African American News and Genealogy

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

For black visionaries, site still place of promise

History, hope abound in Nicodemus, Kan. By MALCOLM GARCIA The Kansas City Star NICODEMUS, Kan. — The wind wails through the sage, carries voices from the old cemeteries across the flat brown plains through the rotted timbers of dilapidated buildings. Families from here know well the aged stories of their forebears, former slaves. Their tales, a living history bound by blood memory and handed down through generations, beckon to their descendants to resurrect Nicodemus. “Call me crazy if you want to, but I believe this town can come back,” says Twillia Wilson, 46. A health-care worker, she returned in June to look after her elderly mother. No stores remain. Sagging one-story houses and trailer homes stand out against vacant lots where stores had been, the noisy bustle of past commerce lost in a silent, paralyzed void filled only at a distance by the scratch of fallen leaves and the crunch of gravel beneath a lone car. Nicodemus, named after the hero of the abolitionist work song, “Wake Nicodemus,” was settled by 350 former slaves who moved to this northwest corner of Kansas from Kentucky in 1877, lured by land promoters who called the area “the golden belt of Kansas.” Families lived in dugouts “like prairie dogs,” one early settler complained, adding “the scenery was not at all inviting.” Today, Nicodemus is the oldest surviving town west of the Mississippi established by African-Americans after the Civil War. At its most prosperous, Nicodemus boasted 700 souls, two newspapers, three general stores, at least three churches, several hotels, one school, a literary society, a bank, a livery and scores of homes. To ensure growth and prosperity, the town needed a railroad. Despite efforts by town boosters, the closest a railroad came was south of the Solomon River. Nicodemus lay to the north. Businesses fled to the other side of the river and Nicodemus began a slow decline. Today, only 27 persons live here. The average age is about 80. Twillia was born in Nicodemus and was one of the last children to attend the one-room schoolhouse still standing on Fourth Street. She recalls sitting as a girl with the old people of her youth, grandchildren of former slaves, spellbound by their stories. “My roots are here. Now that the majority of people are gone, my goal is to be part of a rebirth.” Her childhood friends, now teachers, lawyers and doctors far flung across the country, visit from time to time and talk about returning, but it’s mostly talk. They look at the barren land much as their predecessors must have done and think, “What’s out here?” “It was difficult to adjust,” Twillia admits. “I like being more active.” Twillia’s 18-year-old son pleaded with her to stay in their Salina, Kan., home. He won’t remain here, she knows, when he graduates from high school in the nearby town of Bogue. No one he can relate to. He’ll probably move to Lawrence to be near his sister. Twillia, however, will stay. “I believe the wheels are turning and I’ll be part of a trend.” She listens to the sudden clamorous noise of hammers and saws at the nearby First Baptist Church, built in 1907 and long out of use. Twillia nods at the commotion and smiles. “See what I’m saying?” Nicodemus was named a national historic site in 1996, a designation that provides funds to preserve its five remaining historic buildings: the First Baptist Church, the township hall, the St. Francis Hotel, the school and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Roofer Val Williams walks around the First Baptist Church admiring the weathered wood shingles he has uncovered: round ones, pointed ones, square ones. He hasn’t seen anything like it in all his years of construction. Not that combination, anyway. He was born here and came back just a few weeks ago from Kansas City to work on some of these rehabilitation projects. Other federal grants have been awarded to qualifying families for home repair. For Val, 55, that means jobs. He was recently divorced. He looks out at the cracked road of Washington Avenue running past the church, no longer marked by a street sign or lights and strewn with fat tufts of tumbleweed blown in off wide fields from God knows where. A distant rush of traffic rolls off U.S. 24 and merges into the landscape with the honking of Canada geese flying low overhead, and he feels the isolation settle around him, feeding his sense of peace and need to be alone. Ora Switzer, 102, lives in an apartment a few doors down from Twillia and just opposite the First Baptist Church. Banners celebrating recent birthdays — Happy 99th! Happy 100th! Happy 101st! — festoon the walls above faded photographs of her six children and their children. Her grandparents were freed slaves, her parents part of the first generation born in Nicodemus. She spends her days seated comfortably in a chair by the kitchen, back straight, blankets wrapped around her lap. She raises a thin arm, peers out from her one good eye, and points. “Look around you. History,” Miss Ora says in a voice slurred by age. “The younger people left us here to carry on our history elsewhere. History repeats itself. One day we’ll be big again.” She was born in a sod hut behind her apartment long since submerged into grass kept green by a sprinkler. “I can remember when we had two stores, a millinery shop. I can remember seeing the town and people in it. I can remember when we got electricity. That impressed us.” Her 81-year-old son played sports but wasn’t allowed to eat in the high school cafeteria in Bogue because he was black. Miss Ora wrote a letter to the school: If you’re going to run him to death, feed him. “It’s starting to come back,” she says of the town, “A new house on the hill. A new house, it’s a beginning.” “How’s it going, Val?” shouts the town historian, Angela Bates, as she drives slowly past the First Baptist Church. “Just found me a little medicine bottle,” Val says, holding out a gloved hand for her to see. “How’s that feel, holding a bit of history?” “Feels good.” Angela, 53, laughs and continues to her office at the Nicodemus Historical Society, a one-room house across from the schoolhouse, where she serves as executive director. On the other side, construction workers measure the front porch of a new ranch house, bright blue under the afternoon sun, the heedless surge of a clear sky rushing overhead. A San Jose, Calif., family related to the founding settlers moved into the house in September with their 10-year-old daughter. Before the girl, the last child to live in Nicodemus was a boy born in 1978. Angela sits at her desk, blows on her hands and turns on the computer. The house doesn’t have heat. The utilities are to be donated, so she hasn’t complained. She hopes to have a functioning furnace before winter. Her parents were born in Nicodemus, her mother buried in one of the three cemeteries outside town. Angela grew up in Pasadena, Calif., but visited relatives here every summer. She fell in love with horses and the open country. Everyone was related. No one worried about their children because wherever they were some relation was always nearby. If you did something wrong at your auntie’s house, next door would be your grandmother ready to scold you. “I’d go back to Pasadena and tell my friends I spent a summer in an all-black town,” Angela recalls. As she grew older, she left California, attended college in Kansas and earned a teaching degree. She moved to Washington, D.C., and started an interior design business. In 1979 she returned for a visit after a six-year absence. The town had changed. “The general store and the post office were gone. The Masonic Hall, a lot of residences. I thought, ‘We’re losing Nicodemus.’ I felt a panic. ‘My God, Nicodemus is dying.’ ” In 1989, she bought a house in Bogue. She began the drive to have Nicodemus registered as a national historic site. Recently, she purchased 25 acres in town and contemplates using it for a housing development. “I spent six years begging someone to sell,” she says. “A lot of descendants aren’t willing to sell. The land has been in their family and stays in their family even though they don’t live here. I finally convinced a cousin to sell to me. There’d be a lot more descendants here if the housing was here. Their hold on the land prevents commercial development.” She hopes the museum and annual events including Pioneer Day, Emancipation Day and the Christmas Tree Trimming Party can start a trend that would lead to more activities and recharge Nicodemus’ economy with tourism dollars. “We get calls constantly. People want to be here and raise their kids. As that trend unfolds, as family and home becomes more important than acquiring things, then Nicodemus and its history and what that history represents will be a place they’ll want to come.” Outside her office in the former dining room, creased and grainy black-and-white photos of some of the first settlers, her great-great-grandparents John and LeeAnna Samuels among them, stare out across the wood floor along with Charles and Emma Williams, forebears of Twillia Wilson’s family. Constrained in formal dress. Impassive and resilient before the camera and the dry wind-blown land and the losses of time and the darkness that falls as Angela leaves, closing the door behind her. To rise again in the lives of the living. Beholden to no one in the world to come, and not forgotten. Not forgotten. Go to to read previous installments.


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