Nicodemus National Historic Site

Camouflaged within the rural landscape of the Great Plains in western Kansas is Nicodemus National Historic Site.  A seemingly simple rural community, Nicodemus is a symbol for the strength, determination, and endurance of many African-Americans.

Historic photo of the town of Nicodemus with many people and horses in front of a few structures.
A ca. 1885 view of Nicodemus, Kansas shows the original First Baptist Church and the Williams General Merchandise store.

From Kansas State Historic Society, in NPS Cultural Landscape Report

The history of Nicodemus starts at the end of the Civil War before the “Exodus of 1879” when former slaves began moving out of the south to lands north and west where they could support themselves and make a living primarily through farming their own land. There were two significant groups that settled Nicodemus beginning in September of 1877. A real estate agent, W.R. Hill, and Reverend W.H. Smith led the first group of about 350 African-Americans from Lexington, Kentucky to Graham County, Kansas (where Nicodemus is located). Another group of 250 arrived in the spring of 1878.
Two men shovel hay from atop a horse-drawn wagon.
Farmers haying with a horse-drawn header wagon. Nicodemus Township was a dispersed farming community, which reinforced the town's role as a social and cultural center (date unknown).

With permission from University of Kansas, Spencer Research Library, Nicodemus Historical Society Collection, in NPS Cultural Landscape Report

Nicodemus quickly grew into a typical western town. It had general stores, livery stables, a bank, a law firm, a post office and many other professional practices by 1887. With the Solomon River just south of the town, the land and soil were rich and provided perfect conditions for agriculture, which is still the primary industry today in Graham County, Kansas.

While Nicodemus exhibited promise and hope of becoming a flourishing community of former slaves, the town suffered greatly when the Missouri Pacific and Union Pacific railroad were rerouted south and north of the town. This led to loss of jobs and a declining population.

Even with its disheartening decline, the roots and history of Nicodemus persevered and the original settlers along with their descendants make sure the story, their story, was never forgotten. While very few live in the town today, the descendants champion for the history and its stories to be told. Every year, in late July, the Emancipation Celebration, now known as the Homecoming Celebration, takes place. The tradition is itself historic because it has occurred annually since 1878 after the settlers arrived. It’s a special festival that has descendants from all over the United States, as well as the world, come “home” to celebrate their roots, history, and stories.
Map of Nicodemus National Historic Landmark, showing features of district
Map shows the Nicodemus Townsite and National Historic Landmark and surrounding area, including the structures and road systems that contribute to the landscape's historic significance.

USGS, in NPS Cultural Landscape Report

Nicodemus also prides itself on the symbolism of the “pillars” of the community. These pillars are religion, commerce, education, community, and family. There are five structures that stand tall and represent each of these pillars: A.M.E. Church (religion), St. Francis Hotel/Switzer Residence (commerce), School District #1 (education), Township Hall (community), and Old First Baptist Church (family). The five structures were designated as one unit of the National Park Service on November 12, 1996. The structures and their symbolism hold the meaning and purpose of what the original settlers wanted to achieve when they founded Nicodemus, Kansas.

While there were many other communities settled on similar ideas during the “Exoduster” movement, after the Civil War, Nicodemus is the only community from that time period that exists today. Nicodemus not only holds its own history and symbolism, but it is a symbol for the strength, determination, and perseverance of all former slaves and African-Americans finding a new life after the Civil War.
A wooden schoolhouse stands on flat, open land surrounded by a jungle gym and short grass.
School District #1 was the first school to be built in Graham County, Kansas. The current structure was constructed when the original was destroyed by fire.

NPS


Last updated: June 12, 2018