All-Black Town of the Exodus Still Exists in Nicodemus, Kansas
Home Sweet Home
I have been working on research in Kansas on Congregationalists and their involvement in the anti-slavery and border wars that began in 1854. Many of my readers may not know that because of the “wars” in Kansas to “decide” whether Kansas would be a slave or free state, we had a Civil War. During my work a couple of years ago, I ran across information on a town called Nicodemus, Kansas. This was the first “all black” town during the Black Exodus in the 1870s, and is actually still considered the only surviving “all black” town. The Black Exodus occurred because a few years after the Civil War, and after it was obvious that blacks would not be afforded opportunity in the South, many migrated north and west to reach the promised land. Though it is out of my range of current research, I really wanted to visit Nicodemus someday and this last weekend, I got my chance.
My mom and I had driven I-70 to Hays for my sister’s conference and we realized that Nicodemus was only 58 miles from Hays. So the following day, we took off to explore this town I had read so much about. By the way, while the sign reads “Nicodemus 58 miles”, it fails to mention you must turn left in Stockton, Kansas. So our 58 mile trip actually became a 90 mile trip.
On your way to Nicodemus, you will find heat, strong winds, tumble weeds and birds. Nicodemus is an interesting town and they have done a lot to preserve the heritage. Nicodemus is actually a United States National Park and it is free to visit. If you call ahead, you can have someone who will give you a tour. But the town really is only (maybe) six blocks long and all the buildings have signs in front of them. It did not appear that they allow you to enter into those buildings. But, I promise I will be setting up an appointment and going back for that tour. When that happens, I will update this article or write a complementary one.
Sadly, perhaps, most buildings are not remodeled on the outside and are subject to the weathering that quickly deteriorates their mini-town museum. By this, I mean that while there are a few buildings that have been restored, most show the black tar paper of the 1940s, the siding of the 1880s, boards without paint, etc. Mom pointed out that they may keep it this way to see the various stages of the town’s struggle and growth. That is highly possible, and it did provide a lot of insight – rather than the typically beautifully restored buildings you will find with the German communities in Kansas. But it also reminded me that Nicodemus now, and always, is in economic depression. I do not think this is because of lack of opportunity because the town was made up of black people – Western Kansas is basically economically depressed for everyone, especially since the dust bowl days. There lingers a brown cloud over Nicodemus and other surrounding towns as a reminder that the dust bowl could again occur at any time.
"When we got in sight of Nicodemus, the men
shouted, 'there is Nicodemus!' Being very sick, I
hailed this news with gladness. 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." -- Willina Hickman, Spring 1878. (http://www.nps.gov/features/nicodemus/nonflash.htm)
Blacks (I apologize for not being an American-hyphenator) had a huge role in the conception and development of Kansas. From the Underground Railroad to Buffalo Soldiers, they rode the Pony Express and were the original cowboys. Federal lands were cheap-to-free in the 1870s, and many folks of all national backgrounds came across America to find their Promised Land. This land was provided free by the Federal government to both blacks and whites. (As a side note, the Indian was excluded.)
The blacks from the South were no exception in coming across America; though, arguably, they had more reason to leave their homes. At the end of the Reconstruction period, oppression had already begun in the South. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan and other groups we now call white supremacy groups were springing up everywhere. Many blacks still worked for their old masters and lacked education. There was little chance of fighting the new form of racism that was occurring. Because of these things stacked up against their survival, many blacks in what is commonly called the Black Exodus came to Kansas. I do want to point out that this is very similar to others persecuted for either their ethnicity or religious beliefs. Kansas draws those wanting freedom.
Bleeding Kansas, where blood had been shed for anti-slavery seemed the perfect place to head. There is a lot of scholarly debate about the issue on whether it was the right thing to do or not and I will not get into that here because of lack of space. But, there were already blacks in Kansas by 1877 and even before the Civil War. There are pictures in local museums of black and white children going to school together clear back in the 1850s. These pictures show the two groups standing mingled together, not separated.
Many blacks chose to stay in the east part of Kansas, such as in Topeka’s Tennessee Town. But farmers moved to Nicodemus because of the opportunity to work at something they were already experienced at doing. Like all farmers in Kansas, they experienced the economic success and failures of owning farm land. There is little evidence that any success or failure was based solely on color during that time period. It is important to understand that Kansas, particularly Western Kansas was and still is a harsh environment. Like most other towns, when the railroads decided not to build in certain areas, and so there was little way to communicate or do business (such as transport crops), Nicodemus stayed small and lost population. Again, I see little evidence that this was any different than white towns in Kansas during that period. Those with railroads and cattle thrived.
Because church, representative government and education were denied to most in the post-Civil War South and because this was also generational, meaning that there had been no education, etc., for generations of blacks, these things were dear to many blacks, including those in Nicodemus. In this small town there were three different churches built. It had a town hall, a school, and a hotel – all of which represent freedom in representative government, education and free market. Nicodemus never did become the Great Promised Land for all blacks as was envisioned by its founders. Still, it was the promised land for many. And, by the way, it still is. There is still one church, the Baptist Church that was open and appeared full when we visited on our Sunday morning. One old black woman was trying to open the church door. It was difficult because the winds had suctioned the door shut. This woman was really old and I hope to interview her when I visit. This church is not the original. It sits next to the original, which was built over another building. Then the inside original building was dismantled and taken out the door to partially build other buildings in town.
I did not take pictures because quite frankly, it was too windy to be able to do so effectively. I am attaching some of Nicodemus’ own photos with this article for my reader’s consideration. Kansas has a rich and very unique history and the Black Exodus is one that is little known. However, for those of us who have been fortunate to see Nicodemus or study history in Kansas, we are very proud of that unique heritage. I urge anyone travellng through or just wanting to see how America was built to visit – it is indicative of the Spirit of America, the way it was intended.
As a side note, Western Kansas still provides real estate, including buildings and homes for those wishing to move there. It provides free education for those willing to invest 5 years as doctors and teachers, or those willing to employ people in the areas. There are many great deals like this throughout Western Kansas. :-) Some things never change! One last comment, if anyone wants to donate for the preservation of a Great America, please consider donating to the City of Nicodemus. – Karre.