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Nicodemus and the African American Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction

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.

Boys Thrive at O’Connell Youth Ranch

Gina Meier-Hummell, Executive Director of the O’Connell Youth Ranch, spoke to Rotarians about the work at the Youth Ranch. She is the former Secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

For 45 years, O’Connell Youth Ranch has been key to keeping young men out the prison system in Kansas. It sits on 125 acres east of Lawrence on O’Connell Road. There is currently space for 24 young men who range in age from 8 to 18 years-old in three houses. Residents attend the Lawrence Public Schools and/or work in the area.

Youth are referred to the Ranch by one of the Kansas state agencies that manages foster care placement. Most suffer from mental health issues, trauma, depression, addiction, and/or suicide. O’Connell is their home as long as needed, typically from 6 months to several years.

Meier-Hummel explains that residents find purpose in being active and making real contributions on a working ranch. The staff uses a strict behavior modification system, emphasizing positive reenforcement. The environment provides calm, rational, non-emotional, fair, and consistent direction to boys and young men who have not had such structure in the past. Successful behavior allows them to gain freedoms such as getting a driver’s license, finding a job, or joining a sports team at school. Most thrive in the structure and routine to learn self-control.

Riverkeepers Monitor Kansas Waterways

Dawn Buehler, Executive Director of Friends of the Kaw and Kansas riverkeeper, spotted otters on the Kaw recently. Buehler is one of only a few riverkeepers in the Midwest. Riverkeepers are committed to protecting and preserving the rivers and other waterways in a region.

Kansas waterways are in trouble due to sediment and harmful algal blooms (HAB), and the Kansas River is a prime example of the types of problems that are occuring. Tuttle Creek Reservoir is shrinking quickly, for example. Recent floods increased the sediments, and efforts are underway to stabilize stream banks, encourage no-till farming and cover crops, and establish buffer zones in order to avoid creating a whole new reservoir. Dredging is too expensive.

Special Olympics Involves Many in Douglas County

Michael Becker, a structural engineer by profession, volunteers as Director of Operations for Douglas County Special Olympics. He also serves as lead coordinator for basketball, track & field, golf, and bowling competitions.  He got involved “through marriage.” His wife and his sister-in-law recruited him to start coaching in 2013.   

The mission of Douglas County Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities in the Douglas County area.

Special Olympics grew when Eunice Kennedy Shriver focused the attention of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundationon on individuals with special needs.  In 1968, the first Special Olympics event took place involving teams from the United States and Canada in 200 events.  Now, more that 5.3 million athletes compete from more than 170 countries.  

The Douglas County Jayhawks has 97 athletes on its active roster. Ranging in age from 15-56, they participate in 18 different competitions or events, eight of which were newly-established in 2019.  All of the programs are run by volunteers; they devoted 6,500 hours last year.  There are regional and state level tournaments for each sport.  The Young Athletes program teaches children 2-7 years old to share, take turns, follow directions, and maintain healthy habits.

The group conducts various fundraisers during the year and welcomes help from the community.  Becker encourages anyone interested to get involved!

South Korea’s Role in Vietnam War is Focus of Dissertation

Hosub Shim discussed his research on South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1973.  A major in the South Korean military, Shim will complete his Ph.D. in history at KU this spring and then will return to South Korea to teach history to military cadets. Shim first spoke to Lawrence Central Rotary about 3 years ago when he began his doctoral program.  

Although the Vietnam War was as controversial in South Korea (ROK) as it was in the United States, South Korea had the second largest number of forces stationed there.  The country found it was in their national interest to have strong ties with the United States; they leveraged their military help in exchange for U.S. assistance with strengthening their army and spurring their economy.  Their involvement was a turning point to becoming a prosperous country. 

South Korean troops were largely stationed on the eastern coast of Vietnam, a safe location that kept casualties low.  South Korea refused to allow the U.S. to control their operations, maintaining a policy of pacification as opposed to the U.S. strategy of “search and destroy.”  

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