When you first see the small cluster of ramshackle buildings that is Nicodemus—a Kansas prairie town almost exactly halfway between Denver and Kansas City—”promised land” is not the phrase that springs to mind. The town’s post office shut down in 1952, and its school closed in 1960; the street signs are gone; the pale green paint is peeling off the vacant cinder-block building that once housed the bustling Ernestine’s Barbecue. The only things moving around today in the July heat seem to be pheasant taking wing over fields of wheat stubble and scissor-tailed flycatchers hunting for their breakfast. Sun-bleached and windblasted, Nicodemus looks like a place that time forgot.
But when Nicodemus was founded in 1877, it was indeed a promised land. In 1878 and ’79, more than twenty thousand blacks, most from Kentucky, left the Reconstructionist South for Kansas, where farmland was plentiful, and available to them. Nicodemus was the most famous of the six Kansas settlements founded by these exodusters (as they called themselves), and within a year, the town had nearly five hundred inhabitants. Wheat grew well, jackrabbits and pheasant were abundant, and for almost a decade, the town thrived. But plans for a railroad spur never materialized. Then drought set in, and grasshoppers damaged the wheat crop. By 1885 the town had already begun to die. Today it has only 35 residents.
Once a year in Nicodemus, on the last weekend in July, descendants of the original settlers are lured back to their roots for the town’s Emancipation Celebration—held annually since 1878. The population burgeons to nearly a thousand for this town-size family reunion. One annual visitor is 88-year-old, wheelchair-bound Emma Griffie (nee Williams), who lives in Denver, but who makes the journey to Nicodemus every year to join her surviving sisters—Ernestine, Charlesetta, and Wanda—and her brother Chester (all of whom have retired to Nicodemus) for three days of reminiscing, cooking, and eating. The Williamses—grandchildren of Charles and Emma Williams, who were among the town’s founders—grew up in Nicodemus in the ’30s and ’40s, when it was still a busy farming community of about three hundred residents.
In those days, everyone ”raised a garden”, says 70-year-old Pearlena Moore—another member of the Williams family, really the siblings’ niece but raised as a sister after her mother died. Her dark eyes light up as she remembers wild prairie greens cooked with home-smoked hog jowl or ham hocks, fried jackrabbit legs with milk gravy, and home-churned butter. ”We used to have a little song we sang when we were churning butter,” Pearlena coos. ”’Come, butter, come. Mama wants you to come, baby wants you to come, come, butter, come.”’
Her younger cousins call Pearlena—who is short in stature but ample in size—Aunt Teenie, and tease that Aunt Teenie’s cookie jar, with its constant supply of homemade butterscotch cookies and gingersnaps, is the reason they come home. ”We got the molasses for the gingerbread from my husband’s family, who made it every year,” Pearlena recalls. ”My family made our own P & G soap. ‘P & G’ stood for ‘push and grunt’!” Generations of Nicodemus cooks have harvested the wild plums that grow in thickets by creek banks for jelly and preserves, and Pearlena still has preserves that she canned in 1953, when she was expecting her first child. The ribbon she won for them at the Nicodemus Pioneer Days festival that year still hangs around the jar of plump, dark purple fruit.
”I was one of the Williams sisters when we were known for our gospel singing, and for our barbecue,” says Ernestine Van DuVall, a queenly woman with a deeply melodic voice at age 78. In the cool of her senior citizen’s condominium, sitting next to the kitchen table loaded with pans of deep-dish peach pie, sweet and crispy summer pickles, fresh yeast rolls, and slabs of barbecue wrapped in foil, Ernestine begins to tell the story of how she got into the barbecue business: ”We started out in the Depression when there wasn’t anything but jackrabbit, so we barbecued that. Later, we barbecued pork after we butchered hogs in the fall, but we still did jackrabbit.” Ernestine uses her own spice rub and slow-smokes the meat. ”One year we were expecting so many people for the Emancipation Celebration,” she laughs, ”that me and Charlesetta bought up every chicken between here and Nebraska for barbecue!”
Ernestine left for California in 1954 and started her first restaurant there, in Pasadena, but she came home 21 years later to open a place in Nicodemus with her husband. It’s a bittersweet memory. ”We had the plans for the building already drawn out and everything ready to go, but then he died of a heart attack, and I had to carry on,” she says. She opened Ernestine’s in 1975, and friends and family were always around—some to help out, some just to visit. ”Oh, how we used to cut up after the customers went home! We’d clean up and sing gospel songs until it was almost morning.”
When Ernestine arrives at the park in Nicodemus, where many of the Emancipation Celebration events are held, there’s already a small crowd assembled there. Charlesetta Bates, 70, Ernestine’s younger sister, is selling loaves of wheat bread (her claim to fame) and homemade cinnamon rolls. The Buffalo Soldiers reenactment cavalry, led by Charlesetta’s son-in-law, Barrie Tompkins, begins its performance—a tribute to the black soldiers who helped to open the prairie to homesteading and development in the mid-19th century. Vendors sell souvenirs, and later there will be a fashion show. People look for a cool place to sit and talk for a while, out of the intense afternoon heat.
At the church hall nearby, Wanda Adams, the youngest Williams sister at age 66, is resting after setting up for the Emancipation Celebration community dinner. Battling bone cancer, she tires easily now, but she smiles as she thinks back 50 years. ”We were too poor to go anywhere, so we made our own fun,” she says. With so many children—there were once 13 in all—preparing food was an ongoing activity. Wanda remembers tunneling through the snow from the house to the barn to milk the cows in the morning before school, and the sight of their mother, Elizabeth, baking homemade bread. She also recalls that every family birthday was celebrated with what their mother called a Silver Lake House Cake—which had six or seven layers of white cake iced with chocolate frosting. In tough times, the Williamses fed other Nicodemus families. ”Whatever we had,” says Wanda, ”we shared. That’s what makes our community still stand.”
Chester Williams is interim pastor of the First Baptist Church in Nicodemus, and when all his sisters have assembled, the family files into the church for the Emancipation Celebration gospel sing. The organ starts up with ”Amazing Grace”, and the congregation—led by Chester—joins in. One by one, people are moved to get up in front of the gathered congregation to sing. The words ”…I once was lost/But now I’m found…” seem to have a particular resonance. No matter where they live now, for the Williams sisters and all those gathered here, Nicodemus is still home.
As tough as life has been here and as uncertain as the future may be, the people of Nicodemus, in residence and otherwise, retain their optimism. As the oldest remaining post-Civil War black pioneer settlement west of the Mississippi, Nicodemus was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Three years ago, the town was also declared a National Historic Site, a memorial to the African-American experience in the West. As a result of the town’s new status, five of its dilapidated buildings have been slated for restoration by the National Park Service. Angela Bates-Tompkins, Charlesetta’s 46-year-old daughter, is founder of the Nicodemus Historical Society, and has led the efforts to promote the town and garner government support. But with no job opportunities or other lures to bring young people back home for good, Nicodemus’s future remains in doubt.
At the gospel sing, though, Ernestine rises in the midst of a hymn to sing, and then begins to speak hopefully to the people gathered in the church. ”We’re gonna keep this place alive,” she says to the crowd’s hearty applause. ”We’ve had hard times in Nicodemus. Times when food was scarce.” She pauses as people take in her impressive girth. ”We don’t show it,” she admits with a smile, ”but we know it.” The congregation laughs softly, and she continues. ”You can all be sure that we are the Williams sisters. And as long as we can even crawl”—as she speaks, she looks over at Emma in her wheelchair—”we’ll carry on.”