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Ghost Town—Almost
The Depression Hits a Negro Town

By Isabel M. Thompson and Louise T. Clarke*

Publishing Information

    A Negro town after the economic collapse. A vivid picture of the fate of one group who sought economic isolation.

    —The Editor

  1. What is Nicodemus? Myth or a reality?" The social-worker pondered this, as she viewed the report from the little town. "Population-76; number on relief-72"—these were the figures.

  2. What of the stories that had flourished, concerning this all-Negro town—the only one of its kind ever established in the State of Kansas? Nicodemus! With all city government, churches, schools, banks, businesses controlled by Negroes. Nicodemus! With its valuable wheat lands. Nicodemus! Whose citizens were so influential in the state political organization.... Had this ever been fact? Was any of it true of the present-day town?

  3. As the social-worker made her decision to visit Nicodemus, she was grateful for the new position that was enabling her to study past and present conditions in her native state.

  4. Days later, she was viewing an almost-deserted village. There were three small stone buildings: a church, a hall, and a store, the latter very small and meagerly stocked. (Practically all marketing and trading are carried on at Bogue, about six miles distant.) The small frame buildings that could be seen were sadly in need of repair.... "Perhaps," thought the social-worker, "there has been gross exaggeration concerning the history of this town." But, someone was stating facts now—facts that were corroborated by dependable sources by black type in newspapers, by official records, by pictures, and by the living word of old-timers.... The desolate, weed-grown settlement receded, and live, hopeful figures marched before her. Nineteen thirty-five became eighteen seventy-six.

  5. Eighteen seventy-six! The Negro population in the South is extremely restless. The Reconstruction Period, following the War Between the States, has failed to bring them the freedom, equality, and prosperity so long anticipated. They are poverty-stricken, debt-ridden, starving. Many have already left for the North. Many times that many are hesitating—wanting to go, but fearing the perils of unknown country. Families in the backwoods of Kentucky and Tennessee listen eagerly to the tales of one W. R. Hill who describes a sparsely settled territory with abundant wild game and wild horses that can be easily tamed. But sweetest of all to the ears of former slaves is the statement that they can become land-owners through the homesteading process. Hill, originally from Covington, Indiana, has already taken three Negro men—Zack Fletcher, the Reverend Roundtree, and another named Smith—to a location in northwestern Kansas. Fifteen miles from Hill City, these men have established claims and made temporary quarters in dugouts. (The town Nicodemus was later built here.)

  6. Hill's words have finally stirred some to action, and three-hundred eight tickets have been purchased to transport families to Ellis, Kansas, the nearest railroad point to the desired location. There are fifty-five miles farther to go! The serious problem of transportation confronts these penniless settlers who have only faith to sustain them. But independence is a prize worthy of struggle, and in September, 1877, they have reached the site. Within a month, the first Negro child is born in Graham County.

  7. The social-worker shivered, as she learned of the adverse weather conditions, the privation and disappointment experienced by these pioneers newly-arrived from a warm, sunny land. She could almost hear a banjo strumming "My Old Kentucky Home," while a Kansas wind howled. She could see the founders of Nicodemus flinching, as, one by one, the myths of "milk and honey" were exploded. But these people stayed! And with spring came new hope, as they began the task of bringing a yield from the soil. Another colony came from the South, and the local government, headed by "President" Smith, was established.

  8. For several years there was a steady influx of southerners, while the settlers were troubled by lack of funds for clothing and supplies and by a disastrous grasshopper plague. Through the efforts of the minister, contributions of money and clothing were obtained from the East. As for the plague—it could only be observed and regretted. No one returned to the South, however!

  9. By eighteen-eighty, there were five hundred inhabitants in Nicodemus, which boasted a bank, two hotels, a newspaper, drug store, a number of "general stores," and several other business houses. An area of twelve square miles was being cultivated.

  10. Now the settlers knew that the extension of a railroad to Nicodemus from Stockton, Kansas, would be an important step in the growth of the all-Negro town. Yet, when the offer was made, there was a disagreement concerning financial compensation; the railway company withdrew its offer and established Bogue, Kansas, as the nearest station. This left Nicodemus as an inland village and stopped the steady growth in population.

  11. However, the state-wide political influence of the town flourished. Ed McKabe, a Negro land agent, took the first census, was later elected county clerk, and was finally sent to the capital to be the first Negro State Auditor of Kansas. The founding of Nicodemus seems well worthwhile when one learns that more Negroes have been elected to county offices in Graham County than in all of the other one-hundred four Kansas counties combined. Some of these men were: John DePrad, a pioneer who was county clerk; J. R. Hawkins, court clerk; J. E. Porter, court clerk; G. W. Jones, county clerk and district attorney; Dan Hickman, chairman of the board of county commissioners; W. L. Sayers, county attorney; John Q. Sayers, county attorney. The two Sayers brothers are now practicing attorneys in Hill City.

  12. In 1928, the farmers of Nicodemus were cultivating from fifty to one thousand acres each. When the seasons were favorable, the lands frequently yielded more value in wheat than the actual sale value of the land.

  13. Everyone knows what happened to business in 1929, and what subsequently happened to the farmer's prices. Almost all of the young people left Nicodemus during the financial upheaval. Further, Nature has given a freak side-show of weather conditions in Western Kansas. Droughts of 1932, 1933, and 1934 were followed by destructive dust storms in the late winter and early spring of 1935. Entire families deserted this unproductive region.

  14. "What is Nicodemus? And what has happened to it?" The social worker need ask these questions no longer.

  15. What will happen to Nicodemus? Late spring and early summer rains were heavy in Kansas, and may help to repair some crop damage. Will favorable weather conditions definitely improve the financial status and revive interest in the town? Will the political influence of Nicodemus' citizens be maintained, lost, or increased? Will a railroad company ever again consider extending its lines to Kansas' all-Negro town ?

  16. The social worker wonders.

    *We acknowledge the assistance of the following persons in gathering information: John Q. Sayers, Eri Hulbert, Harlene Kackley