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Black Americans played vital role in developing America

By Cheryl May

 

In the late 1870s, Kansas became a mecca for about 350 former slaves, who came from Kentucky eager to begin new lives as free people.

A.M.E. churchIn 1877, the Rev. W.H. Smith, an African-American Kentucky minister, and W.R. Hill, a white land developer, established the town of Nicodemus in Graham County. It was the first primarily African-American rural settlement west of the Mississippi. Today it remains the last survivor of about a dozen such settlements in Kansas. Located on U.S. Highway 24 about 13 miles east of Hill City, and 52 miles northwest of Hays, the tiny settlement was declared a National Historic Site in 1998.

Two Kansas State University staff members are especially tuned in to Nicodemus. For Veryl Switzer, associate director of athletics emeritus, the connection to Nicodemus is special.

"It's my home," Switzer said. He is a descendent of Zach Fletcher, one of the first settlers.

"Mr. Switzer is still an influential farmer in the township, generating economic opportunity and stability for Nicodemus through his personal pursuits," said K-State landscape architecture professor LaBarbara James Wigfall.

For Wigfall, Nicodemus has been a rich treasure trove for study -- and it feels like home to her, too. With the research she's done and the relationships she's forged, she feels a kinship to the town.

"The sense of belonging I feel whenever I'm there reminds me of the comfortable communities I've lived in," she said.

baptist churchSwitzer was a standout football and track star in high school and at K-State. He earned All-America honors as a running back and defensive back for K-State. In 1954, he was the fourth player selected in the NFL draft, by the Green Bay Packers, where he played for two years. He then completed his military obligation serving in the U.S. Air Force. After the service, he played three years of Canadian football -- one year with the Calgary Stampeders and two years with the Montreal Alouettes.

He spent a decade working at the Chicago Board of Education. He came back to K-State in 1969. In 1961 he purchased 160 acres of Graham County farmland to return to Nicodemus. He continued to add acreage and now owns 840 acres of pasture and cropland in the area. He has been a leader in the efforts to preserve the historic town.

Switzer's cousin, Angela Bates-Tompkins, has been a tireless worker in the effort to preserve Nicodemus rich heritage, and in getting it National Historic Site status. Although the town was declared dead when the railroad passed it by in the 1880s, residents like Bates-Tompkins refused to give up and the town is today a thriving, albeit tiny, community.

Wigfall has studied how black settlements affected the development of the United States from an environmental design standpoint. She led a Historic American Building Survey on Nicodemus for the National Park Service in 1983. This study was the first cultural landscape documentation in the United States. The team of K-State, Louisiana State University and Oregon State University students focused on the townsite/township's physical and social evolution from 1877-1983.

school"Black settlements in America contributed to the vitality and the history of the United States, yet their participation has sometimes been difficult to identify," Wigfall said. "Historians often have overlooked the role of black settlements. Because black settlements often were constructed as naturally evolving landscapes, rather than to conform to any set plan or European formula, they often were not appreciated for their eclectic richness and diversity."

Wigfall began her study of black settlements in 1976, to document the roles of African-Americans in the development of the American-built landscape. She identified more than 800 villages and towns in 40 states. She studied black communities throughout America, from Washington, D.C., to Dade County, Fla., to Allensworth, Calif. She found many similarities in the communities and was able to categorize the settlements into seven basic categories as well as to identify evolutionary house types -- slave villages, freedman villages, rural villages, black towns, rural resettlements, urban enclaves and alley dwellings.

But there were difficulties along the way. When she began her study, she knew much of her research material was hidden from view, in personal or family collections and transferred orally in communities.

"I knew blacks had contributed to the built environment," she said, "yet this participation was in some cases subtle, yet identifiable."

township hallAll of Wigfall's information came together in 1980 when she obtained funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to co-publish a 10-piece educational exhibit about black settlements. Her research on the topic has been continuous and she gives frequent presentations about her work.

Nicodemus celebrates its rich history with an annual event called "homecoming," held the last weekend in July and first of August. The event began as an emancipation celebration at Scruggs Grove, but in 1950 the site was changed. For one weekend, the tiny community grows tenfold, with as many as 500 people coming from as far away as Sacramento, Los Angeles and Denver. Night-time dances, softball, horseback riding, food booths, historical reenactments and a major speaker comprise the entertainment.

 

Photos: (Top left) The African Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1885 of limestone and was later finished with stucco in the 1940s. This church was one of the three churches which provided a place of worship for the many residents of Nicodemus. It was closed for religious services in the 1950s.

(Middle right) The present structure of the First Baptist Church was completed in 1907 and was built around an earlier and smaller church. The stucco exterior was added in the 1940s. After the exterior of the present building was completed, the older structure was removed piece by piece through the front door. The newly built church just to the north was completed in the 1970's and is the sanctuary used for services today.

(Middle left) District No. 1 Nicodemus School, the first school established in Graham County, is one-story, wood-sided structure with a hipped roof. It was built in 1918 on the same site of the original school, (built around 1887) which burned. The school closed in the late '50s.

(Bottom right) Nicodemus Township Hall, built in 1939, was the center of local government and community life. This structure and the Nicodemus Township Board symbolize the realization of self-government by the people of Nicodemus.

Photos courtesy of the National Parks Service.

Fall 2003