Discover the Kansas Town Settled by Black Homesteaders in the 1870s
Nicodemus, Kansas, sits many miles from anywhere, yet it’s at the heart of the American story. The barely there community on the High Plains has all of 18 residents, according to the United States Census Bureau. It contains a limestone township hall that serves as a visitor center most of the year, a Baptist church with a small congregation, and a scattered handful of homes that, on the snow-blanketed day I visited, were as still and quiet as the winter fields surrounding the town.
In a small park on the edge of Nicodemus, and elsewhere in the tiny town, interpretive National Park Service signs testify to its significance. “We are the oldest and only remaining all-black town that was established west of the Mississippi River just after Reconstruction,” says descendant of original settlers Angela Bates, tidily summing up the narrative.
Nicodemus was one of many communities founded largely by formerly enslaved people in the late 19th century, as part of a westward migration of African Americans. But this small town’s story is also a fundamental part of several larger stories Americans have told about themselves to explain who we are, stories central to the ever-evolving American identity.
If you believe the American story is one of people seeking freedom and the right to live their lives on their own terms with a fair chance to pursue success and happiness, then the thousands of newly freed people who struck out to Kansas and other parts of the Great Plains as Jim Crow rose in the South present a microcosm of that story.
If you see the American story as one of a restless people always moving westward in search of land to call their own, who endured tremendous hardship, then the African American settlers who traveled hundreds of miles to reach a place where they had to dig their first homes out of the earth itself are as true an example as you could find.
If you believe the American story is one of a slow, often torturous road toward an ever-broadening concept of who belongs, who should be allowed to share equally in the dream, then Nicodemus and the other historically all-black towns west of the Mississippi River are an essential chapter in that story.
Three foundational narratives are a lot to hang on a very small town in Kansas, I know, especially one barely hanging on itself. But Nicodemus, designated a National Historic Site by an act of Congress in 1996, is part of all these narratives. Perhaps as importantly, it survives today, housing descendants of the original settlers who are eager to share its story and have hopes for how its historic buildings can be preserved for the future.
The great westward migration of Americans in the 19th century—encouraged by the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted 160 acres of public land for a small fee to anyone who could stake a claim and live there for 5 consecutive years—was essential to that era’s version of the American Dream. But for African Americans, the move west was tied to the death of another dream.
This dream was the idea, following Emancipation, of a racially equitable and welcoming society, across the South in particular. That idea died with the end of Reconstruction, the federal government’s effort to impose racial equality on the former states of the Confederacy, in 1877.
The government’s retreat would lead to a brutal re-imposition of white supremacy. Black politicians who had been elected were thrown out, and new, all-white legislatures in the South passed Jim Crow laws segregating blacks from whites in nearly every public place.
The stripping away of the rights of black Americans is a bigger story than fits here, but one statistic cited by historian Jill Lepore in her 2018 book These Truths: A History of the United States captures the impact: “In Louisiana, black voter registration dropped from 130,000 in 1898 to 5,300 in 1908 and to 730 in 1910.”
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The subjugation of Americans only recently freed from slavery was enforced through a reign of terror unparalleled in the nation’s history. A 2017 study by the Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America, documented 4,084 lynchings of black people in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950. (Although less frequent in the North and West, racist public murders occurred across the United States.)
Kentucky had 169 of those lynchings. Most were still in the future when, in the spring of 1877, W.R. Hill and S.P. Roundtree appeared at an African American church in Georgetown (east of Louisville) to promote the idea of homesteading in western Kansas. But the audience listening that night must have seen which way things were headed as they heard Hill spin a tale of the bountiful and, most importantly, free life that awaited them in the land surrounding what would be a new, all-black town: Nicodemus.
Hill, a white land speculator, partnered with W.H. Smith, a black minister, to promote the creation of Nicodemus and a nearby white community, Hill City (which he named after himself). The pair worked with five other black ministers, including Roundtree, to spread the word. Hill told quite a tale. The area, he said, had plentiful timber for building, abundant game for hunting, ample rainfall, and incredibly fertile soil. There was even a herd of wild horses that could be tamed to pull plows and wagons.
Almost none of it was quite as promised, but for one thing: There was land—lots of it, just waiting for homesteaders. Quintard Taylor, a professor of history emeritus at the University of Washington, points out that in the 19th century the United States was still primarily a nation of farmers. Economic and political power were tied, in the popular imagination, to land ownership. Many African Americans “had come to believe that the only way they could have true freedom was to have ownership over a piece of land,” he says.
In relatively short order, the first black homesteaders from Kentucky were boarding a train and heading toward Kansas, motivated by what Angela Bates describes as a powerful combination of “pull-push” factors. “What motivated people to come? The land. What motivated them to leave? The violence and Jim Crow,” she says.
The same thing was happening across much of the South. Nobody knows exactly how many African Americans packed up their few belongings and headed west, but the number is in the tens of thousands.
African Americans founded towns from the Southwest to the Northern plains: Blackdom, New Mexico; Boley, Oklahoma; Empire, Wyoming; Dearfield, Colorado; DeWitty, Nebraska; a community in Sully County, South Dakota. Some were started in the immediate aftermath of Reconstruction, some later, but all carried a hope that the residents would be able to shape their own future.
Taylor says they also reflected a hard-won assessment of their country. “In the 1870s, even into the 1930s, most black people did not believe America would ever desegregate or integrate, so they took up the idea—with towns like Nicodemus, or going to the South Side of Chicago or Harlem—that since we knew we were going to be segregated, wouldn’t the better destiny be to control our own towns?”
Kansas was particularly attractive to black homesteaders. “Kansas, remember, was the most Republican state in the country then,” Taylor says, “and the Republican Party meant freedom at that time.”
What they found was something else. “Kansas was depicted as the land of milk and honey, and those who arrived didn’t see a cow that would provide milk, and they definitely saw no bees for honey,” says Enimini Ekong, superintendent of the Nicodemus National Historic Site.
The experience of Willianna Hickman, who came from that Georgetown, Kentucky, church, captures the harsh reality. About 150 members of the church traveled first by train and then, for two days, on foot toward Nicodemus. Measles swept through the children in the group, and one died. They were the second group of settlers to arrive and expected to find a functioning town waiting for them.
Hickman, by then ill herself, recounted their arrival for the Topeka Daily Capital: “I looked with all the eyes I had. ‘Where is Nicodemus? I don’t see it?’ 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.”
Houses dug out of the earth or constructed of sod above ground were the early norm. Plentiful timber was nonexistent, and the abundant game animals began to migrate as soon as settlers arrived. “I think that’s where the story of resilience and perseverance is truly established,” says Ekong, “because at any point, they could have said, ‘Oh my God,’ and left.”
Some did. Many stayed, Hickman among them. Seeing the degree of hardship the early Nicodemus settlers faced, other settlers in nearby communities and members of the Osage tribe helped out with food. By 1881, Nicodemus’ population had stabilized at about 275. The town boasted general stores, hotels, livery stables, a doctor’s office, and the Bank of Nicodemus.
Long-term prosperity, as it did for most towns in the Great Plains, depended on the arrival of the railroad. Nicodemus thought it was in good shape to get one of three lines passing through the area. In particular, the natural route of the Union Pacific seemed to take it through Nicodemus. But the railroad ultimately jogged, crossed the Solomon River, and ended up more than 5 miles southwest, where a community named Bogue eventually sprung up.
Nicodemus’ brief boom came to an end; the population tumbled. Across the West, other black communities faced similar challenges. Great Plains settlement was a tough proposition regardless of race, and the African American towns started with fewer financial resources than most. Those that survived into the 20th century were largely blown away by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.
Today, Blackdom and DeWitty are remembered by roadside historical markers. (Descendants of Blackdom’s settlers still live there, but none of the original buildings are left.) A small cemetery is all that remains of Empire. In Dearfield, a National Historic District, a local preservation group is working to maintain a handful of abandoned buildings, including a blacksmith shop and the home of founder Oliver Toussaint “O.T.” Jackson.
George Junne, an Africana studies professor at the University of Northern Colorado, is part of the effort to preserve Dearfield’s buildings. He and about 30 other people gathered in November of 2019 for a “Dearfield Day” and worked to protect and stabilize the surviving structures, covering doorways and windows with strong plastic sheeting to shield them from vandals.
Other efforts to preserve the history of Western black towns are underway. With the help of a $50,000 grant provided in 2018 by the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska is helping to establish a digital archive and historical markers as part of its Black Homesteaders Project. The public archive, hosted by the National Park Service, will contain photos, oral histories, maps, and short biographies relating to Nicodemus, Dearfield, Blackdom, DeWitty, Sully County, and Empire, gathered by descendants and scholars. The historical signage is for Sully County and Empire, and both markers are slated to be installed this spring or summer.
Still, the physical remnants of the towns are fast disappearing, and preserving them is a daunting task. Saving what remains of Dearfield would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Junne says. Yet he considers the effort essential. “Having something physical that people can see keeps the memory of Dearfield, and places like Dearfield, alive,” he says.
Bates, who runs the Nicodemus Historical Society & Museum, has also been frustrated at the slow pace of restoration for the historic buildings in the town’s National Historic Site. The limestone Township Hall has been restored by the National Park Service, but the other structures—the Old First Baptist Church, the A.M.E. Church, School Building District One, and the St. Francis Hotel and Post Office—are largely disused and in various states of disrepair. Ekong notes that, of these, the Park Service only has ownership of the A.M.E. Church. “We are in the process of restoring it,” he says, “and hope to have 50 percent of the work done this summer.”
The schoolhouse, the Old First Baptist Church, and the St. Francis Hotel and Post Office all remain in private hands, he says, which limits what the Park Service can do. Still, Ekong admits progress has been slow, held back by the agency’s tight budget and $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog. He says the Park Service remains committed to the site: “As long as I’m superintendent, the goal is to elevate the significance of Nicodemus to anyone and everyone.”
Its significance is indisputable. A few black towns that started later, such as Boley, Oklahoma, survive today as functioning communities. But for those founded by the wave of post-Reconstruction homesteaders, Nicodemus stands alone as the last with permanent residents.
Every year in late July, Nicodemus’ quiet streets are suddenly crowded and full of life. For more than 140 years, the town has held an Emancipation/Homecoming Celebration that brings hundreds of descendants and former residents back to northwestern Kansas.
They stay in campgrounds, motels, and cabins in the surrounding area. They come to enjoy themselves, but also to embrace a proud heritage. The event is open to anyone, but most of those who show up have a connection to the town. They are drawn back by familial ties, by the chance to catch up with loved ones and celebrate the continued existence of Nicodemus and all it represents.
That legacy is on display at the visitor center in the Township Hall. On the winter day I visited, two descendants, LueCreasea Horne and Marilyn Sayers Gray, showed me around. Horne shared the stories of different settlers who stared out from large black-and-white photos that ringed the hall. One that particularly captivated me showed Lulu Craig, who was only 11 years old when her family arrived but was one of the few early homesteaders who could read and write. “She was the chronicler of what happened in the early days,” says Horne.
It’s easy to think of Nicodemus and the long-gone black towns as historical curiosities, interesting social experiments that finally failed. But Jacob Friefeld, a former research fellow at the Center for Great Plains Studies who worked on the Black Homesteaders Project, feels that misunderstands the goals of the original settlers.
“In almost all the communities, there was a huge focus on finding a safe place where they could educate their children,” he says. A descendant in DeWitty, Friefeld notes, told him the town “accomplished what it was meant to. It allowed them to educate their children so they could go off and accomplish things elsewhere.”
Gray is a great-granddaughter of the first child born in Nicodemus. “I was able to know my great-grandfather,” she says. “I was a teenager when he died.” Like Horne and Bates, she grew up and lived elsewhere, but was drawn to Nicodemus. When I asked them why, they cited childhood memories of visiting and the pull of the wide-open country, the way the broad horizons and spare, boldly drawn landscape can steal into your heart.
But as we talked, I sensed something more, some fundamental connection that seemed to escape words. Nicodemus is believed by many to have been named after a legendary figure in African American culture, the first enslaved person in the New World reputed to have bought his own freedom. Through determination, perseverance, and hard work, the black settlers in and around the town of Nicodemus did the same. I imagine that’s not easily left behind, no matter how many generations pass.
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