John W. Niles was one of the founders of Nicodemus, Kansas, the first black community on the High Plains. Niles was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1842 to a European father and a black mother and as an adult became a forceful advocate for ex-slave reparations.
Before arriving in Kansas, Niles served time in a Tennessee prison in 1869 for killing a man. After a subsequent pardon and release, he migrated to Lexington, Kentucky and became involved in the Kansas colonization movement. After arriving in Graham County, Kansas in 1877, he was elected secretary of the Nicodemus Town Company and vigorously promoted the settlement of the colony.
Niles was quite successful in securing aid for the destitute emigrants. Nevertheless, his ethics were controversial from the beginning. A later biography of Niles presented him as an accomplished con artist, although the older members of the colony recalled him with veneration because he saved the community from starvation.
When Edward P. McCabe was appointed clerk of the newly formed county of Graham, Niles served as his deputy. He subsequently served as deputy county clerk under John DePrad. Although Niles was known as a brilliant orator, as an ex-slave he did not have the opportunity for a formal education and his verbal communication skills far exceeded his ability to write.
The Graham County Republicans elected Niles as chairman in 1880, but after a contentious split in the party Niles lost this office and also his position as deputy clerk. He then concentrated on developing his various business enterprises which included trading commodities and a lumber business.
In 1880 Niles launched a campaign for slave reparations. He began on the county level by sending a letter to the Millbrook Times stating that the United States government owed African Americans compensation for the time spent in slavery. He called for a state convention at Nicodemus and hoped that all friends of blacks would be present. He began his oratorical career at that time. Then Niles progressed from crusading on the county level to attracting statewide attention. He even persuaded the esteemed Kansas State Senator, James Legate, to introduce a resolution backing his appeal for slave reparations.
In 1882 Niles left Kansas and moved to Lee County, Arkansas after successfully defending himself from charges of swindling a local bank in Graham County. While in Arkansas, Niles formed the Indemnity Party and continued to lobby for slave reparations. With the backing of his Party, he took his campaign to Washington, DC where his fame as an orator continued to grow.
In 1883, he persuaded Ohio Senator John Sherman, brother of Civil War hero William T. Sherman, to present a petition to the United States Senate for slave reparations in the form of a large area of land designated exclusively for the settlement of African Americans. This petition was tabled at a later session by Kansas Senator John J. Ingalls. Following the defeat in the Senate, Niles stayed in Washington and was elected treasurer of a new immigration committee.
There are no extant records about the remainder of John Niles’s life. In 1884 he simply disappeared from the pages of history.