In 1877, two white land speculators convinced black Americans in the Reconstruction Era South to start a new life in the West. There, they had the opportunity to achieve the American dream and start life anew, whereas in the Reconstruction South, blacks had been systematically deprived of opportunity, impoverished economically, and denied education. I did a little research, and, in fact, Nicodemus is the name of a Biblical character to whom Jesus peronally explained the idea of spiritual rebirth (John 3:1-21), so extra points for allegorical settlement naming.
However, as these people arrived at Nicodemus in northwestern Kansas, they discovered to their dismay that it was basically as awful as any place on the Great Plains: sun-baked, treeless, windy. Take Willianna Hickman's oft-quoted remark upon her arrival, "When we got sight of Nicodemus, the men shouted, 'there is Nicodemus!' Being very sick, I hailed this news with gladness. I looked with all the eyes I had. 'Where is Nicodemus? I don't see it.' My husband pointed out various smokes coming out of the ground and said, 'That is Nicodemus.' The families lived in dugouts ... The scenery was not at all inviting, and I began to cry."
Nicodemus National Historic Site is a highly unusual National Park. The first thing you'll notice is that the park has no facilities of its own. The visitor center is basically a few cubicles thrown into the middle of the old Township Hall, just sitting out there in the middle of the community room. That has been their temporary space since the park was established. They are thinking about talking about making plans to one day build a visitor center if they can find the land to do it. The park only owns one other historic building in the community, the old African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is not open to the public (see picture taken through the glass below). The other buildings are still in private hands, not open to the public, and all deteriorating rapidly.
Nicodemus embodies the conflict within a living community's desire to protect its heritage and the different ways to go about that. One way is to entrust the preservation of their heritage to the National Park Service, to give up some of their cherished historic buildings all of which are in critical need of stabilization and repair, and to find new ways of connecting their community. And, to my extreme pro-federal point of view, that is to a certain extent inevitable long-term, as all the young people have long since moved out of Nicodemus and it now is a quiet, retirement community 364 days a year. But on the other hand, by giving it all up for preservation, they will no doubt lose the strong sense of community that keeps the people and their descendants from staying there and coming back, a community which has always preserved its own heritage. The Emancipation Celebration, an annual event in Nicodemus which brings descendants and former residents back to town, most closely resembles a town-sized family reunion, which it essentially is.
The third, and most complicated way to go about preserving Nicodemus is some form of integration between the national park and the community. This is in fact the way they plan to go about it - to find a way to let the community keep its cherished old buildings in use but to keep them open to the public for park tours. The ranger I talked to said that had been working well with the church at the Martin Luther King, Jr. site, and expressed hope that some compromise would come along that would allow the National Park Service to help the community protect its heritage rather than take ownership of it.
It's going to take time, money, cooperation, good people, and hard work to make Nicodemus National Historic Site flower. When that happens - and I hope it happens sooner rather than later - the entire place will be a showcase for black history, American history, and the collective strength of home and community.
If you visit Nicodemus National Historic Site, you can visit the temporary museum with some decent exhibits to tell the story, then walk around town and find the historic buildings. There are five "pillars" of their community: two churches, the township hall, the first hotel, and the school. As we wandered the streets, often standing right in the middle of them like dumb tourists while taking pictures, we didn't see a soul in the whole town. I told that to the ranger, who said, "Oh, they know you were here! Believe me, they know you were here."
Will the community find a way to work with the NPS to preserve this unique place? Or will they retain a firm grip on their own heritage? Either choice leaves a painful void. By giving up the buildings to the NPS, they lose their sense of ownership and probably a chunk of their pride. But by holding out, even though the community retains its identity, I fear that the buildings will keep deteriorating and they will lose that original part of the town, that tangible link to the past -- to those who came and made a town where there was none, who broke the bonds of slavery and sought the American Dream on the plains of Kansas.
#1. Township Hall and the Nicodemus NHS "temporary" visitor center.
#2. Looking through the glass of the African Episcopalian Church, which obviously needs work.
#3. The Nicodemus, KS water tower
#4. The Old First Baptist Church. The front looks nice, but the back wall has been buttressed to keep it from falling down.
#5. The original school, out of service for over 50 years and with a condemned playground.