Nicodemus Celebrates Heritage Of Black Pioneers In Western Kansas
The 143rd annual homecoming celebration recently took place in Nicodemus, the last remaining African American settlement west of the Mississippi River.
Visitors to Nicodemus line the streets watching the opening parade.
Donned in blue uniforms, the Black men portraying Buffalo Soldiers sing a soldier's call and response song, proudly steer their horses onward as their trooper carries their 10th Calvary Company F guidon flag.
The homecoming brings families in from around the country to celebrate the town's heritage. Nearly 400 attended the celebration and nearly 100 taking advantage of the option to watch virtually.
Angela Bates, the Executive Director and Founder of Nicodemus Historical Society, says Nicodemus was settled in 1877 after emancipation and at the end of reconstruction. Bates says African Americans were beginning to move out of the south into the west.
"We are not Exodusters," Bates says. "People want to group us into that, but no, we are an organized town and people were solicited to come and settle in the town. So, Nicodemus represents those all-Black towns that, started to pop up all over the west. It's the oldest and only remaining."
In the late 1880s, Bates says the Nicodemus population was between 550 and 600 people. Over the years that number has dwindled to a current population of 23.
Joseph Rupnick, tribal chairman for Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation also joined in the festivities. Native Americans have a shared history with the Nicodemus settlers. He says while searching for buffalo in western Kansas, a group of Native American scouts stumbled upon Nicodemus. They gathered over a campfire to talk about how they could help the new settlers.
"It was decided at that time they would take half of the Buffalo that they harvest and give it to the people here," Rupnick says. "On top of that, teach them some skills on how to survive on the prairie and some of the things that they could do. Building houses and things like that.
"A lot of us that are here now are descendants of those folks that came out here to help this community out."
LueCreasea Horne is the first woman National Park Service Ranger in Nicodemus and a descendent of the town.
"My great, great, great, great, grandfather Tom and Zerina Johnson. They came over with that first group of settlers in 1877 and they homesteaded," she says. "I come down that linage so that makes me a sixth-generation descendent."
Horne remembers being immersed in Nicodemus history.
"My grandmother was still living and so I was able to be around her and her sisters and I didn't realize it then, but hearing the stories and hearing the struggles and triumphs of those ancestors," she says, "they put something in me."
A major highlight of the homecoming was the dedication of one of the oldest buildings in Nicodemus, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Established in 1885, it's one of the few church structures in the country that's part of the National Park Service. It was built out of limestone and is now restored with artifacts on display.
Angela Bates plans to keep the momentum going. During the homecoming, she took visitors and descendants back to an area called the Ellis Trail located about 35 miles away.
"It's the trail from Ellis that the people took. They had to walk after they got off the train all the way over to Nicodemus. That's the next big thing for me is to get the trail designated," Bates says. "We've got signs out on the trail where they spent the night; where they crossed people's property; where they crossed the river — all of that, so it's amazing. They crossed the Saline River, and [that's] where they got the first sight of Nicodemus."
Nicodemus plans to hold a Pioneer Day on Oct. 2 to honor the Native Americans that helped the settlers survive the first winter.
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