Former club president Jim Peters recounted the history of Nicodemus, an all-African American community founded in 1877 in Graham County in northwest Kansas. Jim traced the legacy of slavery in America which existed in all 13 original colonies. By 1776 there were more than 500,000 slaves across the colonies, but by 1804 all Northern states had outlawed the practice. Just prior to the Civil War, the 1860 census counted nearly four million slaves throughout the South.
As the War was ending in 1865, states ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery, inaugurating the period of Reconstruction across the South. In 1866, the 14th Amendment was passed, granting citizenship to anyone born in the United States and prohibiting states from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; or the equal protection of the laws. In 1869 the 15th Amendment was ratified guaranteeing the right to vote of all men regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude. This period of Reconstruction saw important advancements for former slaves.
But following the contested presidential election of 1876, the Congress passed the Compromise of 1877 that ended Reconstruction, opening the way for a backlash to the advancements granted African Americans. Now facing the passage of Jim Crow laws, the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremist groups, former slaves by the tens of thousands fled the South looking for true freedom and opportunities in the North and West.
An estimated 40,000 refugees fled to Kansas–the Free State and home of famed abolitionist John Brown—to take advantage of the Homestead Act, which offered 160 acres of land to any person willing to live on the property for five years. Nicodemus was settled by former slaves who fled Kentucky and other southern states and were promised verdant land offering ready farming and hunting. But its 600 inhabitants encountered an overwhelming lack of resources–no timber for building homes requiring families to live in damp, dark dugouts, untillable prairie grasslands, drought, little wildlife and austere weather.
Yet, the settlers withstood these challenges and within two years, Nicodemus prospered claiming two general stores, a post office, 35 dwellings, two churches, two livery stables, a hotel and a population of nearly 700.
But the failure to secure a railroad route through Nicodemus was the catalyst for a five-decade decline in its prosperity. Lack of investment, drought, the Depression and antagonism from its neighboring towns contributed to a declining population, the closing of its post office in the 1950s and its school in the 1960s.
Nonetheless, today Nicodemus Township supports a population of approximately 40 and is on the rise. In 1976, Nicodemus was named a National Historic Site and the National Park Service staffs a visitor center offering information about local history and things to do and see. To learn more visit their website.