Historic status sought for town ex-slaves built Black pioneers left legacy in Kansas

November 03, 1991|By Angelia Herrin | Angelia Herrin,Knight-Ridder News service

WASHINGTON -- When she first heard it would take an act of Congress to get what she wanted, Angela Bates thought she might quietly put her dream away.

But then she remembered her great-great-grandmother and the other freed slaves who left Kentucky in 1877, believing they would find a promised land on the Kansas plains.

She remembered the tales of the families who survived the first bitter winter in dugouts under the prairie and how they emerged in spring to build a town in Kansas they called Nicodemus -- named for a slave who bought his freedom.

And finally, she remembered how she came to Nicodemus herself as a child, amazed that while the civil rights battles blazed on television, she spent her summers in an all-black town reveling in the freedom.

In the end, Ms. Bates decided, the job of getting an act of Congress that would turn Nicodemus into a National Historic Site would be no more improbable -- or impossible -- than the journey that her ancestors started more than a century ago.

"There is a unique story here about the black pioneer experience in America that must be preserved. We owe our children that," Ms. Bates says.

"And there is a message here, too, for people today. It says look what happens when you refuse to be a part of the victim mentality and instead say I can sustain myself and survive."

The quest for the federal recognition for Nicodemus -- and for the federal dollars to help restore and preserve the town -- is not an unusual one: Congress receives hundreds of requests annually to preserve a building, battlefield or other historic treasure.

But what is unusual is the story of Nicodemus -- the oldest all-black town west of the Mississippi -- and its determined band of supporters. Although only 48 people now live in the town, hundreds of descendants of those first black pioneers still call it home. The Emancipation Celebration, the town's annual homecoming in July, drew 500 people this year.

"Nicodemus is a little town but it has a big story about dreams, like the dream that you had as child, and the price those people paid for those dreams," says Veryl Switzer, a Nicodemus native and an assistant vice president at Kansas State University.

"It sounds romantic, but the town, its story, talks to us. That's why we cherish it."

Nicodemus, like many prairie towns, was first a dream of speculators. But of the seven incorporators of the Nicodemus Town Company, six were black. One developer, S. P. Roundtree, was a black minister who wore a brand on his cheek as punishment for having learned to read.

The developers understood that the frontier could offer a new hope to blacks, left with little money and no land in the in the Reconstruction South.

But as one historian noted, it was profit, not escape from white oppression, that was the first goal of Nicodemus' developers. In the circulars offering Nicodemus sites, the developers exaggerated about the soil, the water supply and the weather to attract settlers.

So the first immigrants from Kentucky were unprepared for what awaited them on the high plains. "I began to cry," one pioneer wrote, when her husband announced they had arrived in Nicodemus. Some gave up and went home. But most stayed -- and more would come.

Nicodemus' population reached a peak of about 700 in the 1880s after the wave of black immigrants from the South known as the Exodusters had arrived. Congress grew so worried about black immigration -- 15,000 blacks poured into Kansas in just four months in 1879 -- hearings were held.

The Exodusters movement died away. The railroad that was promised for Nicodemus was never built. The town slowly

dwindled. By 1950, the Nicodemus post office was closed.

But Nicodemus is still home for generations of families. Ms. Bates, 38, moved back to Kansas over a year ago, after living in Washington, D.C., and Denver. She was born in Nicodemus and grew up in California, but summers were for the annual pilgrimage.

"Every year I couldn't wait to get there. This was my place. This was our place. I loved the stories," Ms. Bates says.

Nicodemus won recognition as a national historic landmark in 1976. It is now seeking designation as a national historic site and money to restore buildings like the schoolhouse and the A.M.E. church. Ms. Bates hopes the town will be used as an interpretive center, telling the story of the black pioneer movement.

A measure, sponsored by Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., already has directed the Interior Department to study the Nicodemus site and draw up recommendations for preservation.

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