Celebrating Black Excellence: The Smithsonian Comes to Nicodemus National Historic Site

Nicodemus National Historic Site and Nicodemus Historical Society will host the Smithsonian exhibit “Voices and Votes: Democracy in America” from July 1 to August 14, 2023. This exhibit “traces the bold experiment of a government run by the people and explores the influences that shaped the early days of American democracy, as well as the changes that have occurred over the past 250 years!”

Nicodemus’ Washington Street (courtesy of NPS).

One of the oldest and only remaining Black settlements west of the Mississippi River, Nicodemus preserves an important history and represents the spirit of ingenuity and brilliance embodied in African American culture. After the Civil War, enslaved African Americans were freed, but not free from the cruelty of systemic and personal racism. Working for a better future, many people traveled by covered wagons, train, and on foot to experience the freedom of the “Promised Land” of Kansas. A group of seven Kansans established the Nicodemus Town Company on April 18, 1877, and began the hard work of promoting and growing the settlement. Early settlers faced extreme hardship, lacking resources and farming equipment necessary to develop farmland. Through perseverance and the strength of community, Nicodemus eventually became a prosperous settlement, with a hotel, two stores, a church, and a school.

The Williams family. Neil Henry (back center) was the first person born in Nicodemus (courtesy of NPS).

After this period of growth, the people of Nicodemus faced more. Despite active campaigns from the town’s two newspapers and an important legal victory resulting in the town receiving its official title in 1886, the three rapidly developing railroad companies did not bring their tracks through Nicodemus. With this news, many businesses had no choice but to leave and follow the railroads. Despite this loss, Nicodemus continued to host social events and celebrations, including the annual Emancipation Celebration, a special event in Nicodemus to this day.

The upcoming collaboration between Nicodemus National Historic Site, Nicodemus National Historical Society, and the Smithsonian will highlight the lives and vital work of Nicodemus politicians. Visitors will learn about Edward P. McCabe who held the roles of Nicodemus Town Company secretary, Graham County clerk, and Kansas state auditor. As expressed by the Smithsonian: “After arriving in Nicodemus in 1878 from Chicago by train, McCabe and his partner Abraham Hall established a law office to provide land location assistance to the new settlers.” McCabe, like many others, worked to support and build a community and a legacy that has endured for 145 years.

Click here to learn more about the “Voices and Votes: Democracy in America.” To explore more about the history of Nicodemus and the upcoming Emancipation Celebration and Homecoming, visit Nicodemus National Historic Site and the Nicodemus National Historical Society. We join in celebrating and honoring the lives of the many Nicodemus settlers and their community of descendants.

By: Julie Thompson