Nicodemus Emancipation and Homecoming Celebration

Nicodemus Emancipation and Homecoming Celebration

Date Observed: Last weekend of July
Location: Nicodemus, Kansas

The combined Emancipation and Homecoming Celebration in Nicodemus, Kansas, takes place the last weekend of July to commemorate the only remaining allblack western town established after the Civil War. The event also marks the August 1, 1834, anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies, which created hope for American blacks in bondage (see also West Indies Emancipation Day).

"Exodusters"

The Exoduster Movement of 1879, or the "Colored Exodus," as it is sometimes called, was prompted by the oppressive conditions for African Americans in the South after Reconstruction. Many blacks who hoped to own land could not find southerners willing to sell or lease them farmland. So they sought land in the West, available under the Homestead Act of 1862. All a person had to do was pick a 160-acre plot on federally owned land, pay a registration fee, live on the plot, cultivate part of it, and at the end of five years the land belonged to the homesteader.

One enterprising pioneer was Benjamin "Pap" Singleton (1809-1892), who became known as the Father of the Exodus and the Moses of the Colored Exodus. A former slave born in Nashville, Tennessee, Singleton began looking for land in Kansas in the early 1870s. In 1877 he helped form the Edgefield Real Estate and Homestead Association that encouraged blacks to move from Tennessee to Kansas to set up black colonies.

It was no simple matter for African Americans to migrate and take up farming in Kansas. The exodusters needed at least $1,000 - a huge sum for former slaves - to pay for transportation, a team of mules, plows, lumber, and other necessities. Yet, between 1877 and 1879, more than 20,000 African Americans made the journey. Between 1870 and 1880, the black population in Kansas increased from 17,108 to 43,107.

Not all of the migrants came from Tennessee. Others from areas along the lower Mississippi River also headed for Kansas in what has been called a spontaneous mass migration. White southerners were so upset by the loss of their workforce that they tried to prevent riverboats from carrying blacks north. Yet, African Americans pushed on, determined to reach the promised land.

In Kansas, many blacks remained poor and endured great hardships, but the majority believed they were better off than they were living under the repressive conditions in the South. They at least owned their land, had the right to vote and run for political office, and the opportunity to educate their children.

Historical Background

After the Civil War and the Reconstruction period in the United States, newly freed blacks in the South faced harassment by southern politicians and a reign of violence by groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, who opposed black civil rights and economic justice. Fearing for their safety and lives, many African Americans began to move north and west during the late 1870s. Tens of thousands migrated to Kansas, where several African-American towns were established, but only one has survived to this day - Nicodemus. Located along the Solomon River, Nicodemus was settled by about 300 former slaves from Kentucky and Tennessee.

A white land developer, W. R. Hill, and a black minister, William H. Smith, planned the town of Nicodemus, naming it for a slave who, according to legend, was able to buy his freedom. Hill and Smith urged southern black families to relocate to this "promised land" in Kansas, where people could homestead and own property. However, when African Americans arrived in Nicodemus during the winter, the cold weather prevented people from building homes, so they, like other pioneers to the West, were forced to find shelter in dugouts, literally holes dug into mounds of earth.

In the spring, families planted crops, but there was little to harvest because of the harsh growing conditions and stormy weather that often blew seeds and plants away. Some became so discouraged that they returned to the Southeast. Yet, Nicodemus did begin to develop as a bona fide town, and by the 1880s, a bank, several stores, three churches, two hotels, a newspaper, and a school had been established. Townspeople hoped for continued growth and tried to convince the Union Pacific Railroad to extend track to Nicodemus. But town leaders and the railroad could not reach an agreement about financing, thus leaving Nicodemus without rail service. As a result, some businesses began to leave and the town began to decline, although a reported 600 residents were living in this farming community during the first decade of the 1900s.

Some Nicodemus farmers who stayed to work their land prospered, but farm prices fell during the Great Depression and a three-year drought in the 1930s. The Kansas dust bowl of 1935 further devastated the town, whose population dropped to 76.

In 1996 Nicodemus was designated a national historic site, which includes five original buildings: the First Baptist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the township hall, the St. Francis Hotel, and the school. As of the early 21st century, about two dozen people lived in Nicodemus.

Creation of the Festival

Since 1878 settlers in Nicodemus have held an Emancipation Day celebration on August 1, the day in 1834 when Britain ended slavery in all its Caribbean colonies. The West Indies Emancipation Celebration of August 1 was highly symbolic for U.S. slaves, who saw hope for their own freedom. Now held on the last weekend in July, the Nicodemus Emancipation and Homecoming draws former residents and descendants from many parts of the United States.

Observance

The original Emancipation celebration has become a Homecoming with about 600 people attending to reunite with family and friends. They share stories about the past and visit with the director of the Nicodemus Historical Society, Angela Bates-Tompkins, who once lived and worked in Washington, D.C., but returned to Nicodemus to make her home and boost the historical significance of the town. In addition, participants enjoy a variety of activities, such as a parade, wagon rides and tours, horse rides for children, a Buffalo Soldiers exhibition, a fashion show, food and craft vendors, dances, church services, and gospel music.

Contacts and Web Sites

Nicodemus Historical Society R.R. #2, Box 139 Nicodemus, KS 67625 785-421-3311

Nicodemus National Historic Site 304 Washington Ave. Nicodemus, KS 67625-3015 785-839-4233; fax: 785-839-4325

Further Reading

Attoun, Marti. "The Spirit of Nicodemus." American Profile, January 26-February 1, 2003. . Bates, Angela. "The Kansas African-American History Trail." Reprinted courtesy of the Kansas Department of Commerce. Kansas Magazine, 3rd Issue, 1994. .gov/archive/19-2/19-2-13.pdf. Chu, Daniel, and Bill Shaw. Going Home to Nicodemus: The Story of an African Ameri- can Frontier Town and the Pioneers Who Settled It . Parsippany, NJ: J. Messner, 1994. (young adult) Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton, eds. A History of the African American People: The History, Traditions & Culture of African Americans. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997. Painter, Nell Irvin. Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after the Reconstruction. New York: Knopf, 1977. Wiggins, William H., Jr. "The Emancipation of Nicodemus." Natural History, July-August, 1998.

Nicodemus Emancipation and Homecoming Celebration

Last weekend in July
The Nicodemus Emancipation and Homecoming Celebration is held annually the last weekend in July to celebrate the abolishment of slavery in the United States. It also celebrates Nicodemus, an all-black town in northwest Kansas that was settled by former slaves fleeing the south in 1877 after the post-Civil War Reconstruction period had ended. The town was named after a legendary slave who reportedly bought his own freedom. The town is the only still-living all-black community west of the Mississippi founded by former slaves. Originally settled by 350 freed slaves, it now has a permanent population of about 40 people. The town, which comprises five historic buildings, was declared a National Historic Site in 1998. Only one building is open to visitors.
The Emancipation and Homecoming Celebration has taken place every year since 1878. The event includes such attractions as a parade, a fashion show, military displays, and descendants' program, which draws relatives of the original town settlers from across the country.
CONTACTS:
Nicodemus National Historic Site
304 Washington Ave.
Nicodemus, KS 67625-3015
785-839-4233 or 785-839-4321; fax: 785-839-4325
www.nps.gov/nico/home.htm
SOURCES:
AAH-2007, p. 355