How a Small Town in Kansas Became America’s Largest Black Colony




For greater than 50 years the city of Nicodemus, Kansas, beat the chances and its harsh environment to supply alternative for former slaves and their descendants
 
Exodusters, principally afoot, make the lengthy trek to Kansas. (Library of Congress)
By the late 1870s, the black inhabitants of the South was dismayed. The Civil Struggle and the formal abolition of slavery with passage of the thirteenth Modification in 1865 had not introduced the equality or improved residing circumstances for which they’d lengthy hoped. Actually, their freedom below the legislation was immensely important but blacks remained oppressed and impoverished. Land was accessible for lease or buy, however at inflated costs, and the withdrawal of Union forces left blacks unprotected from Southerners who had violently opposed emancipation. Moreover, as most former slaves possessed few abilities aside from farming, the sharecropping system that arose just about re-enslaved them as tenant farmers.
After the dozen years of Reconstruction (1865–77), a method of escaping financial bondage introduced itself to Southern blacks. The brand new alternative got here within the type of a budding all-black neighborhood within the Midwest, the place they might have the ability to personal land below the Homestead Act of 1862, prosper and put their previous behind them. The promised land was in Kansas, the prewar free state, important hyperlink within the Underground Railroad and adopted house of abolitionist John Brown. Extra essential to would-be settlers, it was readily accessible by prepare and boat through the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The utopian townsite was the brainchild of an unlikely duo.
In 1877, white land speculator W.R. Hill traveled to black church buildings within the backwoods of Kentucky to talk of a haven in Kansas for black households. Hill advised of a sparsely settled territory with considerable wild sport, wild horses that may very well be tamed and, in fact, the chance to personal land via the homesteading course of. Including credibility to the endeavor was Hill’s companion, black Tennessean homesteader W.H. Smith, who would turn out to be president of the Nicodemus City Co. Among the many different founders was Nashvillian Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, the colony’s most lively promoter. Whereas the colony was ostensibly named for the biblical determine Nicodemus—a Pharisee who sought out Jesus and later supplied the embalming fluids for his burial—it’s possible the identify additionally commemorated an eponymous black people legend who got here to America as a slave and later bought his freedom.
Posted in 1877, the earliest promotional handbill portrayed the nascent colony as a spot for blacks to determine a neighborhood of self-government full with its personal militia to maintain the peace. Nicodemus, it proclaimed, could be “The Largest Coloured Colony in America.”
One other recruitment poster prolonged an additional enticement:
All Coloured Folks
that wish to 
go to Kansas,
On September 5, 1877,
Can achieve this for $5.00
The $5 coated transportation, whereas $1 purchased one membership within the colony. On arrival, one may buy a Nicodemus City Co. membership certificates and loads inside Hill’s 160-acre townsite for a further $5 or organize to choose homestead land for a nominal charge. For a lot of black Southerners, the supply was too good to refuse.
Nicodemus in 1953. (Library of Congress)
Nicodemus in 1953. (Library of Congress)
 
The primary wave of settlers to achieve Nicodemus, on Sept. 17, 1877, totaled 350 males, ladies and kids from the neighborhood of Lexington, Ky. Disappointment lay in retailer. First, the transportation for which they’d paid had not delivered as anticipated. A prepare had dropped the settlers on the closest rail cease, Ellis, 35 miles south of the townsite, leaving them to stroll and drive their livestock to Nicodemus. 
“As a substitute of jubilation, many blacks had been instantly disillusioned, and rightfully so,” says Angela Bates, founder and previous president of the Nicodemus Historic Society and a descendant of these authentic settlers. “The distinction of the parched Kansas plain was stark in comparison with the inexperienced hills and wealthy farmland of the South. There was nothing there, only a barren, stark panorama. You can see 10 miles in any path.” 
“Once we bought in sight of Nicodemus,” recalled follow-on settler Willina Hickman within the spring of 1878, “the boys shouted, ‘There may be Nicodemus!’ Being very sick, I hailed this information with gladness. I regarded with all of the eyes I had. I mentioned, ‘The place is Nicodemus? I don’t see it.’ My husband identified varied smokes popping out of the bottom and mentioned, ‘That’s Nicodemus.’ The households lived in dugouts… The surroundings was in no way inviting, and I started to cry.”
A number of dozen would-be pioneers returned to dim prospects within the inexperienced hills of Kentucky reasonably than stay in such sod-roofed dugouts, constructed both by digging straight down into the naked earth or by hollowing out bluffs alongside the Solomon River. “Dwelling as prairie canines,” recalled one early settler. Many extra toughed it out, regardless of missing applicable instruments, clothes, meals, seed and cash. Some survived by promoting buffalo bones discovered on the prairie to the fertilizer business for $6 a ton, whereas others labored for the railroad in Ellis. Nonetheless others managed solely with the help of empathetic Osages, who supplied meals, firewood and staples.
It cost little to get there, but members of the Nicodemus colony faced further expenses, including the cost to build one’s home. (Library of Congress)
It value little to get there, however members of the Nicodemus colony confronted additional bills, together with the price to construct one’s house. (Library of Congress)
Bates’ maternal and paternal grandparents had been amongst those that remained, and her household has since maintained a presence in Nicodemus. Not less than 65 of her relations are buried within the city cemetery, and he or she moved again in 1989 to arrange the historic society.
Within the spring of 1878, Nicodemus welcomed one other 150 settlers, a part of an 1878–79 mass exodus of Southern blacks. Known as “Exodusters,” most settled in Missouri, Illinois and Kansas. In 1870 the black inhabitants in Kansas stood at round 16,000. By 1880 it exceeded 43,000. 
Regardless of the difficult residing circumstances, Willina and husband the Rev. Daniel Hickman remained, quickly organizing the Mount Olive Baptist Church. One other early settler, Zachary Fletcher, turned the primary entrepreneur in Nicodemus, establishing a basic retailer in 1877 and, later, the St. Francis Resort and a livery secure. He was the city’s first postmaster, whereas spouse Jenny served as its first postmistress and schoolteacher.
By 1880 Nicodemus had grown into a correct city, with a financial institution, two resorts, three church buildings, a drug retailer and three basic shops ringed by a dozen sq. miles of cultivated land. Inside just a few years, residents had their alternative of two newspapers, the Western Cyclone or the Nicodemus Enterprise. On the time revealed statistics for Nicodemus Township listed 275 black residents, 83 whites, 31 horses, and 10 mules. The typical homestead had 12 acres in cultivation. Livestock numbered 43 head of cattle and 75 hogs, whereas crops included 997 acres of corn, 98 acres of millet, 50 acres of sorghum and 50 acres of rice corn.
Townspeople had been justly pleased with the settlement they’d constructed fairly actually from the bottom up. In 1887, hoping to make sure Nicodemus’ continued development and financial viability, voters had authorized the issuance of $16,000 in bonds to lure the Missouri Pacific Railroad to city. A Missouri Pacific consultant had requested the township to pay for a bit of line via Nicodemus, a regular association between railroad corporations and frontier cities. 
The Cyclone was ecstatic. Growth! Growth!! Growth!!! Growth!!!! Growth!!!!! learn its headline that March 24. “Final Tuesday was a day lengthy to be remembered in Nicodemus,” the editorial learn, “for that day the individuals determined by an amazing majority that we might be a crossroads submit workplace now not, however that ere one other yr ought to go, that we must always develop right into a city…. The increase is on. Not a mere blow, however a increase that can roll on indefinitely.” In anticipation of the approaching railroad line and depot, land gross sales boomed and plenty of new companies opened in Nicodemus.
Regardless of the bond subject and subsequent arrival of Missouri Pacific surveyors, nevertheless, the railroad hedged its bets and finally withdrew its supply to increase a line to Nicodemus. In the meantime, the Union Pacific Railroad laid down tracks 4 miles to the southwest via a development camp that quickly took root because the city of Bogue. Nearly instantly, most of Nicodemus’ retailers moved their operations trackside, some taking their buildings with them.
Whereas the lack of the railroad was a tough blow for residents to soak up, Nicodemus soldiered on as a viable neighborhood till 1929 when the Nice Melancholy introduced financial hardship. As costs for crops plummeted, individuals fled city in droves.
Additional devastation adopted when the Mud Bowl struck the area within the mid-to-late Nineteen Thirties. Overplowing of the virgin topsoil had eradicated the native prairie grasses that saved the earth moist and anchored down. Amid a recurring drought, sturdy prevailing winds churned up the ensuing mud in big clouds often known as “black blizzards” or “black rollers.”
Centered on the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and adjoining sections of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas, the Mud Bowl compelled tens of 1000’s of poverty-stricken households, together with these hanging on in Nicodemus, to desert their farms, as they had been unable to develop crops and pay payments. By 1935 the city that had held a lot promise had shrunk to a inhabitants of simply 76 clinging to a church, a neighborhood corridor and a single retailer.
By 1950 Nicodemus had dwindled to only 16 residents. The submit workplace closed in 1953, the lone college in 1960. Within the intervening many years, many of the homestead land has been offered, and there may be scant proof this was the placement freed blacks settled in 1877 with the concept of accomplishing true freedom and self-government. Nonetheless, of the greater than half dozen black settlements that sprang up in Kansas after Reconstruction, Nicodemus is the one one to outlive, with a present-day inhabitants hovering round 20. 
The townsite was designated a nationwide historic landmark in 1976. Twenty years later, on Nov. 12, 1996, Congress designated Nicodemus a nationwide historic web site. With assist from the Nationwide Park Service, Bates and different neighborhood members have dedicated to the preservation of Nicodemus’ historic constructions and interpretation of its historical past. Some 5,000 annual guests tour the townsite, about an hour’s drive northwest of Hays. Descendants of the unique settlers are sometimes available on the customer heart to reply questions.
“Nicodemus is an iconic image for African Individuals, in that it represents how blacks helped settle the American frontier lengthy earlier than most individuals understand,” Bates says. “Having an essential function in American historical past, the townsite and remaining buildings symbolize the pioneering spirit of these ex-slaves who fled the war-torn South in the hunt for ‘actual’ freedom and an opportunity to restart their lives. It was additionally an essential stepping-stone in African American migration farther west.”
Since 1878 Nicodemus residents have held an annual emancipation celebration often known as “Homecoming.” “After greater than 142 years, each summer season the city is crowded with as many as 500 individuals who return and are very pleased with their heritage,” Bates explains. Come what could, Nicodemus’ subsequent “Homecoming” is scheduled for July 29–Aug. 1, 2021.  
 

Nicodemus Right this moment
Current-day Nicodemus (Jim West / Alamy Inventory Photograph)
The Nicodemus Nationwide Historic Web site occupies a largely treeless Kansas plain. The one remaining constructions on the previous townsite are a scattering of properties, a BBQ café, a brand new Baptist sanctuary, a senior heart and the next historic buildings:
• St. Francis Resort/Switzer Residence: Relationship from 1881, this modest story-and-a-half constructing served as a lodge, the city’s first submit workplace, its first schoolhouse and a stagecoach station. It was additionally the house of Zach and Jenny Fletcher and household, listed among the many earliest residents of Nicodemus within the 1880 federal census.
• Previous First Baptist Church: This 1907 limestone church should have been a welcome addition for a congregation that had begun worship in a crude dugout in 1877 earlier than “shifting up” to a prairie sod church.
• African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church: The congregation worshipped

at one other web site from 1878 till 1897, when it acquired the current constructing from the Mount Nice Baptist Church.
• Faculty District No. 1: Relationship from 1918, this one-room body constructing (see photograph above) changed the primary freestanding schoolhouse, in-built 1887.
• Township Corridor: In-built 1939 of regionally quarried limestone, with the assistance of the Melancholy-era Works Progress Administration, the corridor served as each a neighborhood heart and the seat of native authorities. Right this moment it homes the Nicodemus Nationwide Historic Web site Customer Middle, that includes an interpretive movie and native historical past displays.
—J.W.
Missouri-based freelancer Jim Winnerman is the creator of greater than 1,000 articles on historical past, artwork and structure and is a frequent contributor to Wild West. For additional studying he suggests Nicodemus: Submit-Reconstruction Politics and Racial Justice in Western Kansas, by Charlotte Hinger; The Black Cities, by Norman I. Crockett; and “‘Pap’ Singleton, the Moses of the Coloured Exodus,” by Walter L. Fleming, from the July 1901 subject of the American Journal of Sociology. 
 
This text was revealed within the February 2021 subject of Wild West Journal. To subscribe, click on right here. 



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