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African-American Pioneers Helped Shape America’s Midwest

The American Midwest has historically been a place for white farmers of European descent. But in the state of Kansas, in the very center of the country, there is a special place where African-Americans were part of the pioneer history.

A group of African-American cowboys on horseback is a rare sight in the central agricultural state of Kansas.

This is Nicodemus, the first all-black pioneer town, established on the prairie 128 years ago. Every summer this tiny town holds a homecoming with a gathering and parade to celebrate its heritage.

Carol Alexander describes her deep roots in the town. "I was born four miles [six kilometers] from Nicodemus, my father was born in Nicodemus, my grandfather came from Scott County Kentucky to Nicodemus. I feel it's just a part of me," she says.

In 1877 freed slaves came to a barren spot in Kansas to make a place where they could determine their own lives.

Angela Bates, the Executive Director of the Nicodemus Historical Society, provides additional history. "And about 350 people decided they were going to actually make the trip and actually help populate this little all-black community," she explains.

They had been encouraged to come to the barren prairie by unscrupulous land agents, says Kim Thomas, who is the mayor of a nearby town. "Because of false advertising, you might say, you think you're coming to the Promised Land and then you get out here and it's barren," she says.

Living in earth-covered huts the settlers used their determination and farming skills and a town began to take shape. Some of the original structures remain.

First built were two churches, then a schoolhouse and later a small hotel and a town hall. As the town grew, there were hopes for a railroad stop, but the rail line bypassed Nicodemus.

"They brought their skills with them, they brought all their experiences from slavery, Angela Bates says. "People began to be really discouraged. They knew that they were never going to get the railroad. They knew that the town was probably going to eventually die because they didn't get the railroad. And then people continued to leave until the 1930s. Presently there are only about 25 people that live here."

Today, Nicodemus is like many struggling midwestern towns where the young people leave for the cities.

Resident Kim Thomas says, "I was lucky to stay in this area because most my age had to leave to find jobs."

Nicodemus is now a National Historic Site and tourists and African-Americans from all over come to see where black pioneers built their own town from the ground up.

Angela Bates speaks proudly of her heritage and why Nicodemus is important: "Because we are African-American we have to hold on to something. We have to hold on to ourselves. This is a place where people can experience the past, become educated about our past and be very proud of our past," she says.