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Travel 2013: Nicodemus exudes spirit of its black settlers

5/5/2013

By LINDA THOMASSON

Special to The Hays Daily News

NICODEMUS -- Nestled along U.S. Highway 24 between Hill City and Stockton, there exists a quiet place -- a world of fresh air, mourning doves and wide-open spaces. It is a place that embodies the miraculous strength of the human spirit, and tells a tale of the Old West you might not have heard before.

The small, dusty town of Nicodemus doesn't look like much at first glance. But stop for a while. Step out into the magnificent Great Plains, inhale the lingering scent of grain on the western Kansas winds, and discover the extraordinary people and proud history of Nicodemus.

Established in 1877, Nicodemus is the oldest and only surviving black settlement west of the Mississippi.

Nearly 350 formerly enslaved blacks boarded a train in Kentucky, bound for the "promised land" of Kansas. Arriving in Ellis, the weary travelers walked 35 miles to Graham County in just two days, eager to build new lives on the frontier.

The Nicodemus founders faced hostile winters, dry grasslands and food shortages. Yet, these determined people created a town based on the five pillars of the African-American community: church, self-government, education, home and business.

Legacy of today

Today, Nicodemus stands as a living legacy to the frontier history and enduring pioneer spirit of those who left everything behind to follow a dream.

Angela Bates, executive director and founder of Nicodemus Historical Society, works with more than 100 people in the area to preserve and share the story of Nicodemus.

"We think we know Western history -- the cowboys, the Indians, the cavalries and even the Buffalo Soldiers. But there is another chapter in that history -- a chapter that was written years ago, but the ink is just now coming to the page," Bates said. "Visitors have the chance to get a glimpse at Western history from a new perspective -- from the African-American perspective."

Historian, author, educator and descendent of the original settlers, Bates crusaded to put Nicodemus on the historical map. In 1996, her efforts resulted in the establishment of Nicodemus as a National Historic Site, staffed by the National Park Service.

Since then, Bates has continued the campaign by creating living history programs for the public.

"When people come here, they can expect a whole lot more than they have in the past," Bates said. "They can now experience the history of Nicodemus through its living descendants."

Begin the tour

Begin your journey into the Old Black West at the Nicodemus Livery and Mercantile and Ernestine's Cafe. Bates reopened Ernestine's Cafe in May 2012, after a long hiatus following the death of her Aunt Ernestine -- the original magic behind the beloved eatery.

Treat yourself to the aromas and flavors of authentic barbecue. Engage in lively conversation with Nicodemus descendants as they gear up in period attire and bring characters of old to life. Travel back in time watching Buffalo Soldier re-enactments and blacksmithing and horseshoeing demonstrations. Wander into the gift shop to find handmade treasures, books written by descendants and walking sticks carved by a local woodcraftsman.

From the Nicodemus Livery and Mercantile, take a horse-drawn wagon tour around Nicodemus National Historic Site. Visit the five historic buildings representing the five pillars of the African-American community: The Township Hall, St. Francis Hotel/Switzer residence, First Baptist Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church and School District No. 1. See historic homesteads, explore the entire township and stop by the old baseball fields.

The Nicodemus Livery and Mercantile also offers youth day camps, outdoor theater programs, adult day trip tours, teacher study tours and cemetery tours. To check the schedule of the Nicodemus Livery and Mercantile, contact Bates at (785) 421-3311.

Next, venture over to the Nicodemus Historical Society. Explore the array of photographs and exhibits, discover the genealogies and hear stories of the former slaves.

The National Park Service offers a variety of activities to visitors. Stop in at the Visitor's Center to view exhibits, watch an audio-visual program, explore the bookstore, meet the park rangers and get your National Parks Passport stamped. Kids ages 4 to 15 can participate in the Junior Ranger Program. Upon completion, they will receive a certificate and a Junior Ranger badge. The Visitor's Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and ranger tours of the town's five historical buildings are available by appointment at (785) 839-4233.

On a Saturday afternoon or during an annual celebration, Nicodemus holds the power to educate, inspire and, perhaps, even humble those who visit.

Add this one to your "Places to see in Kansas" bucket list.