At Nicodemus reunion, familial and Kansas history converge

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policies impact the daily lives of people in our state. Patricia E. Weems Gaston is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Lacy C. Haynes Professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

Nicodemus has been calling my name for as long as I can remember.

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Maybe it was the article my University of Kansas classmate wrote more than 40 years ago about the first black settlement west of the Mississippi. Perhaps driving the highways and back roads of western Kansas would help me better appreciate the diversity of my home state. Perhaps it was my hunger for history sparked during countless conversations with my father while I was in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Or maybe I couldn’t imagine not talking about the past, despite recent efforts to discourage the study of history in schools. Isn’t our future built on the foundations of the past?

NAACP branches from across the state of Kansas marched in Nicodemus Parade this summer. (Patricia E. Weems Gaston)

The road trip was an outing when another classmate wanted to attend the town’s annual homecoming to see if there was an appetite for the reopening of a mobile health clinic her late internist sister ran for years.

We attended the celebration of Nicodemus – it’s 144th Homecoming – Late July on an unusually cool morning. It was a family reunion in every way, and I felt one with the crowd that lined Main Street for the late morning parade.

This town, settled in 1877 by 300 Kentucky pioneers seeking freedom, now has fewer than 25 residents. But you wouldn’t have known it when hundreds of descendants from across the country returned to their ancestral homes.

The Buffalo Soldiers in full regalia marched to the cheers of a grateful and proud crowd. We spoke to families, some dressed in blue and green or purple and gold. The sense of family was palpable, whether they were huddled together watching the parade, trying to snag a candy thrown by attendees for one of their little ones, or hopping into the visitor center at Township Hall in search of a souvenir of the day’s events.

While my people are not descendants, the Weems have a connection that binds us to Nicodemus. My late grandfather Robert R. Weems and friends hunted pheasant here in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

One with the country

My grandfather enjoyed hunting and fishing and used his skills to support his family of five with my father Charles being the youngest.

Seemingly every fall on a Sunday morning, Papa and some of his friends — Van Taylor, George Johnson, and Fred Whitaker — would hop into Mr. Whitaker’s panel truck and head down Highways 24 and 40 to Nicodemus, in northwest Kansas near the border Nebraska. They would be hosted by a local family (they didn’t go to Hill City because it was a sunset town), hunted all day Monday through Thursday (father says they hunted on the Switzer family’s land), and then went after their birds home.

“When it was a bad hunting season there was no pheasant for holiday meals,” Charles Weems recalled.

The men drove straight back to Kansas City because blacks were not allowed to stay in hotels along the way and the men did not appear to have access to the Green Book, which identified businesses that would have accepted black customers during segregation.

When Papa came home, Dad remembers, my grandmother Flora Belle began work. She skinned the pheasant, paying special attention to the breast because it was the best cut and most sought after for holiday foods. She often took the red, green, black and white feathers and put them in her favorite hats, Papa says.

In memory of our roots

Descendants of Nicodemus keep the history of this sometimes-forgotten prairie town alive through words, deeds and songs. After the parade, there were activities for everyone – live entertainment, a fashion and talent show, a baseball game, watermelon feeding, a Sunday morning church service.

Families swapped, swapped, and swapped stories of how their relatives came here in search of freedom from slavery.

This is the only way we can pass on our story. Yes, we learned about the great events in school – revolutions, slavery, wars, migrations, moon landings, medical breakthroughs. While these major events impacted our lives, it is everyday life that makes us who we are.

I’ve found my love of history in the plethora of volumes that line our bookshelves, in the table talk of Dr. King and other events of the day, in the Black History Month classes my Aunt Christine took us to, in the stories my grandparents told us about growing up in the South and Midwest. Who learned how to spell Mississippi: Mi-crooked letter-crooked letter-i-crooked letter-crooked letter-i-hump-hump-i?

I’ve found my love of history in the plethora of volumes that line our bookshelves, in the table talk of Dr. King and other events of the day, in the Black History Month classes my Aunt Christine took us to, in the stories my grandparents told us about growing up in the South and Midwest.

– Patricia E. Weems Gaston

And who on vacation has insisted that their two kids do “history and culture” before going to the amusement park or ball game or seeing the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty?

I have, and that’s because history has always been a priority in my family, in my school, in my church, in my community. You have to know where they come from. How else would we know where to take your place in life?

Therefore, traveling to Nicodemus and hearing about my grandfather’s hunting trips warmed my heart.

It’s hard to imagine the times we’re in because we have to revise history, grossly downplay the role of slavery in the development of this country, or ban books that talk about people who look or think differently. History is very much alive and present today.

As Kansas historian Angela Bates, a descendant of Nicodemus, notes on the Humanities Kansas website, “The history of Kansas is not over, we are all still evolving.”

Through its voice section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people affected by public policy or excluded from public debate. Find information here, including how to submit your own comment.


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