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Hidden History: Kansas is home to first, all-black settlement west of Mississippi

Black History Month

NICODEMUS, Kan. (KSNW) – A little Kansas town with a big history tells a much different story about survival after slavery.

Nicodemus represents the involvement of African-Americans in the westward expansion and settlement of the Great Plains. It is the oldest Black settlement west of the Mississippi River. 

KSN visited the town to retrace the steps of history that is now being recognized on a national level.

During the visit, KSN spoke with descendants of the first free-born black baby in the state of Kansas.

They shared pieces of their history that makes them proud, including slavery, which they say was not a disadvantage, but rather a pivotal aspect of their ancestor’s survival.

“Slavery produced in us a spirit of determination,” said Angela Bates, Executive Director of the Nicodemus Historical Society.

It also produced tenacity to build and sustain an entire town from the ground up with no foreseeable resources. 

“They were solicited. It was an organized effort to create a town and to solicit people that could make it in this town,” said Bates.

Bates said when they arrived, there was nothing but dirt roads to the nearest town of Ellis. It was a two-day walk.

“I think being a part of the families of Nicodemus and knowing that our forefathers endured slavery, and then they came to the west and had the vision to help to establish an all-black town and govern themselves,” said Angela Bates, Executive Director of the Nicodemus Historical Society.

“What you have is a situation where people are pretty much starving to death,” said Bates.

Among their obstacles was a fight to claim their land. It is something that Bates said many towns experienced in the 1800’s.

“The Osage as well at the Potawatomi both claim that they’ve been here to Nicodemus,” said Bates.

This was during a time that most considered Native Americans to be dangerous

“The Indians communicated with them by having the game and throwing it on the ground — that they were not there to harm them.”

Native Americans, whom Kansas journalists initially documented to be hostile, were the reason that former slaves survived their first winter in Nicodemus. The new town, once populated by 600 people, hit a high point when they left. 

They built their own schools, churches, stores and banks. The residents of Nicodemus used their skills learned during slavery and created a new life for themselves. They were even promised a railroad which would help with the flow of resources.

The railroad never came but the 1930’s depression did, and the town couldn’t survive it. However, those that lived in the community spoke about how they are keeping their town’s history alive.

“I am a sixth-generation descendent of one of the first families that came to Nicodemus. I come from the Williams line of the family,” said LueCreasea Home, Nicodemus descendent.

“This is my great-grandfather – Neil Williams,” said Carla Bates Adams, Nicodemus descendent.

“I’m a Canon and Jones, which were descendent of the Sloughters and Dorsies,” said Shante’ Ryans, Nicodemus descendent.

Each of them say, what brings people back to Nicodemus every year, is the Emancipation Celebration. It has been going on since 1877.

In 2018, the community celebrated 140 years of freedom, an accomplishment that Bates said is worth celebrating.

“I think being a part of the families of Nicodemus and knowing that our forefathers endured slavery, and then they came to the west and had the vision to help to establish an all-black town and govern themselves. I mean that’s something to be very, very proud of,” said Bates.

The town of Nicodemus is now marked as a National Historic Site, and the residents there said the Emancipation Celebration brings hundreds of people from around the world to celebrate that history. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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