The small town of Nicodemus, Kansas sits quietly on the northwest Kansas plains. Founded by newly freed slaves in 1877, Nicodemus was a refuge from the Reconstruction-era South, a reflection of a mass black migration from the South to the Midwest after the Civil War. 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. An all-black outpost on the frontier, this “unsettled” land offered a chance for black farmers and their families to start anew. Today, a few people and buildings remain from the original township, a testament to the resolve of the people of Nicodemus to build a new life on the prairie. Between the end of the Civil War and the 1880s, many courageous black settlers sought better lives, better land, and better opportunities in the heartland.
Black settlement of the vast plains began largely after the Civil War and was the result of a series of events. The United States bought the land of the territory (and later State) of Kansas as part of the Louisiana Purchase (1803). The later Missouri Compromise intended that Kansas would be a territory in which African Americans would be free. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, however, allowed popular referenda to determine whether Kansas and Nebraska would be free or slave States. This sense of uncertainty did not encourage the large-scale settlement of Kansas by any groups. Political tensions of the early- and mid-1800s deeply divided Kansas and led to a series of bloody conflicts over slavery in Kansas before the Civil War. These conflicts pitted pro-slavery activists against abolitionists in the race to form a State constitution that would set Kansas as either a slave State or a free State. When Kansas adopted an anti-slavery constitution in 1861, the Civil War had begun. The conclusion of the Civil War ended the debate over slavery and opened the West to many settlers who saw it as a land of opportunity.
In the early 1870s, the first groups to move west after the Civil War were the “sodbusters,” so named because of the houses they built from sod cut from the earth. These settlers faced a drought that caused many to return back east soon after arriving. By the late 1870s, though, weather conditions improved somewhat. Charismatic ex-slaves, who championed the supposed boundless opportunities waiting in the West, encouraged black settlers to move west.
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 somewhat barren location of Nicodemus, some of the original 380 settlers who left Kentucky to establish the town turned around and went back east.
For those who stayed, the first goal was building a town from the ground up. Construction began immediately to provide housing for the new arrivals. After living in dugouts, the settlers built sod houses. In time, they replaced these with frame houses as the community grew and became more financially successful. At one point, the town had a baseball team, post office, ice cream parlor, and two newspapers. 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 other county and 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, but even so, the town continued to grow until 1910, when approximately 400 people lived there.
Despite being much smaller today than it was one hundred years ago, Nicodemus remains an enduring monument to African American westward migration. Desperately seeking opportunities that simply did not exist in the South, former slaves moved west with hope. For some, the long march ended in newly platted Nicodemus, Kansas. They built houses, businesses, clubs, churches, and schools and were able to participate in political and commercial life in ways previously denied to them. Today, visitors to Nicodemus can take a self guided or a ranger guided tour to see the exteriors of some of the historic buildings that document what black settlers accomplished, including the St. Francis Hotel, the AME Church, the First Baptist Church, the Nicodemus School District No. 1 building, and the Nicodemus Township Hall. The Nicodemus Township Hall is the only building open to the public. The Township Hall serves as the visitor center, which offers exhibits, short videos, and the opportunity to learn about the history of Nicodemus and Blacks in the West. Nicodemus is still a living town. A few people, including some descendants of the original settlers, live in the town and surrounding area, and descendant families deserve the credit for keeping the community alive.
The land on which Nicodemus and other black communities stood in Kansas was not the most advantageous for agriculture, and natural drought cycles frustrated efforts to raise crops. Even so, in the decades following the Civil War, this part of the West offered African Americans a chance at a life usually unobtainable in much of the South. The courage and spirit that motivated African Americans to leave their homes and move to the Midwest after the Civil War to places like Nicodemus also helped propel them toward equality of opportunity in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas roughly a century later.
Nicodemus National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System and a National Historic Landmark, is located at 304 Washington Ave., south of the roadside park off Highway 24, in Nicodemus, KS. Click here for National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. There is no fee to visit the buildings included in the park. The Township Hall is the only building operated by the National Park Service and open to the public; the rest of the buildings within the historic site are private property. Visitors who wish to see the exteriors of these buildings may do so on a self guided or ranger-led tour. Guided tours may be booked by calling 785-839-4233. The visitor center, located in the former Township Hall is open 9am to 4:30pm daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. For more information, visit the National Park Service Nicodemus National Historic Site website or call 785-839-4233.
Many buildings within the town of Nicodemus have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.