I recently visited Nicodemus which is a small town on the northwestern Kansas prairie. It’s off the beaten path on Highway 24, several miles north of I-70 without direct access from the interstate. The Nicodemus National Historic Site represents the only remaining all-black town established at the end of reconstruction and is symbolic of the pioneer spirit of those who settled there. I have friends whose family was among those first settlers so Nicodemus was especially interesting for me.
The result of land speculation and a desire for profit, Nicodemus is the oldest of more than two dozen towns established and promoted for a predominantly black population. Nicodemus was established during 1877 by the Nicodemus Town Company, with six black and one white incorporator. Their specific strategy was to recruit from the Upper South blacks of some means who were financially able to buy town lots and willing to move to the Midwest. The location on the north bank of the South Solomon River provided residents with fresh water and the few trees in the area which grew along the stream bank.
The first emigrants to arrive in Nicodemus had to feel somewhat disappointed and overwhelmed. Most came from areas with plentiful timber and here on the plains of Kansas the scarcity of trees forced them to live in sod dugout houses and use sunflowers, willows and buffalo chips for fuel. When viewed in larger terms, regardless of racial make-up, Nicodemus is representative of many farming communities established throughout the plains of Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma in the late 1800’s. Dissatisfaction at home, desire for a better life, and exaggerated tales of economic opportunity attracted people to the sparsely populated western plains.
During 1878, 600 people resided in Nicodemus Township, most of them in the town. Two years later, only 316 persons occupied the township and the vast majority of those lived on farms. By 1884 Nicodemus’ population had declined to less than 50, with 239 in the township. A second boom occurred through promotion in attempting to gain a railroad. By 1887, Nicodemus had grown to 200, had four dry goods stores, at least three grocery stores, three drug stores, two millinery shops, one bank, four hotels, two livery stables, two newspapers, two blacksmith shops, two barbers, one shoe shop, two agricultural implement stores, one land company, and a two-story school building.
The growth, evolution and decline of Nicodemus mirror that of many other rural communities. Architecturally the usual progression occurred from sod buildings to wooden and cut limestone structures during the more prosperous periods. Transportation for goods and products was highly important. Counting on the coming of a railroad, it was very nearly a death knell for the town when, late in 1888, it was bypassed. Businesses and residents moved to nearby communities where the railroad was built. Unlike many other small plains communities bypassed by the railroad, Nicodemus tenuously held on. In 2010, according to the census, 59 people resided in the township.
The determination of early settlers helped Nicodemus survive through drought and economic disaster. The dedication of its residents, both past and present, and their commitment to the concept of “community” have kept Nicodemus from disappearing into total obscurity. First held in 1878 and every year since, Nicodemus has held an annual three-day Homecoming Celebration each summer. Families and friends come from all over to renew ties and affirm their heritage. I hope to someday attend Homecoming Celebration in Nicodemus with my friends.
In 1976 the original 161-acre townsite was listed as a National Historic Landmark. Since becoming the Nicodemus National Historic Site in 1996, the residents and the park service have begun working together to preserve five remaining historic structures: St. Francis Hotel (1881), African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church (1885), First Baptist Church (1907), Nicodemus School District No. 1 building (1918) and Nicodemus Township Hall (1939).
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