Cruising NWKS: Soaking up the past

By GAYLE WEBER

gweber@dailynews.net

NICODEMUS -- For 134 years, descendants of Nicodemus' early settlers have been making an annual pilgrimage back to the only town west of the Mississippi River that was established by African-Americans.

"We just try to come back to keep our tradition going," said Johnine Powell of Topeka.

The 134th Homecoming-Emancipation Celebration in Nicodemus began Thursday and continued through a Baptist church service Sunday morning. It drew hundreds of the town's descendants back for family reunions, historical presentations and musical entertainment.

Powell comes back every year even though she spent only one year living in Nicodemus as a child -- her first-grade year she was sent there to help the town make its quota to keep its school open. It didn't work, she said, because the school closed at the end of that 1962-63 school year.

Nevertheless, she has fond memories of the town for which her grandmother, Ora Switzer, served as matriarch until her death at age 106 in 2009.

"Our families are blessed to know where we came from," Powell said.

Judith Griffie married in to the Nicodemus family, but loves traveling back to her husband's roots from their home in Detroit whenever possible to "soak up that groundedness and that sense of anchoring" that is apparent from those in Nicodemus.

Griffie became a grandmother for the first time this year, so being able to learn more about the Griffie family traditions to share with her grandson was especially important for this year's trip.

"I want to share with friends and family the sense of humanness that these people have," Griffie said.

Family reunions are part of the annual celebration, and sometimes those families turn out in large numbers.

One person noted, "Another Napue -- Just can't get away from them," as he walked up to Lester Napue from Parker, Colo.

The Napues were part of the families that settled Nicodemus in the 1800s, and his family remained involved in the community for many years.

"I'm always glad to see the relatives," Napue said from his seat in the shade as other family gathered around him. "We enjoy coming back."