Nicodemus, Kansas: the History of America’s Black Towns

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena discusses the historic role that African American towns have played in American history, and shows how ethnic newspapers—such as those in GenealogyBank’s African American Newspaper Archives—can help you explore your family history and this part of America’s past.

Browsing through search results on GenealogyBank for our family history research, we may not always take the time to understand the communities that a newspaper represented. We typically are more focused on finding an ancestor’s name than researching the newspaper where their name is printed. The newspaper search results we peruse might be from newspapers in a city or county we are not familiar with. In other cases it may be a newspaper that serves a specific ethnic or religious community. And in some cases the newspaper may represent something even more.

If you search the newspaper titles for Kansas available on GenealogyBank, one city that is represented is Nicodemus. Nicodemus, Kansas, is a historic black town, settled by African Americans at the end of Civil War Reconstruction. Founded in 1877 and now a historic site, Nicodemus is the oldest and one of the few remaining Black settlements west of the Mississippi.*

plat map for Nicodemus, Kansas, a historic black town

Illustration: Nicodemus plat map. Source: Library of Congress.

Historical Black Towns

Nicodemus is not unique—since colonial times, African Americans have founded and settled “self-segregated” towns. These towns, especially after the Civil War, provided a place of safety and opportunity for families.** When the promises of Reconstruction didn’t happen, black towns provided African Americans with the opportunity that full citizenship offered Caucasians, including the ability to own businesses and land, hold public office and vote undisturbed in elections. According to the Library of Congress, at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863, less than 8 percent of African Americans lived outside of the Southern United States. Even though the majority of African Americans still live in the South, there was a migration of some 60,000 African Americans in the 1870s to Kansas and the Oklahoma Indian Territories.***

African American Newspapers

The founding of historical black towns goes hand-in-hand with ethnic newspapers. According to Professor Rhonda Ragsdale, whose research on black towns led to her starting the website The Black Towns Project, newspapers played a huge role in the development of black towns. The men who founded these towns were involved in real estate and newspapers. In addition, they advertised in ethnic newspapers looking for potential settlers for their new towns.

The newspapers found in GenealogyBank’s African American Newspaper Archives encompass all types of newspapers, from religious, to ethnic papers serving a larger city, to those serving specifically black towns.

screenshot of the search page for GenealogyBank's African American Newspaper Archives

For example, GenealogyBank has two newspapers for Nicodemus, Kansas: the Nicodemus Cyclone and the Nicodemus Enterprise.

front page of the Nicodemus Cyclone newspaper 6 April 1888

Nicodemus Cyclone (Nicodemus, Kansas), 6 April 1888, page 1

To learn more about Nicodemus, see the Nicodemus National Historic Site page from the National Park Service, and the African American Mosaic: Nicodemus Kansas page from the Library of Congress. A list of historically black towns can be found at the website The Black Towns Project. Archives and libraries to help in your research include: The Black Towns Project Archive and Reading Room in Ada, Oklahoma; the Oklahoma History Center; and The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Other historically black towns are also represented in GenealogyBank’s online collection, including newspapers for Langston, Oklahoma, and Mound Bayou, Mississippi.

Have an ancestor who lived in a black town? Professor Ragsdale confirms that “ethnic newspapers are an unexplored goldmine.” Your first stop needs to be researching newspapers that document the town’s community and history. You can learn more about GenealogyBank’s African American newspaper collection, which spans 1827-1999, by browsing the collection’s homepage.

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* Nicodemus National Historic Site. “Go to Kansas.” http://www.nps.gov/nico/index.htm Accessed 25 August 2014.
** The Black Towns Project. About the Project. http://www.blacktownsproject.org/ Accessed 25 August 2014.
*** The Library of Congress. African American Mosaic. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african/afam008.html Accessed 25 August 2014

Related Articles about African Americans:

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10 Famous African Americans in 18th & 19th Century History

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, to celebrate February being Black History Month, Mary searches old newspapers to find information about 10 African Americans who achieved notable “firsts” in American history

So rich is the history of persons of color, that when GenealogyBank asked me to research historical African American accomplishments, it was difficult to narrow the choices.

As a result, this article focuses on just a few famous African American women and men of the 18th and 19th Centuries. This list includes transformational leaders, authors, inventors and the people behind many of the “firsts” in American history. At the conclusion of this article, follow the links to further broaden your knowledge of these famous African Americans, as well as other notable people who could not be featured in this short piece.

For researchers of Black history who know these earlier achievers as household names, take this handy quiz—which you are welcome to share with others.

For everyone else, read on to learn more about these individuals, with information gleaned from GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.

quiz about 10 famous African Americans from the 17th and 18th centuries

1) Benjamin Banneker (9 Nov. 1731 Baltimore, MD – 9 Oct. 1806 Baltimore, MD)

Early newspapers described Banneker as “a noted Negro mathematician and astronomer”—but he was also a farmer, clock-maker and self-taught scientist. In addition, he was the first African American to author an almanac.

Banneker was chosen to assist Major Andrew Ellicott with his project to survey the borders of the District of Columbia. Known to be a voluminous writer of letters, Banneker became involved in the movement to establish the colony of Liberia in Africa. He was never enslaved, as his parents, Mary and Robert, were free.

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Banneker.)

article about Benjamin Banneker, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 29 August 1926

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 29 August 1926, page 64

2) James Derham (1757 Philadelphia, PA – 1802)

Although he did not hold a degree, James Derham became the first African American man to formally practice medicine, a skill he learned during the Revolutionary War while serving with the British under his master, Dr. George West. Derham was fluent in French, English and Spanish. As someone taught to compound medicines, he was an early pharmacist. His medical business in New Orleans, Louisiana, reportedly earned him $3,000 per year.

This 1789 newspaper article presented a biography of James Derham.

article about James Derham, New-Hampshire Spy newspaper article 3 February 1789

New-Hampshire Spy (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 3 February 1789, page 120

In this 1828 newspaper article, a local New Orleans doctor expressed his admiration for James Derham’s medical knowledge:

‘I conversed with him on medicine,’ says Dr. Rush, ‘and found him very learned. I thought I could give him information concerning the treatment of diseases, but I learned more from him than he could expect from me.’

article about James Derham, Freedom’s Journal newspaper article 14 November 1828

Freedom’s Journal (New York, New York), 14 November 1828, page 2

3) Jupiter Hammon (17 Oct. 1711 Lloyd Harbor, NY – before 1806)

Hammon was an abolitionist, the first published African American poet, and is largely considered to be one of the founders of African American literature. Enslaved by the John Lloyd family and never emancipated, he was allowed to write and even served in the American Revolutionary War.

One of his poems, “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries,” was published as a broadside (i.e., a paper printed on a single page).

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jupiter_Hammon.)

article about Jupiter Hammon, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 24 April 1924

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 24 April 1924, page 6

For more information about his life, see: Authentication of Poem Written by 18th Century Slave and Author, Jupiter Hammon (Cedrick May, University of Texas at Arlington).

4) Absalom Jones (1746 Delaware – 13 Feb. 1818 Philadelphia, PA)

Born into slavery, Absalom Jones was a noted abolitionist who became the first ordained African American priest of the Episcopal Church, in 1795. Early newspapers depict him as an articulate and educated man, who worked to establish a free colony of former slaves in Africa. In the Episcopal Calendar of Saints, 13 February is celebrated as “Absalom Jones, Priest 1818.”

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absalom_Jones.)

article about Absalom Jones, Amherst Journal newspaper article 26 September 1795

Amherst Journal (Amherst, New Hampshire), 26 September 1795, page 3

5) Jarena Lee (c. 1783 Cape May, NJ – unknown)

A noted Evangelist, Jarena Lee was the first African American woman to publish an autobiography.

portrait of Jarena Lee

Portrait: Jarena Lee. Credit: Library of Congress.

The earliest mention of Jarena Lee in a newspaper was in 1840, when she was listed as a member of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society from Pennsylvania.

article about Jarena Lee, Emancipator newspaper article 29 May 1840

Emancipator (New York, New York), 29 May 1840, page 18

Another report from an 1853 newspaper mentions Lee involved in a discussion about the Colonization Society.

article about Jarena Lee, Liberator newspaper article 9 December 1853

Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts), 9 December 1853, page 195

6) Mary Eliza Mahoney (16 Apr. 1845 Dorchester, MA – 4 Jan. 1926 Boston MA)

After working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, Mary Eliza Mahoney became the first African American woman to be accepted into nursing school, at the age of 33. It took 16 months, after which only 3 of the 40 applicants graduated. By 1908 she had co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) with Ada B. Thorns. She went on to be an active participant in other nursing organizations, along with holding titles as a director. When women gained their voting rights in 1920, Mahoney was the first woman in Boston to register to vote. Several prestigious nursing awards are given in her honor.

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Eliza_Mahoney.)

article about Mary Eliza Mahoney, Milwaukee Star newspaper article 13 July 1968

Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 13 July 1968, page 5

7) Judy W. Reed (c. 1826 – unknown)

Judy W. Reed is often hailed as the first African American woman to hold a patent, for her dough kneader.

illustration of Judy Reed's dough kneader

Illustration: Judy Reed’s dough kneader. Credit: United States Patent & Trademark Office.

Not much is known about her life, but this 1900 newspaper article reports that she and several other women received their patents in 1899.

(Note: Google patents reports that they were earlier. See: https://www.google.com/patents.)

article about Judy Reed, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 11 June 1900

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 11 June 1900, page 5

8) Alexander Lucius Twilight (26 Sep. 1795 Corinth, VT – 19 June 1857 Brownington, VT)

Twilight was a licensed Congregational minister, a teacher and politician. In 1823 he became the first African American to earn a bachelor’s degree when he graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont. He also became the first state-elected official when he joined the Vermont General Assembly in 1836.

(See: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/twilight-alexander-1795-1857.)

article about Alexander Twilight, American Repertory newspaper article 28 August 1823

American Repertory (St. Albans, Vermont), 28 August 1823, page 3

9) Phillis Wheatley or Phillis Wheatley Peters (8 May 1753 Senegambia, Africa – 5 Dec. 1784 Boston, MA)

Hailed in this 1773 newspaper as “the ingenious Negro Poet,” Phillis Wheatley was the first African American female poet to be published.

article about Phillis Wheatley, Connecticut Journal newspaper article 7 May 1773

Connecticut Journal (New Haven, Connecticut), 7 May 1773, page 3

Captured at the age of seven in the present-day regions of Gambia and Senegal, Africa, Phillis found herself enslaved by the John Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write. At the age of 20, this talented woman published Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which was showcased in America and England. After the death of John Wheatley, she was emancipated and decided to marry John Peters. The family struggled financially, and after Peters was sent to prison for debts, Phillis became ill and died at the young age of 31.

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phillis_Wheatley.)

article featuring a poem by Phillis Wheatley, Boston-News Letter newspaper article 13 May 1773

Boston-News Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 May 1773, page 4

10) Harriet E. “Hattie” Adams Wilson (15 Mar. 1825 New Hampshire – 28 June 1900 Quincy, MA)

Born to an African American “hooper of barrels” and a washerwoman of Irish descent, Hattie was raised by her parents until her father died. As a young girl, she found herself abandoned and bound out as an indentured servant on the farm of Nehemiah Heyward, Jr. After completing her indenture, she worked as a seamstress and servant. Some of her other occupations were: clairvoyant physician, nurse and healer. In 1851 she married Thomas Wilson, an escaped slave and lecturer. He soon abandoned her, but later returned to rescue her and her son from a poor farm.

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_E._Wilson.)

Harriet is credited with writing the first African American novel published in the U.S. Although copyrighted, “Our Nig: or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, was published anonymously in 1859 and rediscovered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in 1982. Although a work of fiction, the book is thought to describe her life as an indentured servant. I couldn’t find any early newspaper articles to document her life or her novel, but I did find several recent articles discussing her work—including this one from 1982.

article about Harriet Adams Wilson, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 15 November 1982

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 15 November 1982, page 6

For more information, see: African American Registry.)

Additional African American Research Resources

For more complete biographies on these and other noteworthy African Americans, see:

Remembering Alex Haley: ‘Roots,’ Kunta Kinte & Genealogy

History of Roots by Alex Haley

Today is the 22nd anniversary of the death of Alex Haley (1921-1992), the author who wrote the popular African American novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The publication of Haley’s novel in 1976, and the subsequent ABC television miniseries based on his book that aired in January 1977, spurred tremendous interest in genealogy in the United States.

photo of the cover of the first edition of Alex Haley’s novel “Roots”

Photo: cover of the first edition of Alex Haley’s novel “Roots.” Credit: Wikipedia.

Haley’s award-winning novel was a fictionalized account of his own African American family history, tracing his roots all the way back to an African ancestor, Kunta Kinte, who was kidnapped in the Gambia in the 1760s, shipped across the Atlantic and sold into slavery in Maryland. Haley spent ten years researching his black genealogy, relying on both oral history and documentation to support his claim that he was a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte.

Both the book and the television miniseries were enormously popular and successful. The novel was translated into 37 languages and has sold millions of copies around the world. Haley was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for his book in 1977. The eight-part TV miniseries fascinated the American public and was watched by a then-record 130 million viewers.

Genealogy Research Suddenly Skyrockets!

After reading Roots and watching the television miniseries, Americans—both black and white—wanted to find out more about their own family roots. Requests to the National Archives for genealogical material quadrupled the week after the TV show ended. The number of genealogical societies in the U.S. skyrocketed. Libraries and government offices received a steady stream of requests to review books, official records, and microfilm collections.

In the spring of 1977 this newspaper article reported on the growing popularity of genealogy.

Many Are Climbing Family Trees, Morning Star newspaper article 19 April 1977

Morning Star (Rockford, Illinois), 19 April 1977, page 14

According to the article:

The increasing trend toward genealogical research apparently started three or four years ago, picked up stimulation in the Bicentennial year [1976] and was spurred again by Alex Haley’s “Roots” and the tremendously successful ABC television series based on his book.

That series, the most-watched ever on television, led thousands of blacks and whites alike to a search for their own roots. The National Archives reported that its mail requests quadrupled in the week after the series.

A decade later, newspaper articles such as this one were still crediting Haley for the public’s interest in genealogy.

article about Alex Haley and his novel "Roots" spurring interest in genealogy, Springfield Union newspaper article 13 October 1986

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 13 October 1986, page 2

Ten days before he died, Haley gave a talk at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. A local newspaper, the Afro-American Gazette from nearby Grand Rapids, published this remembrance after his death.

Alex Haley--the End of an Era, Afro-American Gazette newspaper article 1 March 1992

Afro-American Gazette (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 1 March 1992, page 1

The news article begins this way:

Alex Haley was a man of vision—a man who knew [that], as individuals and a nation, [we] must know where we have been in order to know where we are going.

And when he died…he left that vision behind as a legacy to a world starving for truth, starving for direction, starving for peace and understanding.

Alex Haley’s Obituary

This obituary, published the day after Haley died, said he “inspired people of all races to search for their ancestors” and stated:

Mr. Haley’s warmhearted and rich descriptions of his ancestors’ lives set off a wave of interest in genealogy, lasting long after the book faded from best-seller lists.

Author Alex Haley, Won Pulitzer, (Dies) at 70, Boston Herald newspaper article 11 February 1992

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 11 February 1992, page 53

To find out more about Alex Haley’s life and influence—and to begin your own search for your family roots—dig into GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, a collection of more than 6,500 newspapers featuring the largest obituary archive online. Also, search our African American newspaper collection to trace your black family history.