'Nicodemus' documents a living link to slavery

February 21, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

You can't find it on road maps, but in the far northwest corner of the state of Kansas lies the town of Nicodemus, population less than 75. It has been there longer than 100 years.

Baltimore filmmaker John Bright Mann found the town, and became fascinated by its history, when he was teaching in the late 1980s at the University of Kansas.

Now Maryland Public Television has found the story of Nicodemus an apt follow-up to a documentary about Abraham Lincoln's views on race.

Thus "Nicodemus" can be seen on MPT (channels 22 and 67) at 10 o'clock tonight, after "Abraham Lincoln: A New Birth of Freedom" at 9 p.m.

What's so curious about a tiny town in the middle of America?

Nicodemus was one of a handful of settlements in the United States founded after the Civil War by former slaves. It's the only one believed to survive with descendants of its founders, says Dr. Mann, who teaches documentary theory and production at Villa Julie College in Baltimore County.

"I was reading a book about black history when I was at [the University of Kansas], and there was literally this one sentence that listed towns founded by black slaves. When I saw one was in Kansas, I got interested, and discovered it was still there," says Dr. Mann.

"I thought, there has got to be a story there," recalls the professor. At the time, he had just done his first documentary, "Shelter," based upon the operations of a Kansas City homeless shelter, but had been unable to find a place to air it.

With videographer Jim Hines and field producer George Pawl, he traveled to Nicodemus on three occasions in 1989 and 1990 to record the lives of the descendants of the 100 or so original residents.

They hold a homecoming celebration of relatives and friends in August -- "when it's about 190 degrees," says the filmmaker -- and 400 to 500 people attend from all around the nation.

The celebration, along with interviews with residents who relate stories passed down by parents and grandparents, make up most of "Nicodemus."

"What I liked about the show is there are some real personal stories there," says Ann Engelmann, program manager at MPT.

She says the program's screening is part of an effort by the station to encourage independent filmmakers, especially those based locally.

"This might not be up to 'American Journal' [a PBS documentary series], but John has done a nice film, and I felt it was a good tie-in to African-American history month," she notes.

Ms. Engelmann says she receives five or six proposals a week from independent film makers, and she tries to take the position of "bring it in, and let's take a look at it."

Unfortunately, often "it turns out to be home movies, and we really can't use it," she says.

Nicodemus was founded in 1877 by one-time slaves, most of them from Tennessee and Kentucky, says Dr. Mann, a North Carolina native who earned bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. degrees from the University of North Carolina.

The original residents traveled there in a wagon train and pooled funds to buy land for the town. It was poor land, but it was theirs, and they struggled to farm its thin soil.

"My guess is that they ended up there because it was land that nobody else wanted," says Dr. Mann, who scripted the program and even composed its score.

When he visited the town to begin filming, "what we really found there was a spirit of a community, an incredibly, deeply religious community," he recalls, and he sought to capture that spirit on film.

The making of "Nicodemus" was funded primarily by the Kansas Commission for the Humanities. But Dr. Mann also received funding from the Association for Maryland Area Media Artists, and artistic consultations from Susan Leslie Grubb of Morgan State University.

Dr. Mann has now turned his attention to the spirit of a Baltimore community: Locust Point, the seaport-soaked neighborhood south of the Baltimore harbor.

Under a recent grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Independent Television Service, the filmmaker is trying to document the neighborhood's role in the Baltimore immigration experience around the turn of the century.

His contract calls for completion by October, but he does not know when or where the documentary may air.

Dr. Mann praises MPT's cooperation in airing "Nicodemus."

"I think things are getting better for independent filmmakers," he says.

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