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K-State Today

January 24, 2022

Wigfall receives National Endowment for the Humanities research grant

Submitted by Thom Jackson

On Jan. 11, the National Endowment for the Humanities announced $24.7 million in grants for 208 humanities projects across the country. One of the awards granted will give $30,000 in support of the project "The Ellis Trail to Nicodemus: Revealing Stories in the Landscape of Black Westward Settlement," led by La Barbara James Wigfall, associate professor of regional & community planning.

In addition to Wigfall, the grant team includes Katie Kingery-Page, professor of landscape architecture and associate dean of the College of Architecture, Planning & Design; Kristen Epps, associate professor of history; and Erin Wiersma, associate professor of art. The K-State team will work closely with community partners and project consultants Angela Bates and Robert Alexander, both of the Nicodemus Historical Society.

The townsite of Nicodemus remains today as home to less than 25 persons, who act as stewards of their historical legacy with support from thousands of former residents and descendants of the families of those freed people who settled in Nicodemus in the 1870s. It represents the achievements of a group of former slaves who entered the West to experience freedom, autonomy and homesteading, just as other citizens did, through the establishment of their own town. After being nationally recognized as a Historic District in 1976, it became a unit of the National Parks Service as a National Historic Site in 1996, symbolizing the Black experience in the West, post-Civil War.

"This project will help strengthen the understanding and relationship of Nicodemus to the larger western frontier landscape," Wigfall said. "After 34 years of collaboration with the National Park Service, Nicodemus Historical Society and residents, this endeavor brings national scholars, historians, artists, media and GIS expertise to the process. Support is also provided for two students to gain experience in interpreting cultural landscapes and assist media experts with the proposed website."

Wigfall continues, "This is exciting for me because this project bridges and builds upon my long-term efforts on this townsite. Dr. Ken Hamilton, historian, who contributed the first chapter of my HABS report and book in 1985, and Mark Weaver, landscape architect and community planner, who became the superintendent at Nicodemus NHS in 2008, joined the team. In addition, this project follows the more recent Parks for the People recommendations proposed to the NPS by my Plan 661 students in 2013. So, the work continues."

The project specifically interprets the cultural landscape of the Ellis Trail, a now invisible route winding through mid-grass prairie, down wooded ravines, and along limestone bluffs. The Nicodemus Historical Society has pieced together the trail route through painstaking research of recorded oral histories, photographs, and new interviews with descendants of Nicodemus settlers and white settlers along the trail route. The Discovery NEH project will map a detailed production plan and script for executing the next phase — a documentary film and interactive website — chronicling the re-enactment of the early settlers' experience along the Ellis Trail to Nicodemus.

"Misperceptions in the popular imagination about westward settlement of the United States often portray settlers as all white and erase or minimize the many important contributions made by settlers of all backgrounds, as well as Indigenous people already living in the West," Kingery-Page said. "As a descendant of Union-war veterans who settled in Kansas about the same time African American settlers made a home in Nicodemus, it is important to me as a scholar that Nicodemus raise up its history to a broader public." 

Faculty members at K-State will work with the Nicodemus Historical Society, humanities and digital media advisers to reveal this little-known aspect of Nicodemus' history. The outcome of this project will be a thorough design plan for an interactive website for viewers online to understand the journey the first Nicodemus settlers took from the train by wagon and on foot to the townsite. The website's pages will also be connected to the physical landscape by an auto tour along the Ellis Trail route using smart codes to offer in-depth information about the settlers' experience and the landscape's hidden narrative.