of an east-west highway that dipped in a vague horseshoe around the black town. Many businesses in Nicodemus literally dismantled their buildings and moved them to rail towns like Hill City or Bogue. From a population of ­­­­­­­­­about 550 in its heyday around 1885, Nicodemus declined to less then 200 by 1953, when its U.S. Post Office closed.

Today, other than the attractive limestone Town Meeting Hall, which serves as a visitor center, and some of the residences, most of Nicodemus’ buildings are gone. Some lean away from the wind, the paint long worn away from their gray weathered wood. Nicodemus became a national historic site in 1996. Since then, the National Park Service has erected a half-dozen signs that are so worn and weather-beaten they are hard to read, shored up one building, and put a new roof on a small old hotel. That’s it.

Still, as Gill Alexander — who, until his death in September, was the last black farmer and the descendant of a homesteader — says in a film for visitors: “Nicodemus is more of a feeling than a place.” And the feeling I got was one of awe, and of admiration at the hard work and determination it took to create this community. Talk with any descendant, and you will quickly feel the love and the pride that endures. What else could possibly drive Angela Bates, who founded and runs the Nicodemus Historical Society? She has raised enough funds to hire three paid employees, yet only pays herself for 16 of the 60 hours she regularly works.

Angela, a 60-something woman with the energy of someone years younger, was born in Nicodemus. She moved with her parents at age 5 to Pasadena, California. Angela married, had children, divorced, and had several successful careers in many places, East and West. In 1988, while living in Denver, she realized that her hometown was becoming lost to time, so she started the Nicodemus Historical Society. A year later, she moved home. Nicodemus isn’t easy living, so I was surprised at her quick and simple answer when I asked her why she’d come back. “It’s the only place I’ve ever wanted to live.”

I met some of Angela’s younger colleagues, most of whom grew up here after the decline, but when the town could still boast some 20 or 30 residents. They grew misty-eyed and reflective when I asked them about their childhoods. They didn’t remember the hardships. Just the pride and sense of kinship with each other and with their ancestors. This pride is rekindled every year in July when Nicodemus celebrates “Homecoming,” and hundreds of descendants return for a long weekend of memories, reunions and celebration. 

Attendees gather candy during the 138th Nicodemus Homecoming parade in Nicodemus, Kansas, in 2017. Each summer, the town hosts a weekend-long “family reunion” for descendants, whose ties to the community remain strong, even if they live one or many states away.
Jared Soares

What is the meaning of Nicodemus? That question has a lot of answers. Nicodemus reminds me of how hard black Americans have always worked to earn their slice of the American Dream. Of the never-ending perseverance of black Americans in the face of adversity and the foundation of racism this country was built on. Of how quintessentially “American” black Americans are. And of how much more we have in common than not with our fellow white citizens.

These thoughts contrast sharply with the ugly, race-based, hateful words, thoughts and actions that were unleashed in this country following the election of a black man as president. And now we’ve entered an era where the seeds of racial distrust and hatred are being sown intentionally! I meet people almost every day in my ultra-conservative corner of Colorado whose politics are different than mine, but who are kind and good and despise racism. I chalk up their politics to divisive lies told by politicians. 

Our past still divides us. Decades of the politically based “Southern Strategy” playing on white fear ... white animosity ... white resentment. One step forward, three-quarters of a step back. Did Charlottesville really happen in 2017? Or was it 1950? I’m confused and saddened. I can’t even recall the last time I heard, “There but for the grace of God…”

Despite everything, I believe we can move toward rather then away from a union more perfect than the one we’ve got. But we need to remember places like Nicodemus, where pride and community came together on a windy prairie.

In the coming year, I’ll visit many places in the West that have significance to African-Americans, and therefore to America itself. I hope to expand not only my own understanding of this region and country, but to engage us all in a more civil and truthful conversation about race and the history we share. Wandering the nearly deserted streets of Nicodemus, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have been if the builders of the railroad, or the highway, had had the fair-mindedness and courage to run them through an African-American town.

Abraham Lincoln, no lover of African-Americans, understood and believed in something that we have long forgotten: That without equality between the races, we will never be the country we proclaim to the world to be. 

We can do better. We have to.

Wayne Hare is a member of the High Country News board who lives in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Where should Wayne go next?

In the coming year, writer Wayne Hare will visit little or totally unknown places in the West that have significance to African-Americans in an effort to create more informed public dialog on issues of race and racism. Share your thoughts on where he should take the next installment of this series:

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