One of the lesser-known stories of the is Civil Rights movement took place in Nicodemus, KS, which was the first settlement of freed slaves west of the Mississippi.
Founded in 1877, Nicodemus was a refuge from the Reconstruction-era South. The “unsettled” land of Nicodemus offered a new start for black farmers and their families after the Civil War.
According to the National Park Service, the Missouri Compromise in 1820 intended that Kansas would be a territory in which African-Americans would be free. But the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed popular referenda to determine whether Kansas and Nebraska would be free or slave states.
Political tensions divided Kansas and led to a series of bloody conflicts over slavery in Kansas before the Civil War. Kansas eventually adopted an anti-slavery constitution in 1861, after the Civil War had begun. When the war ended, it opened the west to many settlers who saw it as a land of opportunity.
The first groups to populate Nicodemus came mostly from the Lexington, Ken. area. The town was a distance from rail and stagecoach routes, so moving there was difficult enough that some of the original 380 settlers who left Kentucky actually turned around to go back east.
Sodbusters Call Nicodemus Home
The first groups to move west after the Civil War were called “sodbusters” because of the houses they built from sod cut from the earth. As Nicodemus grew, the sod houses were replaced with frame houses; at one point, the town had a baseball team, post office, ice cream parlor and two newspapers.
In 1996, Nicodemus was designated a National Historic site. Current visitors can see some of the historic buildings constructed by the early settlers, including the Township Hall that now serves as the visitors’ center.
Today, Nicodemus is the only predominantly black community west of the Mississippi pioneered after the Civil War that remains a living community today. Despite being much smaller today than it once was, Nicodemus is an enduring monument to African-American westward migration and the hope of former slaves.
During Black History Month, WCIA/WCIX (a CBS affiliate based out of Champaign) will show three, 30-minute programs dedicated to the stories of inspiring people like the early settlers of Nicodemus who shaped history. These stories are made possible thanks to a partnership with diverse community leaders like INB.
Future highlights will focus on stories honoring women and celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.
Black History Month programs are schedule to air:
Wed. 2/19 at 6:30pm
Wed. 2/26 at 6:30pm
Sat. 2/29 at 9:30pm