In a scene from the documentary Robert Alexander, left, portrays Rev. Roundtree, Philip Marten portrays H.W, Hill and Barrie Tompkins portrays John Niles.

For historian Angela Bates, the story of the founding of the all-Black farming community of Nicodemus is the story of her family and she’s always wanted to tell it.

She wrote a documentary script based on the family story about her great-great grandparents and her great grandmother who were among the first group of former slaves who undertook the journey from Kentucky to Graham County, KS to experience freedom on the High Plains of Kansas.

Bates said the story is one that she has “held close to me and told repeatedly through the years.”

The story is also one that resonates with members of the documentary cast, who are not professional actors, but  descendants of the families they are portraying.

The central character of the story is Emma Williams, who was recently married and is pregnant. Emma’s parents, Tom and Zerina Johnson, made a decision to leave their Kentucky home and make the arduous trip to Kansas in September 1877.  Zerina is a midwife and Emma wants to be with her mother when she gives birth to her first child. She chooses to travel with them, leaving behind her husband who makes her a promise to come the next spring.

The young woman who portrays Emma in the documentary is Heather Alexander who is the great, great, great granddaughter of Emma Williams. 

Bates is also a descendant of Emma Williams.

“She was my great grandmother,” Bates said. “One of my favorite stories about her is about the rose that her husband gave her when she left.Emma kept that rose and when it dried out, she pressed the petals between the pages of the family Bible. Sometime later, it was  wrapped in plastic. I saw the rose in the 1990s when Yvonne Sayers, grand-daughter to Henry,  Emma’s first born, showed it to me,” Bates said. “Yvonne is deceased now, but her daughter, Marilyn Gray was interviewed in the documentary.”

The documentary follows the settlers as they arrive at the train depot in Ellis, walk the 35 miles to Nicodemus and create dugouts for homes. The first home was for Emma Williams, who gave birth to the first baby born in Nicodemus. 

The final scene of the script finds Emma standing on the banks of the Solomon River, gazing south and wondering if she made the right decision to leave her husband and if she’d ever be reunited with him.

“Of course, he did come in the spring,” Bates said. “And her second son was my grandfather. I’d love to do a second documentary that begins with the story of his arrival and continues the story.”

Heather Alexander portrays her great-great-great grandmother, Emma Williams in a documentary about the first settlers of Nicodemus, the first all-Black settlement on the High Plains

 Filming the story

When filmmaker Nick Abt heard the story of Nicodemus, he contacted Angela, who was actively talking to another documentary filmmaker about making the film. His timing couldn’t have been more perfect and Abt jumped at the chance to be the one who took on the project.  .

Abt, who grew up in Florida, is unabashed about his love for his adopted state of Kansas.

“I just fell in love with Kansas – with the landscape, the history, the stories of its people, and the people who live here now. When I heard about the founders of Nicodemus, I knew I wanted to be the one to help tell their story.”

The documentary includes interviews with the descendants who tell their connection to the family they are portraying. It was filmed with wagons and horses alongside walking descendents on location in Rooks County, where Nicodemus is located, at a large mound south of Damar, and at the two Walz homesteads in Ellis county.  The Walz homestead is just about 10 miles north of Ellis where the settlers disembarked from their long journey by train from Kentucky.

Abt said all the narration has been recorded, but there is still some work to be done. He expects the film to be ready for release by August or early September, near or before the anniversary of the arrival of the settlers in September 1877. He said it likely won’t be ready for viewing by the annual Nicodemus Homecoming celebration which is held in late July every year.

 A pull too strong to resist

For Bates, the sense of belonging she felt every summer when her family traveled from her childhood home in California to ‘home’ at Nicodemus, kept pulling her back to her roots.

“I loved western movies and I loved farming. At the end of every visit, I didn’t want to leave. Nicodemus was my hometown and I just belonged here,” she said.

Bates chose to attend college in Kansas in 1970, and graduated from Emporia State University with degrees in education and psychology.

“I was living in D.C. in the 1980s when my cousin Veryl Swizter came to visit a college buddy of his who was working for the National Park Service. I went to a meeting with them and was told that Nicodemus should be a unit of the Service. In 1989, I started the Nicodemus Historical Society and moved here from Denver, and I’ve been  here ever since,” Bates said.

She worked to get Nicodemus designated as a National Historic Site in 1996. There are five historic buildings on the site (School District #1 school house, St. Francis Hotel and Post Office, First Baptist Church, the Township Hall and AME Church). The AME Church, built in 1885, has been completely restored and is open to the public. She said there are plans to restore the other buildings in the future.

Bates said she is grateful to be part of  preserving and sharing the story of those who endured slavery and pursued freedom.

In addition to founding the Nicodemus Historical Society, she’s also a past president and current executive director of the organization.  

“I am just glad to be here. I’ve recorded stories, preserved historical records, photographs, and objects, in my 37 years here. I’ve attended multicultural conferences in the 90s, presented materials and programs, written a script and performed, and visited schools, colleges and universities to make presentations, and have written a series of children’s books, ‘The Adventures of Nicodemus Annie.’ The documentary and movies are my next venture!”

Nicodemus then and now

W.R. Hill, a White land agent for the railroad and W.H. Smith, a Black homesteader, were partners in the idea of building two towns along the Solomon River in Graham County. Hill wanted one town named for him and Smith wanted to build an all-Black community that could provide a haven for the freed slaves in his home state of Kentucky who were experiencing growing discrimination and violence as the Reconstruction ended and the Jim Crow South unfolded.

They recruited five Black ministers from Topeka to join them in forming the Nicodemus Town Company. They wanted to establish a town using the Town site Preemption Act of 1844 and the Homestead Act of 1862. The group selected a site in the Solomon River valley for the all-Black community. The second town would be Hill City further to the west.

Initially, the town of Nicodemus, located on the north bank of the Solomon River, flourished, reaching a peak population of almost 600 people. Businesses became profitable as the town attracted more settlers. A hotel, two stores, schools and three churches were built. 

There were literary societies, fraternal organizations, social dances and other celebrations, including a large Emancipation Celebration that was held from the town’s beginning.

The town undertook a major effort to bring a railroad route through Nicodemus, passing a vote to sell $16,000 of bonds to finance the project. Ultimately, none of the three prospective railroads, The Missouri Pacific, Union Pacific and the Santa Fe brought their tracks to town. The failure to get the railroad marked the end of growth for Nicodemus as business relocated to the nearby railroad town of Bogue, about four miles away.

Eventually, however, misfortune came with the by-passing of the railroad, followed by years of drought, and then the Great Depression causing many to move away.

The town does remain alive, with a population of about 20 retired descendants of the original settlers living in the area. There is still the annual Emancipation/Homecoming celebration in July and the National Park Historic Sites that draws hundreds of visitors annually. A national icon of the black west, Nicodemus is the only surviving all-Black town west of the Mississippi River.

At left is Nick Abt, film director of cinematography and editor with Angela Bates, executive producer, writer and director.

National Park Foundation, Trust for Public Lands, the Dane G. Hansen Foundation, and private donors provided funding for the production of the documentary. It was written and produced by Angela Bates in conjunction with the Nicodemus Historical Society.