Friday, June 21, 2024
Concordia Sisters of St. Joseph

Concordia Sisters of St. Joseph

Loving God and neighbor without distinction: A pontifical institute of women religious of the Roman Catholic Church


Nicodemus, Kan.: ‘An icon of real freedom’

In a program that included a video tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a reading of his “I Have a Dream” speech, Angela Bates told the packed Auditorium at the Nazareth Motherhouse Sunday that she, too, had a dream.

“We have a tendency when we think of African-Americans to think of slavery and then jump forward to Civil Rights,” said Bates, a direct descendant of the freed slaves who founded the town of Nicodemus, Kan. “It was my dream for Nicodemus to become an icon of all that was created and achieved, an icon of real freedom.”

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The tiny settlement that was founded in 1877 about 45 miles northeast of Hays is today a National Historic Site, in large part because of Bates’ determination to make that dream come true.

Bates was the featured speaker in a program timed in conjunction with Dr. King’s birthday, which is a federal holiday Monday. Nearly 100 people crowded the Motherhouse Auditorium to hear the presentation. Also on the program were songs performed by Sister Malinda Pellerin, Jamie Durler and Keira and Emma Wahlmeier, accompanied by Sister Dian Hall on piano. Sister Malinda, who is a Sister of St. Joseph of Springfield, Mass., also read a portion of Dr. King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.

The special program was sponsored and hosted by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, who first arrived in Kansas just six years after Nicodemus was founded.

Bates is the executive director of the Nicodemus Historical Society, as well as an author, historian and public speaker. Her great-great-great-grandfather on her father’s side and her great-great-grandfather on her mother’s side were both slaves in Kentucky owned by Vice President Richard Johnson, who served with President Martin van Buren.

My forefathers did not escape slavery,” she said. “They persevered until freedom, and then they came to the promised land of Kansas.”

They were among the first group of about 300 African-Americans who had been recruited as the Reconstruction era was ending in the South, to come to the welcoming lands of Kansas. Two later groups that arrived in the spring of 1878 and then in 1879 would push the population of Nicodemus to about 500.

The push out of the South came from the racist “Jim Crow” laws that were quickly enacted as Reconstruction ended, while the “pull” was the dream of land ownership made possible by the Homestead Acts, Bates said.

Nicodemus quickly became a “typical bustling frontier town,” Bates said, with a doctor’s office, stores and two newspapers. But when the Union-Pacific Railroad made the decision to bypass the town in 1888, it began a long, slow downward spiral.

Today Nicodemus has just a dozen residents — and that number doesn’t include Bates, who lives in nearby Bogue — but it remains the only post-Civil War black settlements west of the Mississippi to survive. In 1976, as Kansas’ first black settlement, it was designated as a National Historic Landmark. Twenty years later Bates led the effort for the town’s designation as a National Historic Site. Bates is also responsible for creating the Nicodemus Historical Society Museum.

Nicodemus has survived, Bates said, because “it has something that’s lasted — Emancipation Day.”

The brand new community of Nicodemus celebrated Emancipation Day for the first time on Aug. 1, 1878, and the township party/family reunion has been held every year since. In 2014, the 136th annual Emancipation Day celebration is set for the last weekend in July and descendants from across the country will return “home” for it, Bates said.

“Nicodemus is so significant,” she added. “Not just to me, not just to African-Americans, not just to Kansas — but to the nation. Nicodemus was a place the nation was looking at as a solution. The nation — and the people who came to Nicodemus — saw it as an icon of real freedom.”

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