Nicodemus Kansas; A Slave City
I’m going to step a little bit away from the Border War for my next few posts. In August I traveled throughout central Kansas visiting several historical sites throughout the region. I’m going to use the next few posts to talk about those sites and share images from my travels throughout that region. I hope you enjoy these as I had a great trip that I highly recommend if you are looking for a weekend trip.
Nicodemus, Kansas is a small town in north central Kansas about 300 miles from Kansas City. The current population of Nicodemus is 20 persons. The founders of Nicodemus, which included 6 black men and one white man, goal was to create an all-black settlement in the great plains. Advertisements were sent to potential residents promising residential lots and farmland for $5 per family. Business lots were priced at $75 per unit. The developers were not really looking for “dirt poor” farmers as they wanted to attract residents who could support the town and help it to grow and thrive.
As the first settler group arrived in Nicodemus, they were not overly impressed as they saw rocky land and previous migrants living in dugout homes. The trip to Nicodemus was an arduous one and upon their arrival in town, it was not uncommon some of the migrants to turn around return to whence they came. Many of the early migrants also lacked in the tools they needed to build farms and homes in tough ground. One female migrant, Willina Hickman, described her first sight of Nicodemus in this way, “Where is Nicodemus? I don’t see it yet.’ 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.”
Due to the tough conditions in the first year, the residents relied heavily on the charity of other communities as well as the Native American tribes in the area to help them through the tough winter months. The early dugouts were replaced with sod houses and eventually wood-framed houses. Despite the tough start, the town eventually prospered, growing to a population of around 400 in its heyday between 1877 and 1880. At that time the town boasted a post office, ice cream parlor, two hotels and two newspapers.
I was a bit surprised that the video I watched in the museum made a comment about their being a platform for white dancers and a separate platform for black dancers at the town’s emancipation celebrations. This leads me to a couple thoughts: First, there had to have been at least a few white residents in the town and; secondly, I found it surprising that the town would follow the racial constraints of the day as the town was founded as an “all-black” town.
When an 1880s effort to bring the railroad through town failed, many residents and businesses left for towns that were growing due to the railroad’s presences. By the 1930, the town only claimed 40 residents. The population decline continued and in 1953, the post office closed and in 1960 the school closed due to lack of students.
Nicodemus still exists today and has been named a National Historic site. There are now only 20 residents, many of whom are descendants of the original inhabitants of the town. As you walk around the few streets that make up the town you can imagine the struggles the early settlers went through trying to make a life in the barren looking ground that surrounds the town. There is a nice museum in the Township hall which is one of the three historic buildings that have been restored. I can’t really do justice to the history of Nicodemus in this small space. I encourage you to do your own research to truly understand the full story of this historic town and the brave pioneers who settled there.