HIDDEN HISTORY: Oldest black colony west of the Mississippi in Kansas

Hidden History

NICODEMUS, Kan. (KSNT)– Nicodemus is a small town with big history.

“I’m old enough to know when they had a post office and a clothing store, filling station back in the older days,” Nicodemus native Bertha Carter said. “Restaurants. It just seems funny now because you look and don’t see any of that now.”

Nicodemus is a town in Northwest Kansas established and built by former slaves from Kentucky.

In 1877, newly freed slaves banded together to move to “The Promise Land”, the free state we call Kansas. For just five dollars a family could make their way from Kentucky to Kansas to start a new life. So the eager settlers boarded a train and made their way to the Sunflower State. The train stopped in Ellis before they could head to Nicodemus.

“Then they would get their materials, and the wagons and that sort of thing,” Nicodemus native and historian JohnElla Holmes said. “Then they walked on over here to Nicodemus, which is about 35 miles northwest of Ellis.”

The town originally started with more than 300 settlers. When they arrived on September 17, 1877, there was nothing. Resulting in some heading back east to Kentucky, others seeing the opportunity to build their new lives.

“Got out here and they thought they were going to have everything,” Carter said. “But they lived in a dugout and survived.”

The first houses were in fact dugouts, then the dugouts slowly turned into houses as schools, businesses and churches began to pop up.

Nicodemus began making a name for itself. The highest population for the town was about 700, cows and horses included.

The popularity didn’t last long. Around 1887 rumors began to circulate a railroad station was coming to Nicodemus. However, it never happened. On top of that a drought which didn’t encourage settlement forcing people to leave.

“A lot of people had to move because of the demise in farming and that sort of thing,” Holmes said. “And how production was kind of going slow. So a lot of families moved west.”

People moving to Nicodemus is only one part of the reason African Americans made their way to Kansas in the 19th century. Two years after Nicodemus was founded, more southerners began making their way to Kansas.

In 1879, more African Americans made their way to Kansas as part of the Exodus Movement. It’s where black people would migrate from the deep south heading west. Some would stop in Kansas permanently, others temporarily.

“That particular period is what we kind of attribute to the Exodus,” Sherri Camp said, Genealogy Librarian with the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library. “Although, of course, people have been coming out of the south for a long time before and after that.”

There were multiple black colonies in Kansas, but only one town has managed to stay around for more than 100 years.

“Nicodemus is just one example of the larger story,” Bruce Mactavish said, Washburn University professor. “Come to Kansas, chase your dream. What’s unique about Nicodemus is the idea of it being a town of community for African Americans.”

The tiny town of Nicodemus started with a big population of the formerly enslaved looking for freedom and a fresh start.

“That gives us a sense of pride that a lot of these communities didn’t have,” Holmes said. “People don’t understand that we don’t call it Nicodemus, we call it ‘coming home’. It’s more than just a place to us.”

While Nicodemus has seen a population decrease, the town continues to strive with the people who keep its history alive.

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