Nicodemus – A Black Pioneer Town

“When we got in sight of Nicodemus the men shouted, “There is Nicodemus!”   …  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.”

— Williana Hickman, in the Spring of 1878

Edward P. McCabe, who joined the colony in 1878, served two terms as state auditor, 1883-1887, the first African American to hold a major state office.

By 1887 Nicodemus had gained more churches, stores, a literary society, an ice cream parlor, a lawyer, another newspaper, a baseball team, a benefit society and a band. Hopes were high in the community when the railroad talked of an extension from Stockton to Nicodemus and in March of 1887, the voters of Township approved the issuance of $16,000 in bonds to attract the Union Pacific Railroad to the community. Despite the bond issue, the town and the railroad could not agree on financial compensation and the railroad withdrew its offer. In 1888, the railroad established the extension six miles away south of the Solomon River. Leaving Nicodemus a stranded “island village,” businesses fled to the other side of the river to the Union Pacific Railroad camp that later became known as the town of Bogue. With the businesses leaving, Nicodemus began a long gradual decline.

After the rail service failed to materialize, Zachary Fletcher, the town’s first entrepreneur, sold his town lots to the original promoter, W. R. Hill, but continued to run his businesses. Eventually, the hotel reverted to Graham County for a time but was brought back into the family in the 1920’s by Fred Switzer, a great-nephew raised by the Fletchers. When Switzer married Ora Wellington in 1921, they made the hotel their home.

Nicodemus School, Kathy Weiser, September, 2006.

By 1928, the farmers of Nicodemus were cultivating from fifty to one thousand acres each. When the seasons were favorable, the lands frequently yielded more value in wheat than the actual sale value of the land.

But, in 1929, the depression brought disaster to Nicodemus, as farm prices fell. Most of the young people began to leave the area during this time.

Further devastation occurred when the area faced severe droughts in 1932, 1933 and 1934, followed by the infamous dust bowl days of Kansas in the late winter and early spring of 1935. Entire families then left what had become an unproductive region.

By 1935, the small town was reduced to a population of just 76 and supported only a church, a hall, and a meagerly stocked store. Most of the marketing and trading were carried on at Bogue, about six miles away.

In 1938 a community center was built, that now hosts a National Park Service ranger, historic displays, and a gift shop. The community center was a WPA project during the depression and was built from locally quarried limestone.

By 1950 Nicodemus was reduced to 16 inhabitants and the necessities of life had to be purchased in nearby Bogue. The post office closed in 1953.

Nicodemus Town Hall

The Nicodemus Town Hall continues to stand. Kathy Weiser, September, 2006.

More than a half-dozen black settlements sprung up in Kansas after the Civil War but Nicodemus was the only one to survive. Kansas’ first black settlement and Graham County’s first community, was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Twenty years later, on November 12, 1996, Nicodemus was designated as a National Historical site. This legislation directs the National Park Service to assist the community in the preservation of historic structures and to interpret the history for the benefit of present and future generations.

The only remaining business is the Nicodemus Historical Society Museum, which operates sporadic hours. Pamphlets, a Walking Tour Map & Guide, and video presentations are available at the Nicodemus Community Center.   Today, Nicodemus is called home to approximately 20 people.

Every year on the last weekend in July Emancipation Day is celebrated and descendants of original town settlers come home. The town is filled with people who are proud of their heritage. Events include a parade, food and celebration of heritage and family.

Nicodemus is located 45 miles northwest of Hays, Kansas on Highway 24 between Hill City and Stockton. Visitor Information: 785-839-4233

Nicodemus Town Company Circular

Nicodemus Town Company Circular

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2018.

 

Also See:

Chattel Hood to Freedom – Black Pioneers Help Settle California

Exodusters of Kansas

Benjamin “Pap” Singleton

The American Civil War

 

2 thoughts on “Nicodemus – A Black Pioneer Town”

  1. This is a huge testament to the strength and fortitude of people that because of a dream pushed through the hardest of times to better themselves at all cost.. it is so hard for me to believe that an individual could up and move with literally nothing but the clothes on your back with your family and start from a dugout here with some of the toughest weather and build so much and become so successful..

  2. This informative article is clear proof that Black Americans built prosperous black towns not ghettos or hoods.

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