In the article below independent historian Charlotte Hinger explores the concept of racial uplift, black electoral power and reparations for slavery in the ideals of three early citizens of Nicodemus, the most famous 19th Century black town in the West.
From the summer of 1877 through 1879, approximately six hundred African Americans in organized colonies, clusters of family groups, and small trickles of courageous individuals migrated to the high plains and established Nicodemus, Kansas. For the first time in the history of the United States, enough blacks gathered in a specific region to affect critically important issues indigenous to the settlement of the West.
In just three years time, these African Americans created the first township in Graham County, secured the first official school district, manipulated the election of a biracial Equal Rights Ticket to county positions, persuaded Kansas Governor John Pierce St. John to appoint a black census taker, and controlled the structure of bi-racial political alliances in Graham County. They forced the organization of Graham County when the majority of the whites were bitterly opposed to the move.
For these post-Reconstruction immigrants, Nicodemus had symbolism bordering on the magical. The hopes of blacks for the development of this town were compared to white’s expectations for Jamestown. William Eagleson, editor of the Topeka, Kansas based Colored Citizen, wrote that if the colony at Nicodemus was successful, then the question of “what shall become of the colored race in this country is solved.” He maintained that immigrants from Tennessee and Kentucky, could come into Kansas and “go upon land away from railroads, towns, and almost beyond the limits of civilization itself, and succeed in placing themselves in a comparative state of comfort, and could make a living, that there is no longer need for our people to remain in the abominable South, to be the slaves of the rebels and targets for the muskets of white men.” Others predicted “if Nicodemus failed, it would darken the whole future of the colored race in the country.”
Three men, Abram Thompson Hall, Jr., Edward Preston McCabe, and John W. Niles were critical to the success of the Nicodemus. They also were archetypes for differing post-Reconstruction African American philosophies that prevailed from the 19th through the 21st centuries, All of them were highly successful in promoting their beliefs to other blacks. Hall believed in racial uplift, was a strong proponent of education, and urged blacks to seize economic opportunities. McCabe advocated political involvement and insisted that the lives of African Americans would improve by forced implementation of civil rights. Niles was an early proponent of slave reparations and believed whites should atone for enslaving blacks.
Abram Thompson Hall, Jr., a freeborn Northern journalist, believed blacks should look beyond an exclusively racial agenda to furthering the good of the Commonwealth. Although Hall was a vigorous proponent of racial uplift, he brokered intelligent compromises with the surrounding white population. Hall believed African Americans were equal to whites in every area and that blacks simply needed similar opportunities. From the first day he arrived in Nicodemus, Hall began congenial interaction with whites to protect the colonists’ interests. He registered individual’s homestead claims in advance of an anticipated rush of settlers into the county. Then he began an effective newspaper campaign establishing the residents of Nicodemus as people of faith embracing moral standards in line with white norms. He presented the black colonists as law-abiding, religious, industrious, patriotic, shrewd, and innovative. Later, he instigated a movement to organize the county. He and McCabe made their living as land locators and attorneys.
In accordance with his belief that racial equality was a given, Hall became a major force in local politics and concentrated on issues that would improve the life of both blacks and whites. He pushed through a petition to establish Nicodemus Township. Although this forced whites to do official business in a black town, he protested that it made more sense to conduct business there, rather than make the arduous trip to Stockton, the Rooks County seat which was Graham’s official judicial entity before organization. Hall forced county organization despite opposition from the white population. In an unprecedented move, Governor John Pierce St. John appointed Hall census taker to ascertain the number of valid voters. Hall was also one of the three federal 1880 census takers as mandated by the Constitution.
Edward Preston McCabe, the first African American elected to a state office in the North, had a strong political agenda. He argued that “if the caste problem is not to be furthered toward an amicable solution in political conventions where officers are made; where on earth shall we commence the same?” McCabe was far more militant than Hall and more likely to assume racial bias. Rather than subscribing to Hall’s pragmatic incremental compromises, he pressed politicians to pay attention to racial issues.
In his first published letter in the Kansas press, McCabe insisted that the “colored vote of the state cuts a very important figure” and African Americans should “force” sympathetic delegates upon the Republican convention. McCabe had a lasting impact on state politics. True to his belief on the importance of lobbying for civil rights he wrote blunt letters castigating legislators who denied political appointments to African Americans. His triumphant election as State Auditor of Kansas in 1882 and reelection in 1884 were tributes to his persuasive rhetoric, his intelligence, his natural aptitude for the job, and his meticulous attention to details. After being denied a third term McCabe instigated movements to colonize blacks in Oklahoma Territory. He founded Langston University and became the assistant State Auditor of Oklahoma Territory.
John W. Niles, formerly enslaved, and one of the founders of Nicodemus, believed the white population owed blacks for past injustices and vigorously lobbied for slave reparations. He was the most controversial figure in Nicodemus. Through his activities to solicit aid during the first devastating winter he kept the colonists from starving. However, Niles was involved in a number of scandals from the time he arrived in Graham County. He was a brilliant orator, and there is ample evidence of his activities as a con artist, including a scheme to persuade the local banker to loan money on a non-existent corn crop.
Niles’s official political activities began modestly when he was appointed assistant county clerk. Then in July 1880, he asked for a national advisory convention to be held in Nicodemus as slavery was against the “laws and constitution of the Unites States and that therefore the government was liable for damages.” He became the leader of the Indemnity Party and presented United States Senator John Sherman of Ohio with a petition for slave reparations. Kansas state legislator James F. Legate introduced a resolution in the Kansas House of Representatives memorializing the U.S. Congress to perform “this act of restitution and justice.” Regrettably, one of the first effective proponents for slave reparations acted fraudulently in many areas of his personal life and ended up in prison.
The three men’s differing attitudes were evident in their actions in the political realm. Hall’s belief in the efficacy of racial uplift over political activity, McCabe’s argument that uplift could not be obtained without political clout, and Niles’s conviction that whites first needed to address past injustice toward African Americans before uplift was possible, became enduring stances adopted by African Americans. Although these three men did not originate the debate, their words and actions certainly indicated that the controversy was present in Western settlement immediately after Reconstruction. The varying attitudes toward the white population displayed by the three most influential men in Nicodemus—Hall, McCabe, and Niles—became the foundation for an on-going debate among African Americans.