Each February, we observe Black History Month, both across the nation and here in Kansas. People who aren’t from Kansas may not realize how central Black history is to Kansas history. From the “Bleeding Kansas” era to the Brown decision to the artistic genius of Kansans like Charlie Parker, Langston Hughes, and Gordon Parks, Black Kansans have shaped our culture and our history from the beginning.
Perhaps the most fascinating chapter of Black history in Kansas occurred in a small community in Graham County in northwestern Kansas. In the 1870s, in the wake of the Civil War, Black Americans were looking for a better life, away from the difficult conditions of the Reconstruction-era American south. Many of them migrated northward to cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York. But some sought a new start on the plains of Kansas in a town they called Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was founded in 1877, as a group of Black Kansans chose a spot on the Solomon River to be the first all-Black town in Kansas. They had been spurred on by leaders such as Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a former slave turned abolitionist, who saw Kansas, with its anti-slavery culture and wide-open spaces, as a place where Black Americans could find opportunity.
The townsite was organized and developed through an alliance between W.R. Hill, a white land speculator, and W.H. Smith, a Black pastor. Together, they formed the Nicodemus Town Company, and began to recruit Black families from Kentucky and Tennessee to relocate to Kansas. They bought hundreds of train tickets to Ellis, which was 35 miles south of Nicodemus. The families would walk northward to complete their journey to their new home.
Life wasn’t easy in Nicodemus, as harsh conditions and unfavorable weather in the late 1870s made raising crops difficult. But the residents persisted, and the town grew. By 1880, the population had grown to over 500, and the town had a bank, hotels, general stores, churches, a newspaper, and a growing number of homes.
As the years passed and generations turned over, the population of Nicodemus, like so many other rural towns on the plains, began to shrink. A planned railroad stop never materialized. The economic challenges of the late 1800s and early 1900s forced families to move elsewhere to find profitable work. By 1950, only a few dozen residents remained in Nicodemus.
But the memory of those early years has never died. Descendants of the original Nicodemus pioneers still return each July for what they call the Emancipation Homecoming Celebration, where they honor their ancestors’ legacy of courage. These descendants have scattered throughout the country, but they still feel a tug back to Nicodemus.
In 1976, Nicodemus was designated as a National Historic Landmark. Today, you can visit the Township Hall and see the historic schoolhouse and several churches that date back to the town’s early days. Although the population of Nicodemus is small, it stands as a testament to the beauty and power of Black history, and to the longing Black Americans in the 1870s felt to create something new.
Matt All, President/CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas.