In my quest to find fascinating stories from Black history, I’ve been blessed to have stumbled upon some gems.
Rarely do I come across tales that can be perfectly molded through fact and folklore into a marvelous piece of art, but a small Black town in Kansas allowed me to paint you a Black masterpiece expressed through diction and made with soul.
About 100 miles south from the border of Nebraska, tucked quietly atop the Kansas plains lies a small 145-year-old town called Nicodemus.
Its history is steeped in Black resilience and Black excellence; its legacy still holding on by a thread.
Nicodemus, Kansas is the last of its kind.
The town is the only remaining western community established by Blacks after the Civil War.
Founded in 1877 by six former slaves from Lexington, Kentucky, and a white land developer, Nicodemus looked to be a saving grace for Black people in the south seeking escape from white violence and persecution.
Reverend W. H. Smith, Benjamin Carr, Jerry Allsap, the Reverend Simon Roundtree, Jeff Lenze, and William Edmonds had a vision of a self-made community with no oppression or racism, but to accomplish this, they needed to find a willing white man with a long enough bank and a mind open to change.
W.H Smith, a white land speculator with the idea sought to shift the cultural landscape by helping create a self-sufficient Black community during the period after the Civil War. Though his true intentions could have been completely financial, Hill created an opportunity Reverend Smith and his fellow ex-slaves couldn’t pass up. Land speculators regularly purchased vacant land in hopes the successful settlements would make them wealthy men. Rarely were there white men willing to partner with Blacks to establish Black communities. Most southern whites didn’t see the value in Black prosperity, but Hill did. He sent word to free Blacks from Kentucky and Tennessee of land hidden in the tucks of Kansas he hoped to develop for Black families.
He soon partnered with Reverend W. H. Smith to form the Nicodemus Town Company. Reverend Smith would take a leading role as the president of the Town Company and Hill would become its treasurer.
In 1877 the Black town of Nicodemus was born. Reverend W. H. Smith and other freed slaves recruited more than 300 ex-slaves to Nicodemus to start a new life. Although free from the violence and bigotry they once knew before the Civil War, free life presented new challenges. The Kansas plains offered limited resources to built sustainable homes. Most land acquired by Blacks right after the Civil War was barely habitable. Nicodemus’ first residents had to build dugouts along the Solomon River for homes; a shelter dug into the ground and roofed with sod. The Kansas plains were scarce of home building materials like timber. Dugouts were one of the most ancient types of human housing known to man. Their structures date back to early Africa 10,000 BC. Early settlers of Nicodemus were forced to use accident techniques like Dugouts to survive. It truly is a testament to our resilience as a people.
Lack of resources couldn’t stand in the way of prosperity and Nicodemus thrived. By the early 1880s, Black-owned farms surrounded the town, and its population sprawled to more than 500 residents.
As the town continued to grow, eventually it was able to build three general stores, three churches, two newspapers, a bank, a drug store, and an ice cream parlor.
They also had a literacy society to teach Blacks how to read, a baseball team, and a handful of lawyers.
Nicodemus was truly a ‘rebirth’ of hope for a better life for Black Americans. A renewed faith in what it means to be free.
I’ve always found the stories buried inside of inspiration intriguing. When people are inspired they create amazing things, but it’s usually what they are inspired by that makes for riveting folklore.
Let’s take the name, Nicodemus.
Broken down to the root the name is composed of two parts, Nico(Niko) and Demus(demos)
The name Nico is of Greek origin and means ‘victory’ or ‘people of victory’. Demos, also of Greek origin means people or common people. Putting the two together literally means a victory for the common people. Certainly fitting for a town full of former slaves.
The town of Nicodemus was named after two folkloric figures both of which have intriguing stories.
The first comes from the Bible–Gospel of John.
Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, comes to Jesus one night to question him about his teachings.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again.
Nicodemus then questions the reality of being born again, but Jesus doesn’t waver telling Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).’
But Nicodemus still does not understand. He again says to Jesus says, “How can these things be” (John 3:9).
Jesus teaches Nicodemus that the kingdom of God is not built upon political power and might. Instead, it’s the unselfish sacrificial love of God that will lead to everlasting life.
Nicodemus is questioning faith. The common thread among any religion is faith. Learning how to nurture the willpower to be unwavering in it. There is a moment in everyone’s life when their faith is tested. There will be times when you even question it, but unwavering faith leads to amazing miraculous things and the Black town of Nicodemus is a testament to that.
Another interesting biblical parallel was pointed out by Perry Bates, the great-great-grandchild of one of the original settlers in Nicodemus.
“Nicodemus is located in the heart of the heartland, on the Solomon River, in the Promised Land of Kansas,” said Bates. “So there’s this whole biblical connotation and connection with the children of Israel leaving the oppression of Egypt for the promised land of Canaan. Nicodemus is a place where you can come to get spiritually reconnected with the land, the people, and the past.”
The second folkloric figure that inspired the rise of Nicodemus was a slave story told on plantations in the south before the Civil War. Some stories even say he was the first slave ever to buy his way to freedom. Though factual evidence of this is pretty much non-existent, there are some accounts of slave songs sung on plantations that told of his story.
Nicodemus was a slave of African birth,
And was bought for a bag full of gold;
He was reckoned a part of the sum of the earth,
But he died years ago, very old.
Nicodemus was a prophet, at least he was as wise,
For he told of the battles to come;
How we trembled with fear when he rolled up his eyes,
And we heeded the shake of his thumb.
Good time coming, good time coming,
Long, long time on the way;
Run and tell Elijah to hurry up Pomp,
To meet us under the cottonwood tree,
In the great Solomon Valley
At the first break of day.
The story of the slave prince named Nicodemus who escaped bondage may not have been real, or maybe it was a secret code?
Since it was illegal for slaves to read or write, Blacks in the south communicated through songs coded with secret messages, often about the subject matter of freedom. White slave owners constantly feared rebellions. The rumblings among slaves of a Black man buying his way to freedom would have certainly been met with feverish backlash.
So slaves told their secrets in song.
It’s possible the Nicodemus slave hymn was actually about the true story of an African prince named Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori.
Sori was born of royal African blood. His father was the king of Fouta Djallon, one of the most powerful kingdoms in Africa in the 1700s. Sori was the heir to the throne. In 1788, the 26-year-old was captured by a rival tribe and sold into slavery for some rum and a handful of muskets. In the blink of an eye, the prince was a prince no more, destined for a life of bondage. The educated son of a King spent the next 40 years enslaved in Natchez, Mississippi during the height of slavery in America.
Thomas Foster, Sori’s slave owner was an uneducated man. He had some knowledge of herding cattle and growing tobacco, but knew nothing about how to grow cotton, which was the most profitable industry during early America. But Sori knew the ins and outs of producing cotton since it was commonly lot grown in his hometown of Fouta Jallon. With Sori’s help, Foster became a wealthy man and became one of the south’s leading cotton producers.
Sori would later marry another one of Foster’s slaves and they would have nine children. His entire family was still enslaved to Thomas Foster and if he was to change that he would still have to convince someone with stature in the community that he was actually an African prince with hoards of wealth back in his homeland.
In 1807, a stroke of fate would change his life forever.
While at the market one day in Natchez, Sori ran into a white British surgeon named John Cox. Decades before their encounter on the shores of Mississippi, Cox was involved in a shipwreck of the coast of West Africa and would have died if it wasn’t for Sori’s father and a group of Fulanis. Cox was rescued and cared for by the royal family for six months and they ultimately developed a friendship. Cox remembered Sori as a young boy and was shocked to find the prince in Mississippi and under the thumb of slavery in America.
He immediately tried all he could to free Sori from bondage. He offered to pay Foster any price for Sori and his family, but Foster refused. Sori had become his #1 asset and he was too valuable for his slavemaster to part ways with.
Although Sori didn’t get his freedom that day, his story was finally validated by a white man with social clout. As Sori’s tale of royalty to ruins spread, the once African prince was now a local celebrity in Mississippi. His newly acquired fame landed him an interview in the local newspaper. Sori convinced the reporter to send a letter to the United States consul in Tangier, Morocco on his behalf. The letter continued up the hierarchy until it reached the Sultan of Morocco, as well as American president John Quincy Adams.
Sori was now too much of a celebrity to stay a slave. Foster was forced to free Sori with compensation but only agreed to terms if Sori returned to Africa immediately. Foster didn’t believe Sori deserved the right to enjoy the privileges of being a free man in America.
Sori was able to buy his wife’s freedom with the money he collected from Foster and they returned to Africa in 1829. Sadly his children would remain in bondage and he would never see them again.
It is quite possible the founders of Nicodemus, Kansas used Sori’s fascinating story for inspiration to build their community. His resilient tale could inspire anyone towards greatness.
The beautiful thing about this entire story is that Nicodemus, Kansas still exists, but barely. According to the Census, the community only has about 18 residents, most of which can trace their lineage back to the town’s first settlers.
On November 12, 1996, the city of Nicodemus, Kansas was designated a national historical site by the U.S. National Park Service. Every year the city continues to keep the legacy of Nicodemus alive through an annual celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation in Nicodemus which takes place August 1st.
Stories like these are the reason I write Black folklore. They need a voice. Our history deserves better outlets and storytellers with a vision beyond the basic story of slavery. Yes, slavery is a part of our history, but so is Nicodemus.
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