Leatrice “Lee” Napue boards a school bus that will carry locals and tourists to the next stop along the Ellis to Nicodemus Trail that his descendants traveled in Kansas.
Pioneer Day broadens relationship with descendants of settlers revisiting sites along Ellis to Nicodemus trail
By Albert C. Jones
America, The Diversity Place
NICODEMUS, Kansas — Nicodemus is unique among all places in Kansas.
It’s quiet out here in the country. Once upon a time, emigrants not too long manumitted out of slavery, dreaming and hoping ahead of arrival, came here with large aspirations. Their arrival was 140 years ago. This hamlet, nowadays a few yards off Highway 24 in the northwestern Kansas, was to them The Promised Land.
Seems like no one around. But eyes may be peering through slits in curtains. Inner voice says this won’t be an ordinary day. This moment of solicitude is pleasant with the sun also rising. Wild workings of the imagination don’t arrive just yet. Suddenly unleashed, ghosts don’t come screaming. Images from the past are vivid.
In the 1980s, Nicodemus — streets, buildings and purposed people — was mapped out as the birthplace of dreamers, American Dreamer, in the abstract. Title yes. Description is deeply personal. Mass application is a fitting label. Anyone about to embark upon a new venture in life ought to start with a visit to Nicodemus.
Here you can write an anthem. You can layer a jazz composition for an ensemble or a solo. Know that hope has to be the substance of things not seen, walk the journey in their shoes, and try, if you will, to relive a particular mindset. Metaphors are enough to fill a bushel basket. Then you, too, will realize it really isn’t about them but about the self. It’s about will to not only to get here but to make real your dream. Innate kinship with Nicodemus is American Dreamer.
A pickup pulling a trailer appears, passes in a wink on Highway 24, not yielding to the opportunity to pause at the rest area in Roadside Park. The park is the gathering place for locals. Sojourner is the one who stops to verify or become acquainted with what’s to be discovered with the signage. Brown signs with white lettering, both directions east and west, on Interstate 7, announce Nicodemus as a recreational site. Then historical markers out here in the heart of Middle America portray a synopsis of their saga.
Sunrise brightens. Across South Avenue, then across Highway 24, the only movement in these rustic surroundings is a pumpjack bobbing in a post-harvest (corn or wheat?) agricultural field. The pumpjack sucks crude from beneath the soil. Sucks it from 4,000 feet deep — out of what the Kansas Independent Gas and Oil Association (KIOGA) describes as the Mississippian Lime formation. That lime formation stretches from Oklahoma east to Northwestern Kansas.
Hundreds of pumpjacks at work in the region drawing barrels of crude in boom or bust cycles. Within the past 12 month, a reporter says later, oil has plummeted from over $100 per barrel to below $40.
With each visitor and with every retelling of its story, a melodrama of the subjunctive mood — what ifs — history presents Nicodemus for classroom discussion, economic survey, Christian experience, cultural continuity, and a primary birthplace of hope. All here and more is material for American Dreamer. It would be timely should William Faulkner appear, tap you on the shoulder, and whisper “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (Requiem for a Nun)
On foot, shoot photos of the historical markers, reference shots of the farm field, capturing wide open space, pumpjack, lonely stand of trees, Township Hall, self-portrait. Sunshine casts a living shadow.
Kansas Historical Markers reads: “Nicodemus, established in 1878, was one of several African American settlements in Kansas. The 350 settlers came from Kentucky to escape the problems of oppression of the ‘Jim Crow’ South. Residents established a newspaper, a bank, hotel, schools, churches and other businesses. They enjoyed much success despite the hardships and challenges of the late 19th century High Plains settlement — wind, drought, swarming insects, and more.
“The town grew rapidly through the 1880s and many prospered. But when Nicodemus failed to secure the railroad, growth slowed and the population began to dwindle after World War I.
“Edward P. McCabe, who joined the colony in 1878, served two terms as the state auditor, 1883-1887, the first African-American elected to statewide office in Kansas.
“A symbol of the African-American experience in the West, Nicodemus operates today as a unit of the National Park Service (NPS).”
Drive the streets that easily could be walked, shooting photos out the window from each side of the Pontiac Vibe: A.M.E. Church (1885); grain silos, equipment shed, blue Nicodemus Water Tower in the background. Park the car again.
Pulling up in cars and parking across Washington Street from Township Hall, descendants of settlers bring movement to the morning. No need to speak in loud voices in Nicodemus. Most communication today will be done in voices raised above a whisper. Saturday, October 10 is being celebrated as Pioneer Day.
Leatrice “Lee” Napue introduces himself. He becomes a friendly narrator, passing introductions to Florence Howard and then Ivalee Switzer.
“Tell them who you are and what you do,” he says, listening closely. From now on he is addressed as Mr. Napue. In a short while, out of a sense of respect think to call him Father but such terms of endearment are more easily extended to mother types.
First Mr. Napue, then several others ask about kinship. They want to know if there is a local connection to émigrés residing elsewhere. They ask, “What Joneses are you related to in these parts?”
“None come to mind.”
In rural towns, Mr. Napue says with elderly wisdom, it’s important, for obvious reasons, to know who your female cousins are. Mother Howard and Mother Switzer witness a fast, immediate bond between two men. Today, here on the High Plains, it’s like father and son find each other, him in his 87th year and the son, 60. Others probably didn’t see the fast bond forming but certainly the two mothers do.
Mr. Napue walks five to six miles a day. The daily regimen keeps his body lithe like a welterweight. Wisdom, recalling what was admired and respected in older people as a child, shows in his eyes. He is a nice man.
Expanse of agricultural land that includes Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado, Mr. Napue says, is the main reason former slaves, freedmen, put up payments, arriving in railroad cars to claim parcels granted through the Homestead Act. His ancestors weren’t among the first arrivals from Kentucky. His people came from Louisiana. Napue surname does sound French but a factual claim is not supported by etymological research.
Three years of drought forced Mr. Napue off the farm here. He relocated with his wife in 1954 to Lincoln, Nebraska, where they raised two sons.
“My sons never gave me any problems with getting into trouble or drinking,” he says. “One still lives in Lincoln. My other son lives in Kansas City, Missouri.”
Mr. Napue worked nearly four decades as a journeyman handyman for the Lincoln Public Schools. Then he retired.
“I liked working with my hands,” he says. “I never was that much interested in going to school. I always liked working with my hands. My job with the schools in Lincoln allowed me to work with my hands. I got a lot of satisfaction out of working with these hands.”
The Federal Writers Project, component of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), did not send writers to Nicodemus during the Great Depression. If writers had been sent here, copious biographies of settlers would be in the public domain. Instead, the WPA appropriated funds to build Township Hall.
Mr. Napue offers to drive a visitor to the quarry nearby where blocks were hewn to construct Township Hall. In a matter of months, the building was completed in 1939. Nowadays space is leased to the National Park Service for the Visitor Center and administrative offices.
Absentee owners here lease hundreds of acres to be farmed, Mr. Napue says. He doesn’t go into detail about farmland remaining in his family. His name, however, is listed with the Kansas Black Farmers Association participating in a U. S. Department of Agriculture program that “advance sustainable innovation to American agriculture.”
Nowadays there are but a handful of black farmers in Kansas.
Yellow school bus, a Blue Bird, arrives to take sightseers to Ellis. We are about to embark upon the Ellis Trail Tour.
Angela Bates, a descendant, serves as ticket agent — palming $10 a ticket — and tour guide. Bates was born and raised in Pasadena, a city in Los Angeles County. Population of her hometown is greater than 100,000. In stark contrast, Graham County’s population is 2,597, according to census data. Population of Los Angeles County exceeds 10 million. An emigrant, Bates relocated to her ancestral homeland as an adult.
There is limited seating on Micro Bird, No. 6, belonging to the Damar-Palco-Zurich Unified School District. Park Ranger Phyllis Howard, inquiring about availability of a commemorative ticket, assigns her seat to a stranger. Bates assures Howard there will be a ticket for display in the historic site.
Give or take a few, 30 tourists load unto the bus. First stop, 37 miles south of Nicodemus, is the Ellis Depot. Nicodemus historian Lula S. Craig, one of the settlers, and local newspapers are listed by Bates as her reliable sources.
In 1877, emigrants leave the railroad station in Lexington, Kentucky. A report on ancestry.com taken from The Lexington Press records the date as 6 September 1877. They are led by land speculator W. R. Hill and the Reverend Roundtree. Emigrants arrive here at the depot in Ellis on a date uncertain.
An observer recounts, their arrival is about the same time Emma Lazarus is commissioned to write “The New Colossus.” Her famous poem is on the base of the Statue of Liberty on the island in New York Harbor, the other Ellis, some might say:
“Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Periods replace commas.)
Bates is brilliant in love with local geography and her ancestry, mapping out a tour that chronicles “The Journey from Ellis to Nicodemus.”
How many generations American were they in 1877? Several generations or the date certain when auctioned off beyond surviving the Middle Passage? Such questions are included in the enormous potential for story, multiple stories, really, leaving Ellis and before “Go down, Settlers,” into The Promised Land.
Thoughts of the Day of Pentecost occur, night services with fires burning, worshiping, singing, praising, glossolalia, dancing, transfixed by movement of the Holy Spirit. Reverend Roundtree, how closely knit is this congregation? Are you souls of “one accord?” They had to be as one, leaving Ellis but before arriving at Nicodemus.
The storyteller shares with Mr. Napue in stream-of-consciousness thoughts, admirably, like Faulkner’s Quentin Compson. Knowing our affection for praise and worship, which hymns and Negro Spirituals were sung during those night services? What titles were in the repertoire common to them and black congregations in their parts of Kentucky? Trekking, in the light of day, had they modified singing “Wake Nicodemus,” the slave era song?
We know them like we know ourselves, Mr. Napue, know extant of our American experience, like The Souls of Black Folks found in W. E. B. Du Bois’ classic literature.
Bus leads caravan of ten cars along bumpy county dirt roads, gray dust clouds billowing in the wake. Each crossroad a mile apart is a county line road, Bates teaches. Bus empties tourists at several sites beyond the Ellis Depot: Walz Homestead/Mandoata Post Office; Gady Hill Landmark and Amboy Post Office; Happy Hollow; and The Mound.
Stories of encounters with bugs, snakes, the elements, dugout living and, more often than not, struggles with each other are legend, so say Leroy Walz and his cousin Al Longstaf.
An inevitable question, worrisome really: Is “The Mound” of Native American origins, no mere hill, but a scared archeological site? Osage Indians are mentioned in some Nicodemus narratives, especially providing food stuffs to the settlers in those very difficult beginning years here on the High Plains. Mounds, like the ones in and near St. Louis, are customary in the Osage experience.
It is explained The Mound along the Ellis-Nicodemus Trail is a natural formation.
Upon return to Township Hall, a feed, as they say, of beans, cornbread and watermelon is served outside at picnic tables. Spread the word. Beans slow-cooked in a meat sauce is a delicacy. Sitting next to her at a picnic table, the lady asks, “Is this your first time in Nicodemus?”
“No, this is the third time.”
Mr. Napue seems surprised by the “three times” response. In a small town like Nicodemus, people should remember you having been here. Those midday and evening research trips were the same as this morning — wide open spaces with few people around.
Denver Public Library — then called the Western History Department — has a collection of vertical files and books about Nicodemus. Research and time writing American Dreamer are kept as private experiences. Obvious reason for silence is people want to know when the novel will be published.
American Dreamer explores experience of language development beyond Negro Spirituals and evolution of language spoken by free people. History of Negro Spirituals was the first curiosity explaining language. Then the language created in freedom speaks in improvisation and many easy and complicated melodic and rhythmic expressions.
Writer-in-residence, apartment living included Las Vegas on Harmon Avenue, short walk to the Strip, then Denver’s Washington Park, followed by home ownership in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Return to apartment living in downtown Salt Lake City, five years from the start and three drafts later, writer’s version of American Dreamer is finished. Answered prayers will determine when a New York publisher acquires rights or angst that comes with self-publishing.
Most of the tourists and sightseers are gone by now. Sitting at a picnic table, opportunity to visit quarry is acknowledged but waived. Drive back to Salt Lake City is nearly 1,000 miles. Rental return is early Monday morning.
Mr. Napue says the Nicodemus house will be shutdown and he’ll return to Lincoln. He points to where bands play and dancers dance on the concrete plaza during emancipation day and homecoming. Celebration is held annually the last weekend in July. He extends an invitation. He will be 88 by then. Caution is spoken by both men. His invitation is accepted.
Descendants of Nicodemus settlers, Ivalee Switzer and Leatrice “Lee” Napue, enjoy beans, cornbread and watermelon feed with guests after Ellis-Nicodemus trail tour.