Nicodemus–African American Icon of the Old West

Back in 2015, my daughter and I were on a cross-country trip from New York with a turn-around in Wyoming. One of the stops I added to our route was Nicodemus National Historic Site, one of the oldest, and last remaining of the Black towns on the western plains. We arranged to meet with fellow author Eunice Boeve, who took us to lunch with Angela Bates. While initially reluctant to make this stop in Kansas, my daughter later swore it was one of the highlights of the entire road trip due to the informative and enlightening conversations we’d had with Angela.

Photo of Angela by Kathryn Sommers

Angela O. Bates is the executive director and past president and organizer of the Nicodemus Historical Society (1988). As a Nicodemus descendant and historian, she was responsible for obtaining National Historic Site designation for the town. For nearly 25 years, she has presented educational programs and one woman shows for libraries, schools, colleges, and organizations across Kansas and the nation. After serving on the Kansas Humanities Council in the ‘90s, in 2011 she joined their speaker’s bureau and now travels the state lecturing about a variety of subjects including the history of Nicodemus, Exodusters, and Buffalo Soldiers. She is also the author of a series of children’s books covering various events in the history of Nicodemus. She is currently working on her first western, and revising a full length feature film about Nicodemus.

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September 1877, over three hundred former slaves from central Kentucky arrived by train at Ellis, Kansas. A two day walk lay ahead. Their final destination and new home was an all black town named Nicodemus. When they reached their new home in what was considered the ‘Great American Desert’ on the high plains of Kansas, little did they know there was no timber to build a house. A small hill or a limestone embankment served as the best place to build a home. Dirt was extracted and excavated to create an earth home called a dugout. Sunflowers, weeds, or whatever could be found often served as a roof. A blanket or crude make shift door was added at the entrance. The dirt floors were swept hard and a limestone magnesium wash was used to keep down flees. Falling dirt, rodents, snakes, and other crawling pests were a constant threat to a peaceful interior.

This is how it began with that first generation of freed blacks who arrived at the end of Reconstruction, after the Civil War. Although the landscape was harsh and barren, they used pure tenacity and their strong faith in God to survive. They had endured the hardships and atrocities of slavery, and brought with them a spirit of determination and employed the skill and fortitude needed to experience freedom in a place they could call their own.

Winter was quickly approaching and the priority for the group was to build the

Nicodemus, 1885, showing first stone church at left rear (public domain)

first dugout for a young and pregnant bride, Emma Williams. Late October she gave birth to the first child born at Nicodemus. When winter finally set in and the landscape was covered with crude dugouts, fear also set in. With Ellis 35 miles away and other smaller towns nearly as far, the new arrivals at Nicodemus were left destitute to secure winter supplies. As they approached a point of critical survival, a small band of Osage Indians arrived on the town site just in time to share their game from a recent hunt. With the sight of the Indians the settlers ran and took shelter on the banks of the Solomon River. It was quickly determined that they were not there to harm, but to share with an apparent starving people. This was nearly a year before the last Indian raids in Kansas, and a time when Indians were still feared and considered hostile on the western frontier.

In early spring, the next group of settlers arrived, but many of them turned around disappointed in what they saw. Some returned to Kentucky, while others settled in eastern Kansas, and a few families remained in the railroad town of Ellis. During the following spring of 1879 the last large group arrived. Nicodemus was beginning to set deep roots in the free soils of Kansas. Its settlers were savvy enough to organize Graham County and its first township, Nicodemus. During the next ten years it grew into a town of nearly 700 and attracted three railroad companies.

Although bond money was raised to attract the railroads, none laid track through Nicodemus. However, the Union Pacific Railroad came the closest, laying track just four miles south. The railroad town of Bogue, four miles west and one mile south was built by the Union Pacific. As Bogue was being established, it attracted and drew many of the businesses from Nicodemus. This left Nicodemus with little hope for economic development. In the dust bowl years and the Great Depression that followed, Nicodemus continued to falter and lose its economic base. The population continued to drop as well, and has continued over the years, until today there are less than 20 residents.

During its first year of settlement, the new arrivals celebrated their first Emancipation Celebration, held August 1, 1878. Every year since, the community has held this annual celebration of freedom. In more recent years it has been referred to as ‘Homecoming’. This annual celebration, along with the interrelated and extended family ties, helped to forge a close-knit community. When families began moving away, their connection to their extended families that stayed, and the little town they called home, prove to be the catalyst that kept the migration of descendants returning.

In 1976, after a formal recommendation by the Afro American Institute for Historic Preservation, lead by brothers Vince and Bob Deforrest, Nicodemus was designated a National Historic Landmark District. Nicodemus became the oldest and only remaining all black town west of the Mississippi River, established at the end of Reconstruction.

In 1996, twenty years later—and seven years after I had been executive director for the Nicodemus Historical Society and worked with the National Park Service along with Senator Dole and Representative Pat Roberts—President Clinton signed into law, designating Nicodemus a unit of the National Park Service. Nicodemus National Historic Site represents the African American experience in the west post Civil War. As African Americans migrated west, they established their own all black towns to experience freedom, uninhibited and autonomously. These towns were established all over the west, with the most established in Oklahoma. Allensworth was California’s established all black town. These towns represent the migration and presence of African Americans in the Trans American West. Nicodemus is the oldest and only remaining west of the Mississippi. It’s an African American icon of the old west. The annual Emancipation Celebration is still being held, the last week end in July.

Visit Nicodemus National Historic Site on the National Park Service web, or the Nicodemus Historical Society’s face book page. https://www.nps.gov/nico/index.htm     AND  https://www.facebook.com/NicodemusNPS/

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19 responses to “Nicodemus–African American Icon of the Old West

  1. barbarabettis1

    What a fascinating story, Andrea. Thanks for bringing it to us. I’d heard of Nicodemus, but knew very little about it until now. I’m glad it’s a National Historic Site, which means (we hope) that the town and its history will be remembered. Incidentally, a few years ago, I visited a sod house that had been preserved, and I have nothing but respect and awe for those determined and resolute folks who lived in them!

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    • I have to admit I only knew of Nicodemus through my pal, Eunie, and that was a fairly recent introduction. Apparently it is the least visited National Park in the system, which is sad–but that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t worth preserving. When you go there, it becomes obvious what a struggle life must have been for those settlers, although far better than what they had before!
      I’ve also visited a sod house, just outside the south branch of Badlands NP in So. Dakota. It was papered with newspaper but that didn’t stop you from feeling the discomfort of exactly what Angela has described. Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. I had the pleasure of meeting Angela Bates at a Western Writers of America conference. She attended with my good friend, author Charlotte Hinger. And while I’m here, I’d like to recommend Charlotte’s excellent book from University of Oklahoma Press, NICODEMUS, Post-Reconstruction Politics and Racial Justice in Western Kansas.

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    • That is so interesting, Irene. Thanks. Charlotte was actually the first person from Women Writing the West I met; she was kind enough to meet me for dinner one night when I was in Loveland, CO, for several book signings for my first book…’Loveland’.I had absolutely no idea she had written a book on Nicodemus. Thanks for that info.

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  3. As always, fascinating post, Andrea. It is amazing what primitive conditions that people in the Old West, all kinds of people, had to overcome to live there. I just finished a first hand account of a cavalry bride, who’s husband was stationed in some of the most remote places in the west, and a lot of times, they lived in tents! Fort Clark, thirty miles from my hometown, was one of her favorite places, despite the typhoid fever, because, at first they actually had a stone house for their family. Then later, a major (who was single) bumped the 5 of them (due to rank), to a hut and he took over their 4 room stone house. I remember visiting Fort Clark and seeing the homes when I was younger. I still have a hard time believing what all kinds of people put up with when living in the West back then. It’s a testament to human endurance. Nicodemus sounds like a fascinating place to visit, and I bet Charlotte’s book is awesome, too.

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    • Yes, Angela did a great job in bringing Nicodemus to life for us here. But, my my, what a bastard that Major was, taking the stone house. Definitely not ‘an officer and a gentleman’!

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  4. Hi Angela,
    I was pleased to open Andrea’s blog and see your story of Nicodemus. It’s an interesting story and needs to be shared and I know you work tirelessly to promote it. So, two of my favorite friends on the same page. Andrea became a friend through our writing, and a visit to Kansas, and you, Angela, when you helped me through the process of writing my book, Maggie Rose and Sass, a Kansas Notable Book, set in 1888 in an all black town based on Nicodemus. So, you are working on a western now. Great! I’ll be anxious to read it.

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    • Nicodemus’ story does need to be shared, Eunie. I would never have heard of it had it not been for you, so thank you for that. And I’d never have had the pleasure of meeting Angela either without you. Thanks so much!

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  5. What a fascinating and heart-breaking story. Thank you, Angela, for interpreting and preserving Nicodemus and its history. (I especially love the “thanksgiving” feast brought by the Osage Indians when the settlers were starving.) And thank you, Andi, for hosting Angela on your blog. Dearfield, in northern Colorado, is another post-Emancipation, African-American settlement. Sadly, it is decaying today.

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    • Susan, thanks so much for bringing Dearfield to my/our attention. I hadn’t heard of it so make will an effort to get there sometime.

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    • Yes, Dearfield is Colorado’s black town, but there were many all black towns that dotted the West. California had Allensworth, Kansas had over a half dozen, with Dunlap, and Voctow other noted Kansas towns. Oklahoma had nearly 30 black towns. Nicodemus is the oldest and only remaining west of the Mississippi, started at the end of Reconstruction. The Osage brought and shared game, but it was NOT thanksgiving. Pottowatomi indians also claim to have come to Nicodemus.

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  6. What a fascinating story, Angela and Andi. I had never heard of Nicodemus and now it is part of my memory bank. Thanks so much!

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    • It does seem surprising how many of us haven’t heard of Nicodemus until falling upon it by some quirk of fate. It’s certainly not in the American consciousness the way it should be.

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  7. Patti Sherry-Crews

    Interesting! I never heard of Nicodemus before or knew of the history of black settlements in the west. I’m glad to see it’s National Park service status.

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  8. I often heard of Nicodemus when I lived in Kansas, but never made it there. That was in the early 1980s, so it was not a National Park back then. This post really makes me want to plan a trip (I’ve been wanting to plan a Kansas tour to see everything I never had time to see back in grad school!) I just google mapped it and found that Nicodemus is a four hour drive from Lincoln. Definitely doable! Thanks for the post Angela and Andi!

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    • I hope you make it, Brigid. Our two KS stops, aside from visiting Eunie, were Nicodemus, and Concordia for the Orphan Train Museum, another worthy museum.

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    • Glad to know that you ‘knew’ of Nicodemus when you lived here. More people are responding to information about Nicodemus in the news. There are many u-tube videos (4 recently done by the Park Service). They are worth watching. On May 27th the Historical Society is sponsoring a Chautauqua and the actors will be telling stories from Nicodemus’ past. Maybe that will be a day you can come down and visit Nicodemus!

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  9. Fascinating story. Such hardship yet tenacity. This could be a very interesting setting for a novel?

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