Opinion | Civil Rights

Why a small town in Kansas still represents hope for Black Americans

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"Nicodemus, the slave, was of African birth, 

And was bought for a bagful of gold,

He was reckon'd as part of the salt of the earth,

But he died years ago, very old.

'Twas his last sad request, so we laid him away

In the trunk of an old hollow tree.

'Wake me up!' was his charge, 'at the first break of day,

Wake me up for the great Jubilee!'" - Wake Nicodemus (1864)

In northern Kansas, about an hour south of the Nebraska state line, you'll find a small farm town named Nicodemus, an unassuming place on the bank of the Solomon River, named for the legendary African prince who bought his freedom from bondage.

It's hard to imagine, but this quiet Kansas town represents a moment of pure hope and possibility long passed, a moment following the end of the Civil War when former slaves embraced the promise in their newfound, hard-won liberation and reached westward to pepper the Great Plains with Black settlements of free men, free women - freedom, at last.

The oldest and only settlement of its kind left west of the Mississippi, Nicodemus is all that remains of those days. Its history is honored the last week of July during its Emancipation Homecoming Celebration - this year, the 143rd celebration.

Imagine what it was like for these Americans. Imagine being finally free from Kentucky bondage and learning about a new "promised land" hundreds of miles away, a place where you and your family could be more than another southern sharecropper struggling to make ends meet in a community that still viewed you as a slave.

Imagine packing up all that you could carry and making your way through Missouri and Kansas to stake everything on that promise - a promise that no one else was willing to make.

These folks knew they didn't have all the tools they'd need, or seeds to plant to feed their families, or enough money to get by for long - but somehow they survived that first winter and, within a few years, their ranks would swell until Nicodemus was the largest community of its kind and the promise had become a reality.

On the Kansas prairie grew a population that peaked at around 600 free Black men, women and children, supporting a schoolhouse, post office, bank, two newspapers, two hotels and three churches. 

Then, in 1887, the Missouri Pacific rail line and, a year later, the Union Pacific, bypassed the town, choosing instead routes to the south. Everything changed. People left and businesses closed. The Dust Bowl arrived, and then the Great Depression. Today the town's population is around 25.

It's the same story we've heard time and again: Moneyed interests use infrastructure as an economic weapon against outcroppings that don't fit their sense (or complexion) of the American Dream.

But Nicodemus was preserved not because of fate, but because its people - descendants of slaves who refused to give in - fought back. In the 1970s, thanks to an unflinching and unapologetic community, the people petitioned to be named a National Historic Site, a designation that came with significant resources - and they won.

They engaged a network of descendants across America, who pooled their time, talents and resources to help revitalize Nicodemus, a transformation that continues today with the help of the National Park Service. The town is now eyed by some former residents as a retirement destination. 

With the Park Service doing what it can to restore Nicodemus to its former glory, the town remains a living monument to the strength and courage and perseverance of Black Americans, and to the best of who we are as a nation and a people.

Nicodemus may be all that's left of an earlier moment of promise and freedom, but it still stands and, hopefully, is destined to grow stronger.

Antjuan Seawright is a Democratic political strategist, founder and CEO of Blueprint Strategy LLC, a CBS News political contributor, and a senior visiting fellow at Third Way. Follow him on Twitter @antjuansea.

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