Hope & Perseverance in an Unforgiving Landscape

Katherine RivardNPF Blog
District 1 Schoolhouse at Nicodemus National Historic Site through a field of wheat
District 1 Schoolhouse at Nicodemus National Historic Site - NPS Photo / Will Pope

An unassuming and unforgiving stretch of land in the Solomon Valley of Kansas transformed in 1877. In search of a life free from persecution and oppression in post-Civil War America, a group of African Americans traveled to Kansas to establish the first and only remaining black settlement in the West. Nearly 120 years later, the site would be incorporated into the National Park Service as Nicodemus National Historic Site.

Nicodemus Then

First Baptist Church through a field of prairie grass, Nicodemus National Historic Site.

First Baptist Church at Nicodemus National Historic Site

NPS Photo / Will Pope

In the summer of 1877, Reverend M. M. Bell’s congregation at an African American Baptist church in Lexington, Kentucky, sat listening to a white land developer who had come to give a speech after the service. Appealing to the church crowd, W.R. Hill spoke of the “Great Solomon Valley of Kansas,” claiming that it was an oasis of fertile soil, plentiful water, available lumber, and a temperate climate.

Earlier that year, Reverend Simon P. Roundtree arrived as the first settler of Nicodemus and was soon followed by a group of 30 settlers. Most of these families were related and had been enslaved on a single plantation. That fall, Hill and Reverend Bell enrolled 350 freedmen from Lexington to settle in Nicodemus. The group arrived on September 17, the date that became the founding day of Nicodemus itself. Upon arrival, 50 settlers turned back, realizing the hardships that lay ahead if they stayed. But by the first winter, a school serving 45 students was established and by the spring of 1878, more people would migrate from other parts of Kentucky and Mississippi.

Hill presented a distorted version of a much grimmer truth. The unsettled land was not hospitable to crops, averaging less than 30 inches of rainfall per year with no timber available for construction. Nevertheless, the black population of the county numbered between 500 and 700 people by 1880. One year later, Nicodemus was composed of 35 structures, including three hotels, two churches, two dry goods stores, and a lumber yard. White people had also moved to Nicodemus, which meant that it had a fully integrated school. Schools would not be integrated nationwide until 1954.

In a decision that would radically change the town’s trajectory, the long-awaited railroad bypassed Nicodemus in 1887, dashing the hopes of the settlers that their town would be placed along the route. This economic disappointment, coupled with continued droughts, resulted in the number of farms in the township dropping from 70 to 48 in the years between 1885 and 1900.

The first circular advertising Nicodemus had appeared on April 16, 1877, predicting that it would become the “Largest Colored colony in America.” But the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state, and stirred political tensions creating a divided population that did little to draw black settlers. In a rush to gain control of the state, abolitionists, including John Brown confronted slaveholders in several bloody conflicts even before the start of the Civil War. Ultimately, the end of the Civil War opened the West to black settlers.  

During the Reconstruction period, an estimated 20,000 African Americans moved from the South to Kansas and the free lands of the West, known as the “Exodusters.” They saw the West as an opportunity to finally be free, though many formerly enslaved people still faced discrimination in the South as Jim Crow laws perpetuated violence and segregation. Those that first settled in Nicodemus struggled through the lack of water and a nearby rail or stagecoach route, but their pioneering spirit and courage are remembered as admirable.

In order to preserve this town as a unique reminder of the pioneering American spirit and African American history, the Nicodemus National Historic Site was designated by Congress as a part of the National Park Service in 1996.

Nicodemus Now

2009 Homecoming Celebrations with Descendants of Nicodemus National Historic Site

Homecoming celebrations with descendants of Nicodemus National Historic Site

NPS Photo

Today, the small community of 56 is largely made up of residents over the age of 50, yet the legacy of this place is kept alive by younger generations who return to visit or celebrate the annual homecoming. It remains the only remaining all-black town west of the Mississippi River to have been settled in the 1800s by formerly enslaved people.

In the pioneering spirit of Nicodemus’ settlers, the National Park Foundation has funded grants through its Open Outdoors for Kids initiative so children can learn about this unique town while standing in the Nicodemus Town Hall itself, which is one of five historic buildings in town.

The visitor center is inside the Nicodemus Town Hall and offers displays and short interpretive films about the lives of Nicodemus residents. Nicodemus National Historic Site also hosts special programs, musical events, youth activities, and an annual Homecoming Emancipation Celebration.

The park preserves the stories of the brave men and women who settled difficult terrain in the hopes of building a town where they could truly live the ideals of freedom, independence, and self-determination.

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