#25 Black Pioneer Settlers Move from Kentucky Green to Plains’ Grass: How the first and only remaining black town west of the Mississippi was developed

http://A ca. 1885 view of Nicodemus, Kansas, shows the original First Baptist Church and the Williams General Merchandise store. From Kansas State Historical Society, in NPS Cultural Landscape Report

A lot was going on in 1877 for African Americans in the U.S. South. It was enough to drive them West in search of the promised land.

For blacks in the Georgetown, Kentucky area, their Sunday morning worship services were interrupted by real estate speculators. They offered an opportunity to move west to establish homesteads in northwestern Kansas. Each African American family would pay $5, own 160 acres, and remain for at least five years to make good on their agreement.

http://Handbill encouraging African American pioneer settlers to come to Kansas. Courtesy of Kansas State University, Minorities Collection, in NPS Cultural Landscape Report

The beginnings of Nicodemus

In July 1877, approximately 300 pioneer African Americans completed their 5-day train rides out of the forested land of Kentucky and landed in the open plains of Kansas. They disembarked in Ellis, Kansas, and walked for two days to arrive in an unsettled land where only ground pits existed. There were no homes, no seeds to plant for crops, and they would have starved to death if it were not for the Native Americans and nearby townspeople who provided wild game for food. The Kentuckians traded their sharecroppers’ life and shanty homes for dugout homes in the post-slavery years.

It was also the year of the Compromise of 1877, the non-written agreement by Congress resulting in a trade for a presidential seat to remove federal troops from the South. That granted home rule for Southern states, and it ushered in the era of Jim Crow to keep blacks under control akin to centuries for slavery.

The following spring, in March 1878, about 150 African Americans also arrived in Nicodemus. Some were horrified at what they viewed since settler’s homes were not yet built. Many persons left, yet those who remained began their building and sowing seeds for the future.

The third and final African American settlers arrive in Nicodemus

In 1879, a new group of African Americans arrived, and they became known as the Exodusters to Nicodemus. They were part of the Great Migration of African Americans to the West and North. Among the 1879 Nicodemus pioneer settlers were the Sayers family. About 90 years later, a famous Sayers descendant of Nicodemus (although born in a hospital in Wichita, Kansas), Gayle, joined the National Football League’s Chicago Bears. Sayers, whose family’s surname is listed among the original 1879 pioneer settlers, grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. He was among the several professional athletes who had roots in Nicodemus. Sayers became the youngest person inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, earning multiple high honors for his football skills at Kansas State University and the NFL. He transitioned in 2020 at the age of 77.

AP File Photo

Nicodemus descendant and Kansas running back Gale Sayers is pictured in this file photo from 1962.

African Americans claim new towns: Westward Ho!

There were many African American towns established in the West in the post-slavery era yet are long forgotten. There’s the town of Blackdown in New Mexico, nearby Roswell, established by African American settlers in the early 1900s.  Boley, Oklahoma, was based around the same turn of the century, and it grew to become the largest city for African Americans. It met with the usual demise of economic downtown and terrorism by racist strategies. Today, only a highway sign and granite market exist as reminders of Dearfield, Colo., founded in 1910 as an all-black town near Denver. It thrived as a farm town with the amenities of the city during its heyday. Women and children were integral to its success, according to historians. A little-known town was established in the state north of Nebraska that provides a rich and unusual history of its settlement.

. An entrepreneurial woman is shown here at the Dearfield Service Station, ca. 1930-1939. Courtesy of University of Northern Colorado

Nicodemus Annual Celebration

The Nicodemus story is rich in culture, oral and physical history and festivities. Every year the end of July and through early August, the Nicodemus descendants and friends return to the sparsely populated town to honor its historical existence.

To learn more about Nicodemus and other once Western towns known for their African American-dominated population, check out Good Genes Genealogy’s inaugural monthly e-book, set to debut by August 1, 2021. Stay tuned.

Read more