In 1878, a newly arrived settler in western Kansas looked over a small rise in the prairie, expecting to see the new, all-black town of Nicodemus rising before her like a beacon of hope. What she saw was a collection of “anthills”—small mounds of sod, some of them with chimneys poking up. She burst into tears. One whole group of similar pilgrims turned back and went home the day they arrived.
Nicodemus, founded only a year earlier, was a vision and an inspiration, a symbol of black hope and self-respect, an announcement to the world that African-Americans could build and maintain a thriving community of their own with no need for dependence on whites. Its leaders and promoters were educated men, light-skinned and raised in freedom, with an eye on their own fortunes. But its new inhabitants were desperately underprepared.
The first winter was deadly, with many colonists dying from lack of food and proper clothing. There were no trees, and the prairie sod was almost impossible to break with hoes. Nevertheless, they persevered. The following summer the survivors received help from a passing band of Pottawatomie Indians, who gave them half of their buffalo meat and taught them how to cut slough grass from a creek to make shelters. By that fall, new colonists had arrived with 16 teams of livestock and five carloads of agricultural equipment. A year later there was a small general store, selling bacon, tea, coffee, soap, salt, cornmeal, sugar, soda, coal oil, matches, and candy. In another year, the town had grown to nearly 500 people, with a bank, two hotels, three churches, a newspaper, a drug store, and three general stores.
In 1885 Martha Bettis Cooper’s son Martin Bettis, who had joined her in Kansas after growing up free in Canada, followed the promise of dignity and independence to Nicodemus, leaving his wife and children behind in Leavenworth. By the time he got there the town had acquired several churches, two newspapers, a literary society, an ice-cream parlor, a baseball team, and a band. One of its three founders had just been elected State Auditor, the first African-American to win a statewide office in Kansas. Nicodemus’ future looked brighter than ever.
And then in 1888 the Union Pacific Railroad abandoned it. Although the town approved a bond issue of $16,000 to encourage the railroad to build an extension line to its center, negotiations broke down. The extension went to the Union Pacific camp six miles to the south, later known as the town of Bogue. Little by little, the town’s business enterprises followed. Later on, during the Jim Crow era, Nicodemus residents sometimes had to travel as much as 20 miles in order to do their shopping in the town of Stockton – where a local ordinance forbade them to stay overnight. They had to make do with another dugout, on the outskirts of the town, although a dugout with stone walls and floor and an arched stone roof.
One year after the railroad’s fateful decision, Martin Bettis was killed in the collapse of an abandoned dugout, where he had taken shelter from a heavy rainstorm. Nicodemus continued as a small farming community until the 1930s, when it was all but wiped out during the Dust Bowl. With 20 remaining inhabitants, it is now a National Historic Site.Share