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
Nicodemus, Kansas is the only remaining western community established by African Americans after the Civil War. 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 Land” in Kansas to black families in the backwoods of Kentucky and 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 Nicodemus, Kansas.
The town site of Nicodemus was planned in 1877 by W.R. Hill, a land developer from Indiana, and Reverend W.H. Smith, a black man, forming the Nicodemus 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.
The Nicodemus 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 Benjamin “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 associated Kansas 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 Nicodemus Town Company portrayed Nicodemus 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, Kansas 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. Henry Williams.
Building 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 Kansas, 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 Kansas 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 at Nicodemus, “… “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.
Zachary Fletcher, one of the town’s first settlers, became the first postmaster and the first entrepreneur in Nicodemus establishing the St. Francis Hotel and a livery stable in 1880. His wife, Jenny Smith Fletcher, became the first postmistress and schoolteacher and one of the original charter members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The complex that Fletcher built, which housed the post office, school, hotel and stable, later became known as the Fletcher-Switzer House and was an important focus of activity in the community. The building still stands in Nicodemus today.
By 1880, Nicodemus had a population of almost 500, boasting a bank, two hotels, three churches, a newspaper, a drug store, and three general stores – surrounded by twelve square miles of cultivated land. As the town began, Governor John St. John made a speech welcoming the new arrivals. Then, possibly at the urging from S. J. Gilmore, land commissioner for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, who said of the blacks, “Indications are that we will be over run with them next year,” Governor St. John began to discourage black immigrants and said that conditions in Kansas were not as promising as the blacks had been led to believe.