In the fall of 1877, more than 500 black Kentuckians accepted a promise of 160 acres, access to a herd of horses, proximity to loving white neighbors, plenty of game, forests of timber, hills of coal and the right to govern themselves in a town of their own making.
Each paid $5 to land speculators — mostly black entrepreneurs — to trade life in Lexington and other Kentucky towns for life in the South Solomon River Valley on the Kansas plains.
The town was called Nicodemus, a name calculated to charm the Gospel-inclined.
Black churches in Kentucky were the natural marketplace for the idea. The new Kansas home place was to be established without saloons or houses of ill repute. And the churches were filled with people who had the money for such an adventure.
So perfect was the promoters' target marketing that three-quarters of the members of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky signed up.
The 350 adventurous souls who headed west in the fall of 1877 believed they were going to a lush Eden. Nine hundred miles of Midwest plains and Kansas prairie later, they found the small, treeless burg that was Nicodemus.
Horrified, 60 families left the following day to return to Kentucky.
It was September 1877. Stores had to be laid up for the coming winter. Those that stayed had left the abundant forest behind, so they made homes out of insulating and suffocating sod. The Osage and Potawatomi Indians took pity and helped them survive.
From 1877 to 1879, more than 50,000 blacks fled the South for Kansas, Illinois, Missouri and Indiana. They were called Exodusters, another biblical reference.
In Kansas, they settled in communities in several counties. Only Nicodemus, 50 miles northwest of Hays, survives. It is the only remaining such settlement west of the Mississippi.
Question: Nicodemus survives today, in large part, because it was designated as what in 1996?
Answer to Monday’s question: In the 1880s, this Phillips County town was called Big Bend, but because postal authorities sometimes confused it with Great Bend, town leaders decided to change the name to Speed.
Check back at Kansas.com on Wednesday for the answer to today’s question.