Ep: 001 Following the Civil War after the Reconstruction era, many former slaves had grown disillusioned over integration and decided their only hope for freedom was to establish their own communities. In 1879, 15,000 African-American's moved to Kansas within one month based on a rumor the government was giving free land to former slaves.
This is the story of Nicodemus, Kansas, the first all black town West of the Mississippi and the only one remaining. Angela Bates, the founder and executive director of the Nicodemus Historical Society joins me to tell their story.
Nicodemus Kansas Historical Society Website
Nicodemus Kansas Homecoming & Emancipation Celebration Website
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Brad Shreve: Hello, this is History Brief’s, where you’ll hear bits of history you may know little or nothing about. You don’t know what you’ll get each week, but you do know it will be brief. I’m your host Brad Shreve.
[00:00:15] When I was in college, I did a strange thing. I wasn’t a history major or even taking a history class, but I was fascinated by land speculation in the plain states that became popular not long after the civil war. I devoured books on the subject.
[00:00:34] You may be surprised to learn much of the west was settled through the efforts of land speculators. They sold parcels of land to people back east using tract maps and drawings of beautiful towns and cities with impressive city squares, and government buildings. Most emphasized back alleys which were coveted at the time, as well as roads wide enough a carriage can be [00:01:00] turned around in the middle of the street. It wasn’t uncommon for these “cities” to be touted as likely to become the next United States capital since the government would certainly move it to a more central location since the country had expanded.
[00:01:17] People bought their land, headed west, and found their lots were nothing more than stakes in the ground surrounded by dozens of other stakes in the ground. Those cities on paper were just that. Cities on paper. I’ll likely do an entire episode about this era, but today I’m going to focus on one part of this exodus west. Something I never learned in those history books. Despite my many hours of research I never heard of the all-black towns built and settled after the reconstruction period.
[00:01:52] I would still be ignorant of this mostly-forgotten, important piece of history, had I not stumbled on the story of [00:02:00] Nicodemus, Kansas. Of an estimated 60 or more black farm communities built during the later half of the 1800’s, Nicodemus is the oldest and only remaining black settlement west of the Mississippi.
[00:02:12] I’ll stop here and roll back in time to the state of affairs of that era, which led to the creation of these towns settled by folks with hopes of a better life.
[00:02:26] During the Civil War Lincoln had some ideas on how to bring the Southern states back into the Union. They weren’t all that harsh. Others considered the “Radical Republicans” thought Lincoln’s ideas were too lenient. They wanted the south to be punished and had their own ideas on how to reconcile the issue. Before having the opportunity to implement any plan, President Lincoln was killed after General Lee surrender. The country was in turmoil, and it sucks the President only had 6 days to enjoy [00:03:00] knowing the war is over, knowing full well another battle had begun.
[00:03:04] So, now Lincoln’s dead, Vice President Andrew Johnson is sworn in to replace him and a whole lot of political fighting goes on about what to do about the south and the sudden freedom of 3 million slaves. The Reconstruction era begins.
[00:03:21] Reconstruction ran from 1865 – 1877, and Congress officially passed the Reconstruction Act in 1867. It can’t be denied some monumental decisions were made during that era. The 13th amendment abolishing slavery was ratified. The 14th amendment was ratified granting citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States,” including formerly enslaved persons, and equal protections of the law. In addition, the 15th amendment was ratified prohibiting the states from restricting the right to vote because of race. As I said, these were monumental, but it wasn’t as easy as all that. The entire political [00:04:00] process during this era, including Johnson becoming the first president to be impeached, is fascinating stuff and I encourage you to study it, but I’ve pretty much said all I’m going to say regarding the political side of things and get to what’s important: How it affected the people? Slavery ended, racial inequality did not.
[00:04:22] Those amendments were great on paper, but they left omissions and loopholes the southern states took full advantage of.
[00:04:29] Reconstruction was a difficult time, but there was some progress. Around 2,000 African American’s held public office. 16 served in the U.S. Congress. These were tremendous changes but did not reflect the treatment of most blacks during this era. The highest number of blacks elected to office was in 1877.
[00:04:49] After the Reconstruction, awe’ve learned from the civil rights act of 1964, and the legalization of marriage equality in 2015, laws to protect marginalized people are [00:05:00] great, but they don’t necessarily change people’s hearts and minds. They certainly didn’t during the years after the civil war. African Americans still faced abuse, racism, poverty, and hunger. Laws were enacted, especially in the south, to ensure that things stayed that way for the newly freed slaves. I can’t speak what was in the minds of future residents of Nicodemus, but there was widespread disillusionment throughout the black population, leading to the belief that integration wasn’t possible. It was never going to happen. Their only hope of improving their lives was to accept the reality of the situation and create their own communities. Many found the best way to do that was to move west. Some took advantage of the 1862 homestead act to claim 160 acres of land. Others had bigger dreams. The drive to build entire communities, towns, and cities for African American people.
[00:05:58] As soon as [00:06:00] Reconstruction ended Jim Crow laws Black Codes brought slavery back to life in a legal form. It was 1877 when two men seized the opportunity to develop a new community.
Angela Bates: It was conceived. , By a white man named wr hill, who was the town speculator and a railroad? Um, , I won't say he was a partner, but he coordinated with the railroad to get people to take excursions to the west, uh, west of Topeka
That’s Angela Bates, the founder and past president of the Nicodemus Historical Society.
WR Hill Met a black man by the name of, , wh Smith and convinced him to go into partnership with him. They went to Topeka, Kansas and met, , four or five other ministers. And they all collaborated and created the Nicodemus town company and set out to establish the town on 160 acres on the north side of the Solomon river in [00:07:00] Graham county, let's say planted the town.
[00:07:02] They decided that they need you to go back home to Kentucky for, uh, most of the ministers. , Smith's , also he was from the, , Tennessee area. So they went back home to solicit people in Kentucky to actually migrate out and literally settle Nicodemus listen, and they would assist them, , on establishing homesteads.
Brad Shreve: Back in Kentucky and Tennessee they went to the churches. Because of the Jim Crowe laws, the only place African Americans meet in large groups was at church.
[00:07:35] They distributed flyers about Nicodemus touting All Colored People who Want to go to Kansas can do so for $5.00. One flyer posted in April of 1877 proclaimed Nicodemus is beautifully located on the north side of the south fork of the Solomon River designed as a Colored Colony. Many were taken in by the promise by September 1st, just 5 months [00:08:00] later, the colony will have houses erected and all branches of mercantile business will be opened out to the benefit of the colony. Further it promised a church edifice and other public buildings will be erected. Further no saloons or other houses of ill-fame will be allowed on the town site within 5 years. They invited Colored friends of the nation to the beautiful promised land. W.R. Hill described a sparsely settled territory with abundant wild game, wild horses that could be tamed, and an opportunity to own land.
[00:08:35] By late summer 308 train tickets were sold and the dreamers traveled west.
Angela Bates: They actually came by rail the Cincinnati Southern open day rail line, in September.
[00:08:46] And so they went to the midway area right in and around Lexington and Georgetown got on the trains, took them to Cincinnati, then got on trains that brought him west all the way [00:09:00] to a town called Ellis. And Ellis is literally about 35 miles, almost straight to. Um, of where Nicodemus was.
Brad Shreve: It took the 300 of them two days to reach Nicodemus by foot.
[00:09:13] When they reached their new town, they found it was nothing like they’d been told.
Angela Bates: it was very disheartening for them. And then the second group came, , several months later in the spring and in that group, Reverend Daniel Hitman, , and, , Most of the congregation from his church, , which was the Mount of olives church. They're right outside of Georgetown, they came and, uh, when he and his wife got side of Nicodemus, she said, she looked with all our eyes and she still couldn't see Nicodemus.
[00:09:48] And they pointed out the smoke coming out of the ground and the distance said that was Nicodemus. And when they got on the town side, she was saying she [00:10:00] just sat down and cry. Uh, she was so shocked. You know, the, the living conditions that they were going to have to subject themselves to, but they had vision.
Brad Shreve: What Reverend Hickman’s wife, Willianna, saw was not a bustling town, but homes built in dugouts along the Soloman River. During their first winter they were met with harsh weather and a lack of supplies and money. Some only survived with gifts of food and firewood given by the Osage Indians. Disheartened, many moved to nearby cities such as Topeka or moved back to Kentucky and Tennessee,
[00:10:38] but most didn’t lose hope and began to farm the soil when winter passed. That Spring more settlers arrived.
[00:10:46] Through grit and faith, the town survived.
[00:10:49] The population figures are murky, but within 10 years historians placed the bustling farm town’s population from 500 – 700 people. The town boasted a bank, a doctor’s [00:11:00] office, two druggists, two hotels, numerous churches, two newspapers, a drug store, four general stores, and an ice cream parlor.
[00:11:08] As the country grew, one important thing the town didn’t have was a railroad. To encourage railroads to run through Nicodemus, the town approved a $16,000 bond to encourage one to pass through Nicodemus.
Angela Bates: The community continued to grow. And then the railroad bypass did in about 1885. They had raised the volume. Uh, to secure the railroad, which was about $16,000 in bond money. But a railroad bypass and they could he miss by about four miles and the little town of Boag, which is where I actually live, which is about four miles west and one mile south of Nicodemus.
[00:11:48] . And when that happened, all the business activities, started to move and concentrate in the railroad town of boat, which total the economic base out of Nicodemus. And, [00:12:00] as some that point onward, Nicodemus has started to go into a downward spiral.
Brad Shreve: While some businesses disassembled their buildings and the town began its decline, though not as fast as one would expect. Its population struggled but hung on but got a major blow when the Depression began in 1929 and many younger residents left town.
[00:12:22] The dust bowl further devastated the town and the population reduced to only 76, most buildings were gone and only one church remained.
[00:12:32] Today Nicodemus is small, but it survives, and due to much effort by Angela Bates and others, it looks like it will go on.
Angela Bates: I worked seven years to get Nicodemus as designated as national historic.A unit of the national park service. And it took an act of Congress that got passed. in 1996, signed off by president, Clinton. So Nicodemus, , represents what African-Americans did with their freedom. These were [00:13:00] black towns that dotted the west. All of them are gone, , except for the. Nicodems assist still, , surviving. We have about 23 residents right now,
Brad Shreve: The National Park Service is located in the Nicodemus Town Hall built in 1939 and is open 5 days per week.
[00:13:18] Why does Nicodemus continue to survive? Many credit the annual Emancipation and Homecoming celebration held for 143 years which brings in several hundred people to the small village.
[00:13:29] There may only be a few people left in the town, but the hope and spirit of the founder’s caries on.
[00:13:38] Many thanks to Angela Bates, the founder and executive director of the Nicodemus Historical Society. I’ve included a link to the historical society’s website, as well as the one for the Nicodemus Homecoming & Emancipation Celebration.
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