Nicodemus, Kansas: A Little Town with a Big History

We had hoped to stop in Nicodemus, but did not have time today. I think the story of Nicodemus is still worth sharing as it reflects the rich history of Kansas.

The Exodus of 1879  (also known as the Kansas Exodus and the Exoduster Movement) refers to the mass movement of African Americans from states along the Mississippi River to Kansas in the late nineteenth century, and was the first general migration of blacks following the Civil War.

Kansas held a primary role in igniting the growth of black settlements in the Midwest in the 1870’s. Because of its proximity to the slave-holding states of Missouri and Arkansas and because black refugees associated Kansas with the Underground Railroad and the fiery abolitionist John Brown , Kansas was seen a potential “safe haven” for liberation-seeking formerly enslaved people. Kansas became the destination of various black colonization groups.

“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 is one of those towns in Kansas, founded by newly freed slaves in 1877, under the leadership of Benjamin “Pap” Singleton. Pap Singleton was well known and respected in his Tennessee community as a skilled carpenter, cabinetmaker, and undertaker. He felt it was his duty to help black sharecroppers, who were often cheated and exploited by white landowners. In 1869 Singleton founded the Tennessee Real Estate & Homestead Association and began to organize blacks in his state to form colonies and settle in Kansas.

Nicodemus was the first black community west of the Mississippi River and is the only predominantly black community west of the Mississippi that remains a living community today. The first groups to populate the town in 1877 came mostly from the Lexington, Kentucky area. Moving west to Nicodemus was no small feat, as the town was a distance from rail and stagecoach routes. Upon seeing the remote and barren location of Nicodemus, some of the original 380 settlers who left Kentucky to establish the town turned around and went back east.

According to the Nicodemus National Historic Site, construction began immediately to provide housing for the new arrivals. 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, 50 miles away. Yet, others survived only with the assistance of the Osage Indians, who provided food, firewood and staples.

Of those who stayed, the spring of 1878 brought hope and opportunity as the new settlers began to farm the soil. They replaced sod houses with frame houses as the community grew and became more financially successful. 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 its size increased so did the political power of Nicodemus within progressive Kansas. Its citizens’ votes helped to elect mixed-race slates to county positions, as well as the first black politicians in State offices. Rumors that the railroad promised to add Nicodemus as a station helped the town experience tremendous growth. When this promised station stop failed to materialize in 1887, the town’s fortunes turned. Many moved away. Subsequent droughts did little to reinforce the idea of Nicodemus as an ideal place to settle.

By the late 1880s Nicodemus fell into decline.  In 1885 winter blizzards destroyed forty percent of the township’s wheat crop. Then two years later town leaders had put sixteen thousand dollars in investment in three different railroads in hopes that one would extend its lines into or near their town; however, all three railroads bypassed Nicodemus. After that the town boosters ceased trying to lure newcomers especially after the most prominent citizen Edwin McCabe left in 1889.  Its population declined to the 57 people who live there today, although hundreds return every July for the annual Homecoming Emancipation Celebration.

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