One of the most important places in the African-American experience is the Nicodemus National Historic Site, which is the only remaining all-black town west of the Mississippi River. Founded shortly after the Civil War ended by former enslaved African Americans from Kentucky, the site today represents the involvement of this group in the western expansion movement and ultimate settlement of the Great Plains. It was laid out in 1877. The town itself was declared a National Historic Landmark District in 1976.
The tiny town of Nicodemus is located in the northwestern part of Kansas, about five hours west of the Kansas City International Airport and about five hours east of the Denver International Airport in Colorado. The nearest large town is Stockton, some 19 miles to the east.
The former Kentuckians chose to live in freedom in Kansas in tribute to that state's bloody history in the pre-war battle to choose between being a slave state and a free state, the latter winning out. Many of the town's residents are farmers (wheat being the main choice of crops), and though there are several absentee black farmers, there is said to be only one black farmer still living on and working his own property.
The town's name came from a song published in 1864 called "Wake Nicodemus," according to the official website, though other sources say Nicodemus was a legendary Africa-American slave who purchased his freedom.
There were about 700 residents when the town was at its peak, but only 36 residents remain today, 30 of whom are direct descendants of the original settlers. At its height, there were two newspapers, three general stores, small hotels, a bank, and more. When the railroad came through Kansas, it did not pass through Nicodemus, so the town began to dwindle.
There are some 20 National Park sites that preserve African-American history, supported by the African American Experience Fund, which has raised private funds since 2001 to support educational and community engagement programs in this area.
Check out the Visitors Center, which is inside the Township Hall, south of the Roadside Park, off Highway 24. Short videos and exhibits will teach you the history of Nicodemus and blacks in the West. The hall was built in 1939 by 12 local men as part of the Works Progress Administration program to help America get out of the Great Depression, using stone quarried nearby.
The First Baptist Church here began holding services in 1877 in a dugout, followed by a sod structure, then a small limestone church, and now a red brick structure.
There are walking tours in which you view the five historic buildings (only one is accessible to the public). The five include the First Baptist Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the St. Francis Hotel, and the Nicodemus Schoolhouse. Ranger-led tours by appointment only (see phone below).
There's an annual Blues and Jazz Festival each June, sponsored by the Nicodemus Historical Society, and an Annual Homecoming Celebration held the last weekend in July. The latter is part of the town's annual Emancipation/Homecoming Celebration, which started in 1878.
Note that almost all property in the township is privately owned, so you are urged to stay on public roads.
When the nearby South Fork of the Solomon River was running (it's now generally dry), the residents used the river to fish, to baptize, and for recreation.
Admission and Hours
The town, being a town, is open 24/7, of course, but the Visitor Center hours are 9am to 4:30pm daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's days. Everything here is free, the site officials say.
There were only 2,978 visitors in 2009. The peak year was 2004, when 56,803 visitors were reported.
Nicodemus National Historic Site (tel. 785/839-4233; www.nps.gov/nico).
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