1877 - Nicodemus Town Company is established
Benjamin Pap Singleton, born a slave in Tennessee, had a mission after the Civil War. He wanted former slaves to leave the South for a place he described as the promised land: Kansas.
Singleton, a cabinet and coffin maker, believed that African Americans living in the South would never be free in the towns where they were once slaves. He had good reason to think a mass exodus was in order. Southern blacks were murdered for nothing more than refusing to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached. They were routinely cheated out of their wages. All-black churches, schools, and other institutions were routinely attacked by white mobs.
Singleton, along with five other African American men and one white land speculator, established Nicodemus Town Company in 1877 with the intent of building a town of all-Black settlers. Soon thereafter, Singleton started papering small towns in eight southern states (including Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee) with flyers about the new settlement, eventually circulating 600 notices that read, “Ho for Kansas!” “Every man that would come into my country,” he said, “and I could get a chance, I would put one in his hand.”
Former slaves didn’t need Singleton to tell them that life might be better if they left the South. African Americans spread across the country in the decade following the Civil War, many heading for Maryland, Virginia, and the large urban centers of the Northeast. Some, however, headed for the frontier. These settlers, called “exodusters,” set up house in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. The Homestead Act, which encouraged settlement in the West, meant exodusters could buy land for a very low price, as long as they lived on it.
Kansas had a special appeal for African American immigrants. It entered the Union as a free state after a long and bloody battle on the part of abolitionists. Following Singleton’s sales pitch, the number of African Americans living in Kansas soared, from 640 in 1860 to more than 43,000 by 1880. He was very sincere in his belief in the virtues of the state, but the promised land wasn’t necessarily what awaited settlers.
Even for refugees from the South, the realities of Kansas were shocking. Williana Hickman, one of the early residents of the town, remembered that she was initially relieved when her fellow travelers called out at the first site of the settlement in 1878. Feeling ill at the end of her long journey from Kentucky, she surveyed the prairie with an excitement that turned in confusion. “Where is Nicodemus?” she asked. Her husband, she recalled, “pointed out various smokes coming out of the ground and said ‘That is Nicodemus.’ The families lived in dugouts. The scenery was not at all inviting, and I began to cry.” She was right to be dismayed. The winter following her arrival was bitterly cold, and the townspeople didn’t yet have stores of food stockpiled. They were saved by a group of Osage Indians returning from a hunt, who shared their game and saved the Nicodemus residents from starving.
Slowly, the collection of dugouts turned into a town. By 1888, the town’s population reached 500, and most residents were African American. Hickman recovered from her initial horror to become a founder, along with her husband, of Nicodemus Baptist Church, which joined a post office, school, bank, two newspapers, and a general store in the center of town.
The town bloomed in its first decade, but nearly all was lost in subsequent years. The railroads decided to bypass the town in 1888, just as the town was becoming the commercial center of the county, building tracks six miles away in the open prairie instead. Unlike nearby other towns that were bypassed by the railroads, Nicodemus did survive. But the Depression, when many residents lost their farms, was the final blow to the town.
Singleton was later asked if he thought the settlers’ hardships were worth it. He was testifying before a Congressional committee, which had convened to investigate why so many African Americans had left the South following the war, creating a shortage of people to work the cotton fields. “The land is free, and it is nobody’s business, if there is land enough, where the people go.” Singleton told the congressmen. “I put that in my people’s heads.”
The town’s population today is just 21 people, but the history of Nicodemus is very much alive. Each year in late July, the town hosts an annual homecoming celebration for the descendants of the original settlers. Bertha Moore Carter is one of the town’s few remaining residents, who recently reminisced about the tight bonds that tied the former settlers together. “They’d go fishing together, they’d play cards, they’d have parties, right here,” Carter recalled while resting her hand on the crumbling stone wall of her neighbor’s homestead.Wind whipped the long grasses of the prairie as she spoke, and the land surrounding her was desolate, even emptier that it was when Williama Hickman saw it for the first time.