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"I am anxious to reach your state ...
because of the sacredness of her soil washed by the blood of humanitarians
for the cause of freedom."
-- S.L. Johnson, black Louisianan in
a letter to Kansas Governor John St John, 1879
is the only remaining western community established by African
Americans after the
Having an important role in
American History, the town symbolizes the pioneering spirit of
these ex-slaves who fled the war-torn South in search of "real”
freedom and a chance to restart their lives. This "ghost
town" has since gained
recognition as a National Historic Site.
In the late 1870’s
the black population of the South was extremely restless, as the
Reconstruction following the
Civil War failed to bring the long
awaited freedom, equality and prosperity. Instead, they were racially oppressed, poverty-stricken,
debt-ridden and starving.
At this time, along
came a white man by the name of W.R. Hill, who described a "Promise
to black families in the backwoods of
Tennessee. Hill told of a sparsely settled territory with abundant wild
game, wild horses that could be tamed, and an opportunity to own land
through the homesteading process in
town site of
was planned in 1877 by W.R. Hill, a land developer from Indiana, and
Reverend W.H. Smith, a black man, forming the
Town Company. Reverend
Smith became the President of the Town Company and Hill, the
treasurer. Named for a
legendary figure that came to America on a slave ship and later
purchased his freedom, the two founders aggressively promoted the town
to the black refugees of the Deep South. The Reverend Simon P. Roundtree was the first settler, arriving
on June 18, 1877.
Zack T. Fletcher and his wife, Jenny Smith Fletcher (the
daughter of Reverend W.H. Smith) arrived in July and Fletcher was
named the secretary of the Town Company.
Smith, Roundtree, and the Fletchers made claims to their
property and built temporary homes in dugouts along the prairie.
Town Company produced numerous circulars to promote the town, inviting
"Colored People of the United States” to come and settle in the "Great
Solomon Valley.” The Reverend
Roundtree became actively involved in the promotion, and worked with a man
by the name of
"Pap" Singleton , a black carpenter from Nashville,
who traveled all over distributing the circulars.
Singleton, who could not read or write, distributed so many
circulars that he was sometimes called the "Moses of the Colored Exodus."
The Blacks who decided to emigrate soon acquired the name "Exodusters "
The black refugees
with the Underground Railroad and the fiery abolitionist
John Brown, and
were particularly responsive to opportunities to settle there. Handbills
and flyers distributed by the
Town Company portrayed
as a place for African-Americans to establish Black self-government.
At the same time, railroads, needing to populate the West to create
markets for their services, exaggerated the qualities of the soils and
climate in this "Western Eden.”
The desperate families of the South listened with rapt
attention and in the late summer of 1877, 308 railroad tickets were
purchased to take them to the closest railroad point in Ellis,
Still fifty-five miles away, the families walked to Nicodemus,
arriving in September 1877.
Within one month the first black child was born in Graham
County to Mr. and Mrs.
homes along the Soloman River in dugouts, the original settlers found
more disappointment and privation as they faced adverse weather
conditions. In the Promised Land of
they initially lacked sufficient tools, seed, and money, but managed
to survive the first winter, some by selling buffalo bones, others by
working for the
Pacific Railroad at Ellis, 55 miles away.
Yet, others survived only with the assistance of the Osage
Indians, who provided food, firewood and staples.
Though most stayed, many were disillusioned by the lack of vegetation
and the starkness of the land, quickly returning to the green fields
of Kentucky and Tennessee.
Of those who stayed, the spring of 1878 brought hope and
opportunity as the new settlers began to farm the soil.
The spring of 1878 also heralded more "Exodusters ” from
the South and a local government was established, headed by "President
Smith.” One woman
arriving in the spring, Williana Hickman said years later of arriving
"... "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.
I said, "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."
Despite the living conditions and their longing for the
forested hills of Kentucky, Williana and her husband Reverend Daniel
Hickman stayed, organizing the First Baptist Church in a dugout with a sod
structure above it.
By 1880, a small, one-room, stone sanctuary had been
erected at the same site. This structure evolved from limestone to stucco,
and in 1975, a new brick sanctuary was built.
Today, the church still stands in Nicodemus.