I recently finished reading First Dawn by Judith Miller, a fiction book about two separate families moving from Kentucky to Kansas to new settlements on the prairie. One family was headed by a wealthy white doctor while the other was a former slave/sharecropper. Each group moved to a different town separated by a mere 30 miles, but both platted by the same man, W.R. Hill. One city was reserved for white settlers (Hill City), while the others was meant for black settlers (Nicodemus). While the characters were fictional, the towns and the hardships faced out on the prairie were not.
Both towns sit on Highway 24 in northwest Kansas. Hill City has an estimated population of 1,455 and is the oldest settlement in Graham County dating to 1878. The population has ebbed and flowed over the decades, however since the 1970s has followed the same general trend of decline like most rural communities. According to the 2010 Census the racial makeup of the city was 91% White, 4.5% African American, and 0.8% Native American.
Nicodemus on the other hand was settled in 1877 by newly freed slaved seeking a refuge from the racism that continued to pervade the Reconstruction-era South. According to the National Park Service, it was the first black community west of the Mississippi River. As in the book, a total of 380 settlers made their way from Lexington, Kentucky via train, then covered wagon since the town site was far from any rail or stagecoach routes. As they arrived to the empty prairie, many of the 380 turned back for a more stable life in Kentucky. Of those who stayed, they had to build a town from literally the ground up. Their first homes were soddies, dug into the small hillsides.
The first year was no doubt difficult, especially making it through the long, cold winter out on the prairie. In the fiction book, the first settlers were expecting a town and came ill prepared, lacking basics like food and tools. The contrast to the white settlers in Hill City showed a family with plenty of supplies and animals, arriving at a prebuilt wood frame home. While the book was fiction, its not hard to believe this scenario played out throughout the Midwest in real life. Those just escaping a life as a sharecropper, eager to own their own land, had little extra money saved in which to start their farms, while white settlers were better prepared having spent decades earning a living and inheriting wealth.
Despite this disadvantage, the settlers of Nicodemus became more financially stable and replaced the dugouts with frame dwellings, built stores and as the NPS site states “had a baseball team, post office, ice cream parlor, and two newspapers.” By 1881 the town consisted of 35 residential and commercial structures with a defined business district. The first general store was established by Z.T. Fletcher in the fall of 1877 with the post office occupying a section of the building by 1878.
Many of the historic buildings remain today including the St. Francis Hotel, the AME Church, First Baptist Church, the Nicodemus School District No.1 building (pictured above), and the Nicodemus Township Hall. Some descendants of the early settlers still live in Nicodemus. The town, along with one of the remaining dugout homes, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 with 7 buildings highlighted. But despite being such an integral piece of history, the town has not been immune to the plight of rural America. The peak population of 595 Black residents was back in 1910 and had dwindled to just 16 people by 1950. Regardless of the population, the city will remain a symbol of the pioneering spirit of Blacks who had the courage to leave the homes they knew in order to search for freedom from oppression and the opportunity to own their own land and future.