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Nicodemus, Graham County

In 1876, nearly a decade after its founding, Graham County was home to only 75 residents. Within a few short years, however, the county opened its arms to hundreds of new residents, the majority of them were African Americans from Kentucky. These new residents brought their own cultural traditions to the county forever changing its character and securing its place in American history.

It was called the "Colored Exodus;" thousands of African Americans leaving the post-Civil War South, looking for new roots. By the late 1870s, black emigration from the South had reached its peak. Interested in bringing new settlers into the rugged, wind swept Kansas plains, a white man, W.R. Hill, traveled throughout the South encouraging blacks to choose from new government lands. By the summer of 1877, actually before the Exodus began, 300 blacks were convinced to move from the South to Graham County and the new town site of Nicodemus was established.

Although several African American settlements were scattered throughout the Graham County prairie and surrounding area, the town of Nicodemus became the center of African American culture for the region. The town's place in American history was touted by organizers before it was even platted. In April 1877, before officially registering the town, the Nicodemus Town Company began advertising the community in Lexington and Georgetown, Kentucky, extolling Nicodemus as "The Largest Colored Colony in America." The first wave of settlers, 350 persons strong, arrived on September 17, 1877.

The town of Nicodemus grew rapidly through the 1880s. Although many of the businessmen in town were white, Nicodemus could also boast of several prominent black businessmen in an age when opportunities for blacks to own and operate their businesses was rare. Unlike the organizers and businessmen, many who responded to the town company's advertisement, arrived with limited resources. Although advertisements promised "plenty of timber," these new arrivals found that there was not enough for permanent construction. Many second- and third-wave colonists, numbering 75 between 1878 and 1879, were disappointed to find that the town of Nicodemus, like many early pioneer towns, consisted merely of a series of tiny earthen dugouts.

Like that of many small Kansas towns, the financial success of Nicodemus was tied to the agricultural economy. Although the county's farmers struggled during the late 1870s and early 1880s, mild climates during the mid-1880s resulted in profitable crop yields. Those who weathered the difficult first years were rewarded during the 1880s.  Successful businesses began replacing dugouts with permanent stone buildings. In 1886 alone, 30 new buildings were constructed.

Unfortunately, a reliance on the agricultural economy also made small communities indirectly dependent upon railroads. When Nicodemus failed to attract the Missouri Pacific rail line in 1887 and the Union Pacific line in 1888, the economic incline lost momentum. The Union Pacific's decision to bypass Nicodemus, locating instead in Bogue, coupled with the nationwide economic depression of the 1890s, sealed the town's fate. Many of the town's 400 residents relocated to Bogue taking permanent structures with them.

Nicodemus remained a small prosperous African American community through World War I. By 1910, 600 residents, most of them black, were living there. As with many small farming communities between the world wars, Nicodemus began to decline in population and business. The depression of the 1930s dealt an especially big blow to the townspeople, but a strong community spirit lingered.

Today, Nicodemus exists as a small community;  the longest lasting black town in the state—a monument to the black pioneers who came to Kansas in search of new opportunities and prosperity. The efforts of those pioneers was recognized in 1996 when Congress established the Nicodemus National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service. Residents still host the Emancipation, an annual event first celebrated in the town in 1878. In 1976 the National Park Service recognized the significance of Nicodemus to U. S. history, designating the town as a National Historic Landmark District. In 1996 Congress designated Nicodemus as a National Historic Site, reviving the community's pioneer spirit and ensuring the history of the town will live on. Read the National Register nomination here.

Nicodemus National Historic Site preserves, protects, and interprets the only remaining western town established by African Americans during the Reconstruction Period following the Civil War. The town of Nicodemus is symbolic of the pioneer spirit of African Americans who dared to leave a region they had been familiar with to seek personal freedom and the opportunity to develop their talents and capabilities.

Entry: Nicodemus, Graham County

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2003

Date Modified: April 2015

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.