Driving back from Kansas City to Denver at the end of September, I decided to go north to Highway 24, avoiding the tedium of driving I-70 four times in one month. Happily, Highway 24 lacks political signage and goes by 4 wildlife areas. I didn’t stop at any of them, though I was tempted.
The one place that did stop me was one I didn’t know existed: Nicodemus, the first western town built by and for African American settlers. It was founded in 1877, the year Reconstruction ended. No surprise there, or in the fact that the backlash against Reconstruction was severe enough to drive black families from the South to Kansas, Oklahoma (Boley), Colorado (Dearfield), and California (Allensworth).
Nicodemus is the oldest continuously inhabited African American town west of the Mississippi, though only 30 people live there, most of them retired. It is also the only such town designated as a national historic site (part of the national park system).
If you want to visit Nicodemus, the best time to do so might be the last weekend in July, when they hold their annual Emancipation Day celebration. At other times, it’s a sleepy, tiny town on the high plains of northwestern Kansas.
But it wasn’t always that way. In the late 1870s, boosters described Kansas as the Promised Land to southern blacks who could see the Jim Crow handwriting on the wall and wanted to find a safe place to live and possibly own land. Kansas attracted them because it had been admitted to the union as a free state after a bitter, bloody fight between Jayhawks (who wanted Kansas to be a free state) and Bushwhackers (who wanted Kansas to be a slave state).
The Nicodemus town company was registered by 6 black men and 1 white man a week before the end of Reconstruction in 1877, taking its name from a fictional African slave portrayed in the song, “Wake, Nicodemus!”
As was typical of advertisements directed at homesteaders in those days, Nicodemus was marketed as the perfect place to farm and raise a family. What settlers found when they arrived shocked them: people living in dugout homes, treeless prairies, and less-than-fertile soil. Some, like Willina Hickman, cried when they realized the smoke rising out of the ground came from fires in dugout homes. Ernestine Van Duvall said, “They told us in Kentucky they were bringing us to the Promised Land. I wouldn’t ask no one to come here like it is. I just blown here; I just come here, and this is home.” Others turned right around and returned to Kentucky or other points east and south.
But those who stayed helped swell the town’s population to the hundreds, and it might have grown still larger had Union Pacific Railroad not bypassed the town in the late 1880s. Afterward, businesses began to move out of Nicodemus, though the town was still building a church and a school in the early 1900s.
Finding Nicodemus delighted me, and I would love to see it restored, to see people moving there again to farm. In this day and age, I don’t know what that would take. Town residents are doing everything they can to preserve the remaining buildings and keep Nicodemus’s history alive. A walking tour goes by the St. Francis Hoteland the First Baptist Church,which clearly has some structural problems.Some of the information in this post was gleaned from Nicodemus National Historic Site by Judith Fertig, published by the Western National Parks Association in 2003.
For more about Dearfield, Colorado, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, see my August 2009 post, “Black American West Museum, Part III.”