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The Enslaved African Prince Who Inspired A ‘Promised Land’: The Town of Nicodemus

About 100 miles south from the border of Nebraska, tucked quietly atop the Kansas plains lies a small 145-year-old town called Nicodemus.

In my quest to find fascinating stories from Black history, I’ve been blessed to have stumbled upon some gems.

Rarely do I come across tales that can be perfectly molded through fact and folklore into a marvelous piece of art, but a small Black town in Kansas allowed me to paint you a Black masterpiece expressed through diction and made with soul.

About 100 miles south from the border of Nebraska, tucked quietly atop the Kansas plains lies a small 145-year-old town called Nicodemus.

Its history is steeped in Black resilience and Black excellence; its legacy still holding on by a thread.

Nicodemus, Kansas is the last of its kind.

The town is the only remaining western community established by Blacks after the Civil War.

Founded in 1877 by six former slaves from Lexington, Kentucky, and a white land developer, Nicodemus looked to be a saving grace for Black people in the south seeking escape from white violence and persecution.

Reverend W. H. Smith, Benjamin Carr, Jerry Allsap, the Reverend Simon Roundtree, Jeff Lenze, and William Edmonds had a vision of a self-made community with no oppression or racism, but to accomplish this, they needed to find a willing white man with a long enough bank and a mind open to change.

W.H Smith, a white land speculator with the idea sought to shift the cultural landscape by helping create a self-sufficient Black community during the period after the Civil War. Though his true intentions could have been completely financial, Hill created an opportunity Reverend Smith and his fellow ex-slaves couldn’t pass up. Land speculators regularly purchased vacant land in hopes the successful settlements would make them wealthy men. Rarely were there white men willing to partner with Blacks to establish Black communities. Most southern whites didn’t see the value in Black prosperity, but Hill did. He sent word to free Blacks from Kentucky and Tennessee of land hidden in the tucks of Kansas he hoped to develop for Black families.

He soon partnered with Reverend W. H. Smith to form the Nicodemus Town Company. Reverend Smith would take a leading role as the president of the Town Company and Hill would become its treasurer.

In 1877 the Black town of Nicodemus was born. Reverend W. H. Smith and other freed slaves recruited more than 300 ex-slaves to Nicodemus to start a new life. Although free from the violence and bigotry they once knew before the Civil War, free life presented new challenges. The Kansas plains offered limited resources to built sustainable homes. Most land acquired by Blacks right after the Civil War was barely habitable. Nicodemus’ first residents had to build dugouts along the Solomon River for homes; a shelter dug into the ground and roofed with sod. The Kansas plains were scarce of home building materials like timber. Dugouts were one of the most ancient types of human housing known to man. Their structures date back to early Africa 10,000 BC. Early settlers of Nicodemus were forced to use accident techniques like Dugouts to survive. It truly is a testament to our resilience as a people.

Lack of resources couldn’t stand in the way of prosperity and Nicodemus thrived. By the early 1880s, Black-owned farms surrounded the town, and its population sprawled to more than 500 residents.

As the town continued to grow, eventually it was able to build three general stores, three churches, two newspapers, a bank, a drug store, and an ice cream parlor.

They also had a literacy society to teach Blacks how to read, a baseball team, and a handful of lawyers. Nicodemus was truly a ‘rebirth’ of hope for a better life for Black Americans. A renewed faith in what it means to be free.

Let’s take the name, Nicodemus.Broken down to the root the name is composed of two parts, Nico(Niko) and Demus(demos). The name Nico is of Greek origin and means ‘victory’ or ‘people of victory’. Demos, also of Greek origin means people or common people. Putting the two together literally means a victory for the common people. Certainly fitting for a town full of former slaves.

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