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

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Researching Recent Obituaries for All My ‘Mayflower’ Cousins

There is more than one way to find your relatives in GenealogyBank’s massive archive of Recent Obituaries.

I’ve noticed that genealogists often go to the Recent Obituaries collection when they are researching a specific relative that died in the past 40 years. They search, find them and go.

But wait—there’s more.

There is another valuable approach you can take with the Recent Obituaries that lets us find relatives even when we don’t know their names—and even if we have never heard of them before!

Obituaries are handy resources for genealogists. They speak about the person, their interests and what was important to them. Many obituaries mention that the deceased had a sense of family and history. I often see obituaries that say so and so loved genealogy, and then name the ancestors that fought in the Revolutionary War, or who had come to America on the Mayflower.

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Tracing Your Mayflower Ancestry

Having studied this for the past 50 years, I’ve concluded that nearly all Americans with ancestral roots prior to 1820 that lived in upper New England (Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and probably Rhode Island) have at least one ancestor that came over on the Mayflower.

I know I do.

I have seven Mayflower ancestors (including Thomas Rogers) and I want to track down and document all of the descendants of my Pilgrim ancestors.

The Recent Obituaries archive is a terrific way to do this.

Typically I will enter the name of a Mayflower passenger and the word “Mayflower” in the Include Keywords searchbox.

For example, here’s a search for “Thomas Rogers” and “Mayflower.”

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box, showing a search for "Thomas Rogers" and "Mayflower"
This GenealogyBank search pulled up a lot of accurate search results, like this one for Mary-Jane Earle Hensley.

obituary for Mary-Jane Earle Hensley, Daily News Record newspaper article 3 October 2012

Daily News Record (Harrisonburg, Virginia), 3 October 2012

This is a great genealogical find.

According to this obituary, not only was Mary-Jane a descendant of Thomas Rogers—but “She published a book on Thomas Rogers, Mayflower Pilgrim, in 1980.”

By building on the information in her obituary I can use other newspaper articles, census and other records to chain backwards on the family tree to Thomas Rogers. This way I can extend and complete our family history and document each person as I go from person to person in the tree.

You can do this with other clues in an obituary.

Did the family come from a very small town?

Do you share a Revolutionary War ancestor or other famous relative?

Build on those clues and rely on GenealogyBank’s Recent Obituaries to accurately document your family tree. To learn more about how to use obituaries for genealogy research, watch our tutorial on YouTube: “Obituaries: Clues to Look For.”

Note: FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank yesterday announced an agreement to make over a billion records from historical obituaries searchable online. The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present.  Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/

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Massive Online U.S. Obituaries Project Will Make It Easier to Find Your Ancestors

announcement of a partnership between FamilySearch and GenealogyBank to index obituaries

FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank (GenealogyBank.com) today announced an agreement to make over a billion records from historical obituaries searchable online. It will be the largest—and perhaps most significant—online U.S. historical records access initiative yet. Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/

The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present. The completed online index will be fairly comprehensive; for example, it will cover 85% of U.S. deaths from the last decade. The indexed death records collection will easily become one of the most popular online databases ever.

Obituaries Provide Information—and Stories

Obituaries can solve family puzzles, tell stories, dispel myths, and provide tremendous help with family history research.

Finding your ancestors’ names in obituaries has never been easier. Through the FamilySearch and GenealogyBank partnership, the valuable information contained in obituaries—including the name of the deceased, surviving family members’ names, their family relationships, locations, and dates—will be indexed, making it easier for genealogists to discover new relatives and gain a deeper understanding of their family’s past.

A single obituary can include the names and relationships of dozens of family members. For example, this obituary for James Thayer Geddes sheds light on where he lived during his lifespan, his education, his career choices and his personal interests, as well as providing information connecting five generations of ancestors and descendants in his family tree.

obituary for James T. Geddes, Rutland Herald newspaper article 9 October 2006

Rutland Herald (Rutland, Vermont), 9 October 2006

Dennis Brimhall, CEO of FamilySearch, explained that obituaries are extremely valuable because they tell the stories of our ancestors’ lives long after they are deceased. He invites online volunteers to help unlock the “treasure trove” of precious family information locked away in newspaper obituaries.

“Billions of records exist in U.S. obituaries alone,” Brimhall said. “The average obituary contains the names of about ten family members of the deceased—parents, spouse, children, and other relatives. Some include much more. Making them easily searchable online creates an enormously important source for compiling our family histories. The number of people who will benefit from this joint initiative is incalculable.”

GenealogyBank’s growing collection currently has over 7,100 historical U.S. newspapers, spanning more than 200 years. The death notices in these publications go beyond names and dates. They can provide insightful firsthand accounts about an ancestor that simply are not available from censuses or vital records alone.

“Obituaries, unlike any other genealogy resource, have the ability to add incredible dimensions to an individual’s family history research. They contain a wealth of information including facts and details that help capture the legacy of those who have passed on,” said Dan V. Jones, GenealogyBank Vice President. “The unique life stories written, dates documented, and generations of family members mentioned are often only found within an obituary, which makes them such an invaluable resource. Obituaries have the unique power to tell a story and enable individuals to learn more about their family relationships. GenealogyBank is proud and excited to partner with FamilySearch in bringing these obituaries to researchers all over the world.”

Volunteers Are Key to Project’s Success

The success of the massive U.S. obituary indexing campaign will depend on online volunteers. The obituaries are fairly simple to read, since they are digital images of the typeset, printed originals that appeared in the newspaper, but require human judgment to sort through the rich historical data and family relationships recorded about each person. Information about online volunteering is available at FamilySearch.org/indexing. A training video, indexing guide, detailed instructions, as well as telephone and online support, are available to help new volunteer indexers if needed.

Work has already begun by tens of thousands of volunteers to transcribe the information from GenealogyBank’s vast U.S. obituary collection to make it quickly searchable online. Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/

About FamilySearch

FamilySearch International is the largest genealogy organization in the world. FamilySearch is a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Millions of people use FamilySearch records, resources, and services to learn more about their family history. To help in this great pursuit, FamilySearch and its predecessors have been actively gathering, preserving, and sharing genealogical records worldwide for over 100 years. Patrons may access FamilySearch services and resources free online at FamilySearch.org or by using over 4,600 family history centers in 132 countries, including the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.


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