The century leading up to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s is overflowing with rich personal histories of the African-American experience. Yet these untold stories – tucked away in libraries, skipped over in history classes, or too generalized in textbooks – remain largely unknown to most Americans. Our childhoods were filled with iconic tales of white heroes and outlaws like Annie Oakley, Daniel Boone, and Buffalo Bill. Looking back there seems no room for a cattle rustler like Isom Dart or “Stagecoach Mary” Fields, the only African American woman to drive a U.S. Mail route. Even still the perspectives of the true pioneers, ordinary men and women searching for freedom, go overlooked.
It is the spirit and struggle of these men and women living against the backdrop of national and international upheaval that allows us to begin to get a sense of our real American history. Whether it is a story about a family on the south side of Chicago buying their first home, as in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun; a man trying to make life better for the next generation in August Wilson’s Fences; or newly freed slaves heading West to escape race violence in Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West; hearing these stories puts a sharper focus on our understanding of the past and how these same issues reflect upon our collective present.
Ms. Cleage sets Flyin’ West in 1898, more than twenty years after Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, an African-American preacher working as an undertaker in Nashville, Tennessee, started hearing the troubles of black men and women who did not have a place to live because they could not afford the rent demanded by the white men they worked for, their former slave-owners. The practice of the new sharecropping system quickly reverted into the familiar pattern the abolishment of slavery had tried to dispatch.
Despite amendments to the Bill of Rights officially ending slavery and declaring that all citizens of the United States should be treated equally, ex-Confederate states soon found ways to introduce what would be known as the “Jim Crow Laws” legalizing the concept of “separate but equal.” Racial tensions were on the rise and mob riots against black men and women became more frequent. Ida B. Wells, African American activist and journalist, was writing about lynchings, directing attention to the way the southern white man’s oppression was taking shape: “Brave men do not gather by the thousands to torture and murder a single individual, so gagged and bound he cannot make even feeble resistance or defense.”
“Pap” Singelton began touring churches and advocating emigration West to freedom and new opportunity. Sojourner Truth, former slave and legendary women’s rights activist, assisted by calling it “the greatest movement of all time” and giving the charge:
“The word it has been spoken; The message has been sent: The prison doors have opened, and out the prisoners went, To join the sable army of African descent, for God is marching on.”
The Great Exodus West was on and because of the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862, land was available to anyone who could afford the $18 filing fee. With their lives endangered by the increasing violence in the South, the necessity for Exodus was too great and the prospects were too good to pass up. Citizens were not the only ones who jumped at the chance for this essentially “free land” (although taken from Native Americans by the United States Government). Companies were formed to locate prime areas for settlement and soon publicity appeared promising African Americans a place to establish all-black towns and self-government.
The “Nicodemus Town Company” formed in 1877 by the Reverend W. H. Smith, a black minister, and W. R. Hill, a white land developer, and five other black men, named the prospected Kansas town after a well-known slave legend familiar to many of the new pioneers in the hope that it would draw larger groups to their business venture. It did, and in 1879 the first group of “Exodusters,” as they would be called, reached Nicodemus only to realize their paradise was marked by clouds of chimney smoke coming out of the ground: lack of stone for building had forced residents to live in dugouts. The plentiful game that had been promised was now scarce with the quickly approaching winter. Tools for building homes were few, and the closest supply stores were thirty miles away. Most of the pioneers turned back as soon as they arrived. But some of them, mostly small groups of single women, stayed and forged ahead under extremely harsh conditions with little knowledge of the prairie environment or the hard work it would take to turn empty fields into self-sustaining homesteads.
Starvation and disease marked the early years of Nicodemus, but the townsfolk persevered and by the 1880s the town was bustling, boasting two newspapers, a post office, three general stores, and three churches. In hopes of promoting economic growth, the townsfolk pooled money to buy influence with the railroad company to establish a train station. The railroad decided to pass through another town, leaving Nicodemus off the main route and struggling for economic survival.
Today, Nicodemus is the only remaining western town settled by African Americans. At its peak the town boasted a population of close to 800. At present there are 27 permanent residents, but yearly celebrations bring former residents back to unite with family and remember their town’s all too unique heritage and the resolve it took for their founding fathers and mothers to piece together a vision of paradise.