Pushed out of the South as Reconstruction ended and as white landowners, employers, and “Redeemer” governments sought to reestablish the constraints of slavery, thousands of African Americans migrated west in search of better opportunities. As the first well-known all-black community on the plains, Nicodemus, Kansas, became a national exemplar of
Pushed out of the South as Reconstruction ended and as white landowners, employers, and “Redeemer” governments sought to reestablish the constraints of slavery, thousands of African Americans migrated west in search of better opportunities. As the first well-known all-black community on the plains, Nicodemus, Kansas, became a national exemplar of black self-improvement. But Nicodemus also embodied many of the problems facing African Americans during this time. Diverging philosophies within the community, Charlotte Hinger argues, foretold the differences that continue to divide black politicians and intellectuals today. At the time Nicodemus was founded, politicians underestimated the power of African American voters. But three of the town’s black homesteaders—Abram Thompson Hall, Jr., Edward Preston McCabe, and John W. Niles—exerted extraordinary influence over county, state, and national politics. Hinger examines their divergent strategies for leading their community and for relating to white people, which reflected emerging black worldviews across the United States as African Americans grappled with the responsibilities accompanying their new freedom. Hall supported racial uplift, McCabe insisted on achieving equality through politics and legislation, and Niles advocated reparations for slavery. Hall and McCabe, both northerners, had distinguished educations, while Niles, a former slave, was a gifted orator. Their differing approaches to creating a new civilization on the prairie, seeking justice for blacks, and improving the situation of Nicodemus citizens roiled Kansas politics, already in turmoil over temperance and woman’s suffrage. Nicodemus was a microcosm of all the issues facing black Americans in the late nineteenth century, and Hall, McCabe, and Niles are archetypes for powerful philosophies that have persisted into the twenty-first century. This study of their ideas and the ways they shaped Nicodemus offers a novel perspective on the most famous post–Civil War African American community in the West.
About the Author
Award-winning novelist and independent historian Charlotte Hinger is the author of several articles and encyclopedia entries on African American history in the West and the novels Come Spring, Deadly Descent, Lethal Lineage, and Hidden Heritage.
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Post-Reconstruction Politics and Racial Justice in Western Kansas
By Charlotte Hinger
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Charolette Hinger
All rights reserved.
Passing into a New Civilization
[T]he condition of things that prevails in the South, bad as they are ... are but incidental to the revolution by which these people are passing from one civilization to another ... the abolition of slavery was not the establishment of freedom. The falling down of one house is not the building up of another. Testimony of Isaiah Wears (colored)
IN APRIL 1878 the northwestern Kansas prairie was greening up after a cold, miserable winter. Enthralled by the lure of the West, three young African American men, Abram Thompson Hall, Jr., Edward Preston McCabe, and John W. Niles, sat atop wagons loaded with supplies donated by groups in Leavenworth, Kansas. The trio had arrived at Ellis, Kansas, on the Denver Express, a Missouri Pacific train, and spent the night with Mr. and Mrs. Phillip Hayden. That morning Henry Smith, Grant Harris, Charles Page, and John DePrad, men from Nicodemus, had greeted them and loaded three borrowed wagons with the life-saving donations.
Hall, McCabe, and Niles had headed north and crossed the Saline River, and now before them lay the south fork of the Solomon River. Hall and McCabe, political buddies from Chicago, jumped from the wagons and hiked to a promontory to gain their first glimpse of the Promised Land — Nicodemus, Kansas. They gazed across the valley at a network of what Hall would later call "anthills" (dugouts) extending some eight miles north. Stunned, they turned to the smiling, charismatic con artist Niles, who had lured them from a small black colony in Hodgeman County, about a hundred miles to the south to this unpromising beginning. Nicodemus was not at all the thriving settlement Niles had described.
To African Americans, Nicodemus — an all-black settlement situated amid scattered mounds of earth — teemed with symbolism bordering on the magical. The hopes of blacks for the development of this town were comparable to whites' expectations for Jamestown, Virginia, in the early seventeenth century. William Eagleson, editor of the Kansas-based Colored Citizen, wrote that if the colony at Nicodemus was successful, then the question of "what shall become of the colored race in this country is solved." He maintained that immigrants from Tennessee and Kentucky could come into Kansas and "go upon land away from railroads, towns, and almost beyond the limits of civilization itself, and succeed in placing themselves in a comparative state of comfort, and could make a living," and that "there is no longer need for our people to remain in the abominable South, to be the slaves of the rebels and targets for the muskets of white men." Craig Miner writing in West of Wichita quoted the Atchison Champion's prediction that "if Nicodemus failed, it would darken the whole future of the colored race in the country."
Indeed, with the establishment of Nicodemus, for the first time in the history of the United States enough black voters had gathered in a region to affect critically important decisions regarding the settlement of the West. Approximately six hundred African Americans migrating from the South to the High Plains — in organized colonies, clusters of family groups, and small trickles of courageous individuals — had responded to intensive publicity campaigns luring disillusioned ex-slaves to a better life.
Just as Nicodemus would soon become a microcosm representing political activity by African Americans in the trans-Mississippi West, Hall, McCabe, and Niles — each with distinctive appearance, style, and temperament — were archetypes of contrasting political philosophies that emerged among blacks following the failure of Reconstruction.
Hall, a well-educated freeborn northern journalist, easily melded his racial agenda through intelligent cooperation with the white population and led the campaign to organize Graham County. Governor St. John appointed him census taker, an office whose functions were essential for county organization but a precarious position for a black man who would be visiting isolated whites. Hall subsequently served as a federal census taker. His editorials were quoted nationwide, and he would write on a broad range of subjects throughout his long life.
McCabe, also freeborn, and who could have passed for white, eventually became a black separatist and hoped that Oklahoma would become an all-black state. McCabe became the first African American in the North elected to a state office. He served as state auditor for Kansas and later founded Langston City and Langston University in Oklahoma. He was elected assistant chief clerk of the Oklahoma Territorial Legislature.
The formerly enslaved Niles, one of the founders of Nicodemus, was controversial and flamboyant. He differed from both Hall and McCabe in believing that African Americans deserved compensation for their years in slavery. Through this assertion he later defeated a cadre of the best lawyers in Kansas while defending himself in a criminal case following his mortgaging of a nonexistent corn crop. He went on to persuade one of the most esteemed legislators in Kansas, James Legate, to back his demands for restitution for blacks. Then, through his considerable oratorical skills, Niles gained national notoriety because of his aggressive demands that whites atone. He was the first black man to persuade the U.S. Senate to consider a petition for slave reparations. It was introduced by Senator John Sherman, brother of General William Tecumseh Sherman.
The thoughtful, philosophical Voorhees Committee testimony of Isaiah Wears, a freeborn African American real estate broker living in Philadelphia, encapsulated the most critical task of the settlers of Nicodemus. How might they shape liberty while in a raw, wounded state, still reeling from the Civil War? Should they woo the approval of surrounding whites? Could they live apart? Indeed, as Wears testified, "the falling down of one house was not the building up of another."
Defining liberty has divided African Americans from the time of the Emancipation Proclamation into the twenty-first century. W. E. B. Du Bois, historian and founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Booker T. Washington, educator and founder of the Tuskegee Institute, would starkly delineate the division.
Abram T. Hall later wrote of his initial disappointment at seeing Nicodemus. He had left a well-paid job as city editor for the Chicago Conservator, a prestigious black newspaper. While working there, early settler Lulu Sadler Craig writes in her unpublished history of Nicodemus, Hall had read articles about the "movement to locate Negro Americans on United States Government lands in the west during the winter of 1877–1878." According to Hall, reports of "boundless acreage, fertility of soil, equable climate and golden opportunity to acquire and own a home on lands west of the Missouri river, in the State of Kansas" lured black people into a great migration from the South. Excited by the opportunity to acquire free land, he and McCabe decided to join the exodus.
Hall and McCabe were not the only ones disillusioned by the sight of Nicodemus. At the age of ninety, Willianna Hickman recalled her first impression when she arrived in the spring of 1878: "When we got in sight of Nicodemus, the men shouted, 'There is Nicodemus.' Being very sick, I hailed this news with gladness. I looked with all the eye I had. 'Where is Nicodemus? I don't see it.' My husband pointed out 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." Adding to her tribulation, her six children were recovering from measles, which had caused a two-week delay in Ellis for a number of the families.
In fact, sixty families in the colony arriving in September headed back to the South the day after they arrived in Nicodemus. As with the exaggerated portrayals of Kansas to future homesteaders, town promotion on the frontier had been raised to an art form, and Nicodemus was no exception. When the exhausted colonists arrived, they found a vast, empty, treeless prairie. The Solomon River, described in circulars as "having an abundance of excellent water," was little more than a creek to people who had lived next to the Ohio River. The promised "abundance of fine Magnesium stone for building purposes" lay under a carpet of tough, nearly impenetrable sod. A magnificent herd of wild horses with black flowing manes, mentioned repeatedly in the personal narratives of early Nicodemus settlers, always remained at a distance. Certainly they could not be captured on foot or with the weary work horses the ex-slaves had brought to Kansas.
Despite their initial shock, Hall wrote Craig that he and McCabe filled their "lungs to capacity with the dry, invigorating atmosphere and returned to the waiting wagons." They pushed on toward the colony, where Hall would soon make his mark as an extraordinarily competent politician. In fact, his involvement in Nicodemus politics had begun before his arrival in Graham County. In the narrative Hall sent Craig he expounded on how Niles had lured him to Nicodemus. After he left Chicago, upon reaching Leavenworth, he overheard a conversation between women in a café regarding the plight of the Nicodemus settlers, who were in need of supplies to tide them over until their crops matured. He later explained that his "newspaper instinct instantly apprised that here was a human interest story fairly crying out loud for investigation and publication." He tracked down John W. Niles, who was soliciting aid for the colony. Hall learned that despite the presence of "articles in the daily newspapers, emanating from a disgruntled group back in the colony [Nicodemus], impeaching his right as a solicitor," Niles had been quite successful.
A month earlier, Niles had called on the editor of the Leavenworth Daily Times and presented himself as the president of the Nicodemus colony and claimed he was in charge of some six hundred souls, all of whom were in dire straits. The editor wrote a column admiring Niles's commendable work on behalf of his race. A couple of weeks later, the Times reprinted a column that had appeared in the Atchison Champion, stating that "Chas. Gossaway, a colored minister" representing Nicodemus was also soliciting aid.
On April 7, the Times printed a scathing letter from the real president of Nicodemus Town Company, W. H. Smith. In a sharp rebuke, Smith said that there was no suffering in Graham County and that Niles had no authority to solicit for the colony. Smith also accused Niles of falsely claiming that he had the endorsement of the governors of Colorado and Kentucky "to carry on the begging business." Naturally, as an investor in the Nicodemus Town Company and active in propaganda to attract more people to the colony, Smith insisted that Nicodemus was "abundantly able to take care of itself and all of its members."
The residents of Leavenworth responded generously to Niles's appeal. However, two groups that Hall referred to as "local race [Negro] politicians[,] one faction led by W. B. Townsend and the other by William Matthews," had tied up the aid because they doubted Niles's authority. In Hall's opinion, Townsend and Matthews, "seeing the success of the donation," were "eager to be given credit or glory for what they had had no part in bringing about." Since it was Hall's first day in Leavenworth, he was not aware of the background for the controversy that would come to a head that very evening at the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, Hall's own denomination. He could not have known that by confronting Townsend and Matthews he was challenging two of Kansas's most prominent African Americans.
Captain William Dominick Matthews, a Republican at the time, who later became a Democrat, owned "Waverly Place, a boarding establishment," which previously had been a station on the Underground Railroad, harboring fugitive slaves. As captain of Company D, he had actively recruited for the famous First Kansas Colored Regiment organized by Senator James H. Lane. In August 1878, in his role as "Most Worthy Grand Master" of the King Solomon Grand Lodge of the Prince Hall Masons, he published a letter in a Lawrence, Kansas, newspaper, tracing the "history of Colored Masonry down to the present day" and denouncing the formation of a rival group, the "so-called States Rights Masons."
William Bolden Townsend, also a Republican, shared Hall's belief in the importance of racial uplift. He too had achieved status a politician, journalist, and attorney, and like Hall was a "spell-binding orator." He built "one of the most beautiful and costly houses in Leavenworth" and would later become one of Kansas's most effective voices against racial violence.
Prior to a meeting to be held at the AME church that evening to determine custody of the supplies, Hall met with church officials, Reverend Phillip Hubbard, chairman, and John Banks, secretary, to see if they supported Niles. They did, so he hatched a plan that worked to perfection. At the outset of the meeting, after Niles again described the destitute conditions of the colonists, Hall thwarted the opportunity for the brilliant debaters Matthews and Townsend to state their views by jumping to his feet and immediately moving to release the goods to Niles. Banks promptly seconded the motion. "Our program," wrote Hall, "went through almost unanimously," and Niles was "elated over the outcome." Hall, McCabe, Matthews, and Townsend would cross paths many more times in their political careers.
Impressed with Hall's abilities, Niles persuaded Hall and McCabe to accompany him to Nicodemus. Hall later wrote that their "approach must have been seen" because after they forded the Solomon River the "entire population met us on the other bank with a greeting much like that accorded homecoming victors loaded with the spoils of war."
Hall immediately used his political skills to settle the controversy in Nicodemus about Niles's self-appointed role as the colony's agent. Those who had supported Niles from the beginning wanted to keep the supplies for themselves, but Hall persuaded that faction to share with all who would sign the following statement he drew up authorizing Niles to solicit aid on behalf of the colonists: "To All Whom it May Concern: Greetings: We the undersigned members of a Negro Colony, located at Nicodemus, Kansas, being in destitute circumstances, due to the lack of food, clothing, shoes, garden and farm seeds do hereby and herewith appoint and empower John W. Niles, one of our number, as an agent and solicitor before the public in our behalf until such time as our crops are ready to be planted shall mature and be ready for harvest." That same night, the colonists elected Hall clerk of the colony and McCabe disbursing clerk, and they decided to dole out goods every Friday. All but seven signed Niles's authorization document at once. The remaining seven signed by "ration day."
After negotiating cooperation over aid, Hall immediately addressed an equally critical problem. The settlers wanted to stay clustered in town. Witnesses in the Voorhees Committee hearing would spar over the advisability of ex-slaves living apart from a community on individual claims. Milton W. Reynolds, a fiery journalist from Parsons, Kansas, who often used the pseudonym "Kicking Bird," wrote, "The colored people are gregarious. They move in squads, in companies, battalions, in regiments." Lulu Craig also commented on the issue. There was no building large enough to accommodate large groups, and Craig noted, "They being people who liked to get together, that was a hardship for them." Also, the first settlers had built shelters around the town site and were daunted by the idea of carving out a second dugout on their land outside of Nicodemus. There was safety in numbers, and the community had created a central storage facility and shared labor, supplies, tools, and food. Nevertheless, Hall immediately took charge of officially recording the settlers' preemption, homestead, and soldiers' claims at the district land office in Kirwin, Kansas. Warned by land officers there of an impending rush of white settlers, Hall urged the colonists to move out of their temporary residences in Nicodemus and onto their own property because the law required "whole or partial residence and a certain amount of cultivation" to legitimize a claim. The Kirwin land agent, W. C. Don Carlos, helped secure Hall's appointment as deputy district clerk of Rooks County for the unorganized area known as Graham County, and he helped secure McCabe's commission as a notary public.
Excerpted from Nicodemus by Charlotte Hinger. Copyright © 2016 Charolette Hinger. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations xi
1 Passing into a New Civilization 11
2 Ho for Kansas! 26
3 Kansas-Sure but Slow Poison 42
4 Unconsidered Trifles 55
5 Black Republicans 67
6 The Needs of the Race 83
7 Leave This Godforsaken Country 96
8 Give No Aid to the Sharks 110
9 The Colored People Hold the Key 128
10 One Tree Bore Bread, Another Bore Lard 147
11 I Will Not Touch the Unclean Thing 170