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DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Nicodemus: Beacon of Black Hope
DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Nicodemus: Beacon of Black Hoperive east on Kansas Route 24, about four and a half hours out of Denver and fifteen miles beyond Hill City, slow for what locals call “The Curve” in the road, and a mile off you will see a cluster of buildings in a speck on the map called Nicodemus. You would be forgiven if you thought this was just one more dust-blasted victim of the desolate High Plains bypassed by time and prosperity.

But to the twenty-two remaining residents and the thousands who were forced to leave the harsh land for jobs and opportunity, Nicodemus remains the shining city on the hill, their beacon of freedom in a world of darkness, a lasting symbol of emancipation from the brutality of slavery. And while it may look deserted and desolate to the casual passerby, there’s a shock in store for anyone interested in buying what appears to be left. The answer is always “Not For Sale!” This patch of ground is sacred to the offspring of a group of African Americans who came west in 1877 and 1878 from Scott and Fayette counties in Kentucky to shake off the Jim Crow shackles of the post-Reconstruction period. Here they staked their claim to a 160-acre slice of the American dream and established what today is the oldest remaining all-black town west of the Mississippi.

“It may look like a ghost town,” says Angela Bates, whose great-great-grandfather, Civil War veteran Perry Bates, was one of the original settlers of Nicodemus. “But you have to stay here for a few days to get a feel for what it’s like to live here.”

Nicodemus was founded just north of the Solomon River by W. R. Hill, a white land speculator, and W. H. Smith, a black homesteader. It was initially populated by approximately 380 former slaves and their families who responded to fliers headlined “Ho For Kansas!” and “Ho! For the Great Solomon Valley of Western Kansas!” Addressed to “Brethren, Friends, & Fellow Citizens,” these handbills preceded recruiters and preachers on trips back to Kentucky where they visited churches with the simple question, “Why stay here? Come west, homestead some land, and help us populate this new town we’re trying to start called Nicodemus.”

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Nicodemus: Beacon of Black Hope

In the spring of 1877 the Cincinnati Southern Railroad fortuitously opened a north-south spur line through the heart of Kentucky’s Blue Grass country that gave true believers a convenient way to strike out for Kansas. They rode the rails west from Cincinnati to Ellis, Kansas, about forty miles south of Nicodemus. Then they walked for two days to their new home.

“Well, if you were from Kentucky, where the land is lush with trees, rivers, and streams, Nicodemus was in fact what they called then the Great American Desert,” Bates says. “There was nothing. One great-cousin named Willianna Hickman said later, ‘I looked with all the eyes that I had and I still couldn’t see Nicodemus.’ When she got to the town site she broke down and cried. About sixty others turned around and went back, some to Ellis, some to cities in eastern Kansas, and the rest all the way back to Kentucky.”

Nicodemus was named for the first African slave to purchase his freedom in the United States. He ultimately became the subject of a song long sung on the plantations, the last lines later altered to reflect the Solomon River that ran just south of the town:

Nicodemus was a slave of African birth,
And was bought for a bag full of gold;
He was reckoned a part of the sum of the earth,
But he died years ago, very old.
Nicodemus was a prophet, at least he was as wise,
For he told of the battles to come;
How we trembled with fear, when he rolled up his eyes,
And we heeded the shake of his thumb.

Good time coming, good time coming,
Long, long time on the way;
Run and tell Elijah to hurry up Pomp,
To meet us under the cottonwood tree,
In the great Solomon Valley
At the first break of day.

“I think that’s what Nicodemus represents,” says Bates, who is a descendant of a former slave on the plantation of Richard M. Johnson, President Martin Van Buren’s vice president. “Nicodemus is located in the heart of the heartland, on the Solomon River, in the Promised Land of Kansas. So there’s this whole biblical connotation and connection with the children of Israel leaving the oppression of Egypt for the promised land of Canaan. Nicodemus is a place where you can come to get spiritually reconnected with the land, the people, and the past.”

The earliest pioneer recruits who came to Nicodemus lived in dirt-floored dugouts roofed with sunflowers and weeds. Yet they were propelled forward by a brighter vision for a town where they could govern themselves. They immediately built a school and a church, the anchors of any black community. But it was too late in the year to get in a crop, and the settlement suffered that first winter. Had it not been for the generosity of the Osage Indians, who shared their game and government provisions, those who stayed might have starved to death.

“If it had not been for them we surely would not have survived that first year,” Bates says.

The following year a plow was brought to the town site to break the virgin Kansas soil, and the settlers stacked strips of six-inch-thick prairie sod to build houses, which were kept warm in winter by burning buffalo chips. On the first of August they held an Emancipation Celebration to commemorate their freedom and their first year’s success, a tradition that has endured for the last 127 years,

Within a few years Nicodemus took on the trappings of an established town and by 1880 boasted the limestone St. Francis Hotel, which also housed the second-oldest African-American-operated post office in the country. Five years later Nicodemus was enjoying heady times with a population of nearly 700 people who supported a bank, livery stables, a doctor’s office, several churches, mercantile stores, hotels, and farm-equipment companies. Rains seemed reliable, crops were bountiful, and hopes ran high that the Missouri Pacific line would pick Nicodemus as a major stop. But the railroad decided instead to create the town of Bogue, a former railroad camp, located four miles to the west. Sensing pending collapse, many of the white merchants of Nicodemus packed up and moved their businesses and their buildings – literally – to Bogue. While the population continued to grow slowly until it peaked in 1910, the fate of Nicodemus was sealed.

“It went into a downward spiral, pushed lower by drought, dust storms, locusts, and the Great Depression, when people had to leave to find work,” says Bates, whose parents left for California in the 1950s.

Most residents went to Colorado and California. But the families of Nicodemus never forgot their hometown. Between 500 and 1,000 return year after year for the Emancipation Celebration, nostalgic for the fresh air, panoramic views, canopy of brilliant stars, and reconnection with family. Throughout the weekend they have dances, a parade, guest speakers, fashion and talent shows, barbecue and other foods, a gospel extravaganza at the church, and a Sunday dinner. The event stimulates among many the urge to move back, something Bates did in 1989 when the population was sixty-some people. Even though that number has since slid to about two dozen, she still had to find a place to buy in nearby Bogue.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Nicodemus: Beacon of Black Hope

“We’re all related, the town is like a huge extended family, and whenever a piece of land becomes available some family member gets it,” she says. “It’s not like it goes out on the open market. We’ve got family members who want to move here but can’t move into Nicodemus because there’s nothing available for sale.”

While it may seem strange that there’s nothing to buy in the wide-open, under-populated rolling hills of Nicodemus, land is like an heirloom to the families who own it, Bates explains, and they aren’t about to part with it. “This is home to them. You’re not going to sell home. My own family is in the process of setting up a trust to make sure my parents’ land is held by the family for generations to come.”

For those tied to the community, Nicodemus is more than a geographic location. “It is a physical manifestation of a place where you can be spiritually emancipated,” Bates says. “You are physically in a place where there are no boundaries. The sky literally is the limit. You can see 360 degrees to the horizon, and there is absolutely no doubt in your mind you are on planet Earth. That’s something people in the cities do not know. Nature is something they go see at the zoo or in the park. Nature is a destination for them. Here it is real, and you live in it.”

If you think otherwise, she says, stay twenty-four hours and the weather will convince you, whatever the season. It’s not possible to live out on the plains and not be part of the cycle of life, the cycle of nature.

“When it’s a full moon, people will say, ‘Did you see the moon last night?’ And when there’s no moon, they say, ‘Did you see the stars?’ Once you’ve stood out here for about twenty minutes and your eyes become accustomed to the dark, there isn’t a spot in the sky where there isn’t a star, and the Milky Way is magnificent to see. That gives you an appreciation for how insignificant your life can really be out here.”

From a spiritual point of view, descendants know “The Curve” will trigger a sense of anticipation that says home is near. “I’ve been living here for fifteen years,” Bates says, “and let me tell you, I feel it every time I drive down that road and get to “The Curve.” You love this place, you love the trees, you love the landscape, you love the physical environment – because this is home. And with that comes your connection with the family.”

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Nicodemus: Beacon of Black Hope

And family stretches far beyond the immediate to include third and fourth cousins who feel like sisters and brothers, all of whom share a mutual heritage, culture, language, and community support.

“We also have a reverence for our seniors,” she says. “I have a cousin here who’s 102 years old. If I am cooking I make sure she has a plate of food. I think because of struggles in slavery we learned to care for one another. We know our limitations, we know our boundaries, and we know we are still living in a white man’s world, although some of us have forgotten it periodically. But it doesn’t take much to bring us back to reality.”

The founders of Nicodemus set out to establish a community they could be very proud of, Bates says, and thus banned all saloons from the start. They also were the most politically active among all blacks in Kansas, and over the decades Nicodemus settlers and their descendants have produced newspaper editors, county attorneys, county clerks, a state auditor, the two most prominent black attorneys in Kansas, and, in contemporary times, the first black female mayor in the entire state of Kansas, a Colorado attorney general, and professional football stars Gayle Sayers, brothers Gerald and Randall Wilhite, Marvin Switzer, and his uncle Veryl Switzer, who integrated the Green Bay Packers in the 1950s.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Nicodemus: Beacon of Black Hope

“It’s phenomenal when you start looking at the people who have come out of Nicodemus and gone on to make a difference,” Bates says.

Among them should be counted Bates herself, who has been an interior decorator, restaurateur and caterer, tour guide, historian, and real estate agent and who worked for seven years to get Nicodemus designated a National Historic Site by the National Park Service in 1996. Last year Bates was honored with a lifetime achievement award for her work in securing that designation, which assures that Nicodemus will be preserved, protected, and interpreted into the future. The Park Service has developed its first general management plan defining objectives to be met in the next fifteen years for the town’s five historic structures: the AME Church (closed since the 1950s and the only building owned by the Park Service); Nicodemus First Baptist Church; Nicodemus School District No. 1; St. Francis Hotel; and Township Hall, all built of limestone except the frame schoolhouse. Stabilization funds will come from the Park Service, but further restoration money must be raised privately.

As recruiters and guides asked their brethren in the churches of central Kentucky 128 years ago, “Why stay here?” strangers might ask Bates the same question today. She has a ready answer: “We were physically emancipated, but so many are still held in psychological bondage. Here you feel free and you can experience true freedom. The sky is the limit, and this is home.”Designer/builder Magazine