Nicodemus historian Angela Bates and Marilyn Sayers Gray, a descendant of one of the town’s founders who works for the National Park Service, stand in front of Township Hall. More than 5,000 visitors came in 2019 to learn about the only remaining and oldest all-black town west of the Mississippi River that was started at the end of post-Civil War Reconstruction.
“As a tiny community we do great things,” said Nicodemus historian Angela Bates. “Nicodemians don’t understand the word can’t. We’re doers.”
From the ground up: Tiny town in Northwest Kansas has a proud history
[NICODEMUS] In Nicodemus, history is alive. It’s walking around the streets, cleaning out the basement and getting the kids ready for school.
The current residents of Nicodemus are its present and its past, since many of them are descendants of the freed slaves who built the town in the late 1870s.
They know the stories of hardships their ancestors faced on their journey to get there and in surviving those first brutal winters on the plains of Kansas. They also know the stories of their achievements as they built a town that grew and prospered, were elected to political offices and made a life of their choosing.
“I think the story of Nicodemus is worthy of being included into the national history, because it is,” said Angela Bates, founder and executive director of the Nicodemus Historical Society. “It represents what African Americans did with their freedom. Most people don’t know there were African American towns.”
That proud past remains firmly fixed in the present. Local descendants of the town’s early settlers shared the town’s history with the more than 5,000 visitors from across the country and around the world who arrived in 2019 to view exhibits in Township Hall and see the other four buildings that have been designated a National Historic Site.
From slaves to landowners
After the Civil War ended and former slaves had gained their freedom, they found few opportunities in the South. News that an all-black town was being formed in Kansas – which had entered the union as a free state and was the home of abolitionist John Brown – fell on receptive ears during church gatherings in Kentucky.
“The first time African Americans had an opportunity after Emancipation to become real landowners was here in the West,” Bate said. “The activity in terms of homesteading and people moving and settling was here in the West. What was happening in the South was Jim Crow laws.”
The Rev. W.H. Smith, an African American, and W.R. Hill, a white land speculator, were joined by five other black Kansans, some of whom had been slaves in Kentucky, in their efforts to found the Nicodemus Town Company on April 18, 1877, and seek residents for the town.
Recruitment efforts began in Kentucky. Fliers promoting the town included lyrics from a popular Civil War-era song called “Wake Nicodemus” about a slave named Nicodemus who had prophesied a good time coming. The lyrics were altered to indicate that good time would be in the town named Nicodemus.
The fliers, describing Nicodemus as being in “the finest country we ever saw,” went from hand to hand in Kentucky church congregations. By the fall of 1877, about 350 people — the first of three large groups of future residents for the newly formed town — had boarded a train to make the more than 800-mile journey to Ellis. From there, they would have 35 miles to walk.
Pushing former slaves out of the South were poverty, restrictive laws and the threat of lynch mobs. Pulling them to Kansas was land available for homesteading.
Overcoming harsh realities
The wide-open prairie that greeted settlers upon arrival probably left many who were used to the wooded hills and valleys near Lexington, Ky., feeling like they’d made a mistake. There were some who decided to turn back. One of the early settlers said an occasional column of smoke rising from the ground over a dugout home was all that distinguished the townsite from its treeless surroundings.
“But they had vision; they had tenacity; they had determination,” Bates said. “The vision was, ‘OK, we’re here. All we need to do is try to survive, and we’ve got free government land.’”
The first winter was harsh, but everyone survived partly because of the kindness of Osage Indians who shared their game with the people of Nicodemus “at a time when the last Indian raid had not yet taken place in Kansas,” Bates said.
“Some of the people ran down to the river where there were some places in the embankments they used for storage. They ran down there because they thought the Indians were going to kill them, but they just shared their game with them, and that’s how they survived that first year,” she said.
Marilyn Sayers Gray, a descendant of Henry Williams, the first baby born in Nicodemus, said she remembers Williams, who died when she was a teenager.
“I remember living on the farm just past the Solomon River,” she said. “I didn’t appreciate it then like I do now since I’ve learned what the people had to go through in order for us to be here. I have great admiration for them.”
Kim Thomas, a fifth-generation Nicodemus descendant who has served as the mayor of nearby Stockton since 2002, said she had an ancestor who as a young child, went through three Kansas winters without shoes, and others who were killed in a prairie fire.
Stockton – the nearest place to get supplies – had a sundown law that prohibited African Americans from being in the town after dark. A dugout along the 20-mile route served as overnight lodgings for Nicodemus residents traveling late in the day.
Building a community
Dugouts in Nicodemus were replaced by sod homes, and then by limestone and later wood-frame structures. In its heyday, Nicodemus had about 650 residents, and at various times its business district included a bank, four general stores, three grocery stores, four hotels, three pharmacies, two barber shops and two newspapers. The town had a baseball team, a post office and an ice cream parlor.
Education and religion were of primary importance, and the first school in Graham county was established in Nicodemus. There, Bates said 15 to 20 students were taught to read and write using the Bible as their textbook.
Some early residents of Nicodemus served as Buffalo Soldiers, who fought Indians, captured cattle rustlers and thieves and protected stagecoaches, wagon trains and railroad crews. In 1995, the Nicodemus Buffalo Soldiers Association was formed to honor them, and members began participating in historical re-enactments across the country.
“So many of the things the Buffalo Soldiers accomplished went unnoticed,” said Barrie Tompkins, commander and founder of the Nicodemus Buffalo Soldiers Association. “They were the first park rangers for Yosemite National Park. Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Billy the Kid, Pancho Villa – these are people Buffalo Soldiers actually encountered or caught and never got the recognition.”
Buffalo Soldiers from Nicodemus served in the 24th Infantry Regiment and the 9th and 10th Calvary Regiments. The calvary regiments took part in the Battle of Beecher Island.
“Buffalo Soldiers had the lowest desertion rate, the highest enlistment rate, and their alcohol rate was zero because no town would serve them,” Tompkins said. “White soldiers burned their barracks, but every white officer who commanded the Buffalo Soldiers didn’t want to command anybody else.”
Missed the train
Nicodemus began a downward spiral about a decade after it was founded, when efforts to bring the railroad through town were unsuccessful.
A railroad camp about five miles from Nicodemus became the town of Bogue, and “pulled the economic base out of Nicodemus, because that’s where the activity was,” Bates said.
“The merchants from over here literally picked their buildings up or disassembled them and took them over to Bogue,” she said. “People were very discouraged. In those days if you could get the railroad to come to your town, you were assured economic development.”
That blow was followed by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, which forced others to leave Nicodemus in search of work.
Continuing the legacy
However, no matter how small the town got, one weekend a year toward the end of July or first part of August, its ranks would swell as descendants and former residents returned for an annual homecoming and emancipation celebration. This year will be the 142nd celebration, likely to feature a Nicodemus Blues II baseball game, a gospel concert, a parade and several other events.
“When we were growing up, we just couldn’t wait to go back,” said Bates, whose family lived in Pasadena, Calif., at the time. “I used to brag that we have our own all-black town, and all of my friends would say, ‘Yeah, right.’”
Homecoming celebrations in the early 1900s were huge events that competed with the state fair for size. Events included boxing matches, carnival rides and horse races. After Township Hall was built in 1939 as a WPA project, homecoming included roller skating for a time.
Thomas said her great-grandfather hosted emancipation celebration events in a grove of trees south of Nicodemus. Toward the front of the grove sat the church ladies, and in the back were the “sporting people,” who were playing cards and gambling, she said.
“I remember the watermelons cooling in the river,” she said. “My mother hates fudgsicles today because once a vendor came through with them, and they were all melting because he only had one block of ice. She ate so many fudgsicles she would never eat them again.”
The annual gatherings continue to serve as both family reunion and a reminder of the community’s history.
“We’re all related by blood, marriage or sweat,” Thomas said. “Some of us are double cousins.”
Families who own land or property in Nicodemus tend to hold onto it, considering the town an important part of their heritage.
“Nobody wants to sell their lots,” Thomas said. “When you owe late taxes of a dollar or two, they’re not worth anything, but they mean a whole lot to you as a family.”
Bates said even Nicodemus descendants who never actually lived there consider Nicodemus a part of who they are. Some of them, like her, decide to make their home there.
“We have this connection — not just with the place we call home, but with one another – genealogically, because we’re all related,” Bates said. “There’s this closeness that creates a huge integration of many families that make up the family web of Nicodemus. That connection, as well as the physical connection with Nicodemus, is what keeps us going.”
Singing with the choir
In 2019, the National Park Service began seeking bids for renovation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the only building in Nicodemus that the park service owns.
“The aim is for you to literally come in and hear a choir singing and sit in pews so you can feel like you are in an 1885 church,” said Enimini Ekong, NPS superintendent in Nicodemus and program manager at the Brown vs. Board of Education site in Topeka. “Hopefully, it will compel particularly the descendants to go there, and it will be an emotional experience.”
In addition, benefactors have offered funds toward construction of a new visitors’ center, he said. Land donated for the project is currently being evaluated. He said park service officials believe a visitors’ center with permanent displays and a gift shop could be a real “economic engine” in Nicodemus.
A story worth telling
Ekong said the story of Nicodemus is especially relevant in today’s discussions about race and needs to continue to be told. He said it’s also important that new residents continue to add their part.
“We owe it to our forefathers to do better, not only for them but for those little ones running around with pacifiers in their mouths who don’t know that this is hallowed ground,” he said during the homecoming celebration in July 2019. “There would not be a Brown vs. Board of Education if there weren’t a Nicodemus. We know that, and we believe that.
“This pioneering African American community gave other African Americans across this country hope that it is possible for you to have your own, and to excel at having your own, that there wasn’t a need for dependence on a slave master. By the toil of your hands, you could establish something for your children and your children’s children.”
Bates said she worked to get Nicodemus designated as a National Historic Site to ensure that the town’s founders are not forgotten.
“With pure persistence, tenacity, and a strong belief in God, I dedicated seven years of my life to make sure that Nicodemus was designated a National Historic Site, and to tell the world African Americans made a mark in settling the West, and left a legacy that I am proud to be a steward of,” Bates said. “To honor our past and our ancestors, lest we forget.”