In Episode 6, Sheriff Hoyle and Ely track a murderer to Nicodemus.
Although Nicodemus is the most famous of the towns founded by African-Americans in Kansas, it was not the only one. Free men and women left the South to escape the overt racism and covert terrorism that accompanied the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Led by the hope of economic and political self-determination, as well as by the leaflets and fliers of colony promoters, thousands of African-Americans endured months of physical suffering to make the arduous trip from Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas to Kansas. By the 1880s, there were approximately 20 colonies in Kansas founded by black immigrants from the South, including David Votaw Colony, Dunlap, Little Caney Colony, Morton City, The Bottoms and Tennessee Town, Wabaunsee Colony, and Quindaro Colony (Biles 2010).
The Exodus Movement
In their memoirs, former slaves often make the distinction between “freedom” and “real freedom.” Freedom was legally granted by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. However, “real” freedom—economic independence, education, personal security, the right to vote, and political self-determination—was much more difficult to obtain.
In the 1860s, the ideologies of the major political parties were much different than they are today. Republicans were viewed as liberal defenders of African-American civil rights, while southern Democrats favored a return to the white dominance that existed prior to the Civil War.
Two years after the Civil War ended, Radical Republicans gained control of the United States Congress and instituted a more severe form of Reconstruction in the former Confederacy than that favored by Presidents Lincoln and Johnson. Southern states were placed under military control and former Confederates were prohibited from holding political office. With federal troops protecting their ability to vote, many Republicans and African-Americans were elected to state and national offices in the South.
In response, groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White League carried out a campaign of intimidation against African-Americans and Republicans. Leading African-American politicians and those who sought equality under the law were certain to receive a visit from the nightriders or “bulldozers”—white terrorists who threatened, beat, and killed their political opponents. White Southerners were especially hostile towards African-Americans who had served in the U.S. Army. Not only had these men received an elementary education while in the service, they had also been trained to fight and were willing to do so to protect their families and property.
Despite the constant threat of individual violence and death, southern blacks and Republicans as a whole experienced ten years of relative political authority during Reconstruction. All of this came to an end following the presidential election of 1876.
The first tally of the votes showed Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio receiving 165 electoral votes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden of New York receiving 184, with twenty votes still in dispute. Although one was from Oregon, nineteen of the disputed electoral votes were from South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida (yes, even then, Florida!), states in which southern Democrats were known to have used intimidation, violence, and fraud to influence the vote.
The disputed election remained deadlocked for months. Finally, in March 1877, the two parties came to an agreement. Democrats agreed to concede the election to Hayes if the Republicans promised to end Reconstruction and the military occupation of the South.
The Compromise of 1877 effectively ended federal protection of African-Americans and Republicans and returned southern Democrats to political power. White southerners referred to this period as “The Redemption.” During this period, whites imposed the notorious Jim Crow laws, de-funded African-American schools, and beat or killed anyone brave enough to speak out against them.
Extreme debt and poverty were also major issues for blacks following the Civil War. Although freedom was certainly welcomed and many African-Americans were able to succeed immediately following emancipation, centuries of servitude and slavery (including the lack of education, financial savings, and a cohesive social and political support structure due to forced segregation from family members and African-Americans on other plantations and farms) had not prepared many blacks for economic independence. With few prospects for employment, many returned to work on plantations and farms as tenant farmers or sharecroppers.
In this economic system, a black farmer would pledge a portion of the crops he was going to raise in the coming season (usually cotton because it was the most commercially-profitable commodity) to his landlord in return for the rent on the land, the seed, and the supplies with which to support and feed himself and family.
Because white landlords controlled the price of the land, the price of the supplies, the fee for combing and de-seeding the cotton, and the price that was paid for the cotton itself, black sharecroppers inevitably found themselves coming up short at the end of the growing season. In an endless cycle of borrowing, falling short, and borrowing again, black farmers quickly found themselves inescapably indebted to their white creditors in what essentially amounted to another form of slavery. Whites often used blacks’ perpetual indebtedness as “proof” of blacks’ lack of self-control, intelligence, and ability to take care of themselves.
In this environment of openly hostile courts, creditors, and white paramilitaries and terrorists, many blacks decided to leave the South rather than stand by and see ten years of civil rights, education, and freedom eroded and destroyed around them. Ironically, southern whites tried to discourage blacks from leaving by requiring them to carry identification papers and travel passes.
Although many blacks favored destinations in Africa such as the American colony of Liberia, many more favored acquiring homestead and railroad lands in Kansas. In what became known as The Exodus Movement, thousands of black “Exodusters” left the South for Kansas.
Kansas had always held a place of reverence to former slaves due to its being the home of radical abolitionist John Brown during the years of civil strife known as Bleeding Kansas. In addition to having a Republican government, Kansas, according to one Exoduster, was “a free state in which a colored man [could] enjoy his freedom.” Another Exoduster wrote the governor of Kansas in 1879, “I am anxious to reach your state, not because of the great race now made for it, but because of the sacredness of her soil washed by the blood of humanitarians for the cause of freedom” (Painter 1986).
Nicodemus was founded in 1877 by two groups of Exodusters from Kentucky: the Nicodemus Town Company of Graham County and the Nicodemus Colony. Letters from Nicodemus were often read in churches in Kentucky and friends and relatives were encouraged to immigrate. In Topeka, The Colored Citizen urged southern blacks to “Come West. Come to Kansas” (Painter 1986). By 1880, there were approximately 700 African-Americans living in Nicodemus.
Today Nicodemus has approximately 40 residents and is a National Historical Site.
For more information on Nicodemus and the Exodusters, see:
Biles, Jan. “Blacks Found Hope in Post-War KS: Underground Railroad Started Migration that Grew during Reconstruction.” The Topeka Capital-Journal, April 17, 2010, http://cjonline.com/life/2010-04-17/blacks_found_hope_in_post_war_ks.
Kansas Black Farmers Association: http://www.kbfa.org/
Kansas Historical Society: http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/nicodemus-graham-county/12157
National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov/nico/historyculture/index.htm
Nicodemus, Kansas: http://www.nicodemuskansas.org/
Painter, Nell Irvin. Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.
Wormser, Richard. “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.” http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_election.html