Oldest Black settlement west of Mississippi River is hidden in prairies of Kansas

Black History Month

NICODEMUS, Kan. (KSNW) — Nicodemus is a small town located in the prairies of northwest Kansas. It is the oldest and only remaining Black settlement west of the Mississippi River.

African American School
kansasmemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society)

It was established in 1877 during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War when pioneers from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi came to seek out homelands.

“These folks were ex-slaves, removed from slavery about 13 to 14 years, had the opportunity to come out here and be landowners, and they took that chance,” said Luecreasea Horne, Nicodemus Park Service educational technician and sixth-generation descendant. “The thought of them risking and taking that chance to come out to northwestern Kansas where they knew nothing about it, it just gives me a sense of pride.”

Throughout the years, hundreds of settlers arrived by train to the nearest depot in Ellis and walked 35 miles, a two-day journey, to what they would call home.

“They showed folks, what you can do with an opportunity. They weren’t asking for a handout. They were just asking for an opportunity,” said Horne.

Nicodemus Advertisement ( kansasmemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society)

At its peak, Nicodemus had a thriving population of nearly 600 people.

“It was very well-established, very well-developed. The population here was fairly high,” said Frank Torres, Nicodemus Park manager and superintendent.

The town was booming. Among the amenities were banks, schoolhouses, newspapers, doctors, a mercantile, a hotel, and a post office.

“Here was a time period when African-Americans pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and became very viable citizens in their own towns,” said Angela Bates, executive director of Nicodemus Historical Society and descendant. “This place provided them a haven.”

But as time passed, when a promised railroad didn’t come and later the Depression hit, the settlement struggled to survive. 

“We were a booming community, but when the railroad didn’t come through, it went five miles south, it just started our demise,” said Johnella Holmes, executive director of Tiny Homes Project and a descendant.

Many families moved on, but those that stayed have made it their mission to keep the town’s memory alive.

“This is a wonderful little town with its great history, even though it’s tiny,” said Bates.

Nicodemus’ rich history and unique story bring pride to the descendants that continue to call this settlement home. For those in the community carrying on its legacy, they’re working to revitalize the town through initiatives that will not only attract people to visit but hopefully persuade them to stay.

“It’s important to have Nicodemus and the history of it because you know that you’re a part of something. I feel like if you know that you’re a part of something, then you’ll have a better vision of your future,” said Horne.

Tiny Homes Project (KSN Photo)

“This town means everything to me. The history means everything to me,” said Holmes. “The history is such a huge part of my being, and being here is important.”

Through a partnership with K-State, the town’s tiny homes are part of a cluster project working to create small communities throughout the townsite. Two tiny homes have been completed, but the goal is to have 10.

“We’re always in hopes that the next generation will come in,” said Bates.

Descendants are also working to renovate older homes, hoping to create more places to live. Currently, the town has a population of 23 people. “It’s important for us to rehab those so that we can be ready when people and families are ready to come back,” Holmes.

But homes aren’t the only project people here are working on.

The Annual Homecoming Celebration, Chautauqua, and Ellis Trail Tours are events depicting the history of what once was.

This April, organizers plan to host the official kick-off for the Ellis Trail tours followed by a reenactment in September of the walking journey settlers embarked on to Nicodemus.

Nicodemus Spring Chautauqua (Nicodemus Historical Society & Museum)

In the past, hundreds of descendants and tourists have flocked to the town to celebrate the memories.

“That’s our goal is to bring Nicodemus to life and make it available to the world,” said Torres.

“Our Annual Celebration is so big and so huge, everybody in the county and Kansas love it so much. That is one of the reasons we still exist is because of that Annual Celebration,” said Holmes. “We want to build on those kinds of programs, making the people of our nation know what great history we have, not Black history, but what history we have here.”

But what’s most important for those whose soul lives and breathes the story of their ancestors is to create a future for the settlement.

“My hope is that we get families and descendants and those that love history to come back, to decide to make this home so we can grow it, so we can keep developing it, so we have someone to pass the history on to, so we can tell our stories and they never die,” said Holmes. “My hope is that the work that we do now lays the foundation for the town to last another 143 years in its magnificent glory. That’s my hope.”

“The lives of those that endured slavery and had the vision to come out, who had the tenacity and the fortitude to homestead and stay here, their lives and their stories will always be remembered,” said Bates.

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