Opinion

At Nicodemus reunion, familial and Kansas history converge

September 25, 2022 3:33 am
Buffalo Soliders in Nicodemus parade

What would a Nicodemus parade be without the pageantry of the Buffalo Soldiers, an ode to a day gone by? They marched in the town’s 144th homecoming in late July. (Patricia E. Weems Gaston)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Patricia E. Weems Gaston is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the Lacy C. Haynes Professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

Nicodemus has been calling my name for as long as I can remember.

Maybe it was the piece that my University of Kansas classmate wrote more than 40 years ago about the first Black settlement west of the Mississippi. Maybe a ride on the highways and byways of western Kansas would help me better appreciate the diversity of my home state. Maybe it was my hunger for history, whetted during myriad chats with my father while cooped up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Or maybe I couldn’t imagine not talking about the past, despite recent efforts to stymie the study of history in schools. Isn’t our future built on the foundations of the past?

NAACP branches from across the state of Kansas marched in the Nicodemus parade this summer. (Patricia E. Weems Gaston)

The road trip was a go when another classmate wanted to attend the town’s annual homecoming to see if there was any appetite for resuming a mobile health clinic that her late internist sister ran for years.

We joined in Nicodemus’ celebration — its 144th homecoming — in late July on an uncharacteristically cool morning. It was a family reunion in every sense, and I felt one with the crowd lining Main Street for the late morning parade.

This town, which was settled in 1877 by 300 pioneers from Kentucky in search of freedom, now has fewer than 25 residents. But you wouldn’t have known it as hundreds of descendants from across the country returned to their ancestral home.

The Buffalo Soldiers in full regalia marched to the cheers of a grateful and proud crowd. We talked with families, some of them decked out in blue and green or purple and gold. The sense of family was palpable, whether they were clumped together watching the parade, trying to snag a piece of candy thrown from participants for one of their little ones or bounding into the visitor’s center in Township Hall in search of a souvenir to mark the day’s events.

While my people are not descendants, the Weemses have a tie that binds us to Nicodemus. My late grandfather Robert R. Weems and his friends used to hunt pheasant here during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

 

One with the land

My grandfather enjoyed hunting and fishing, using his skills to help feed his family of five, with my father, Charles, being the youngest.

Seemingly every fall, Papa, and some of his friends — Van Taylor, George Johnson and Fred Whitaker — would jump into Mr. Whitaker’s panel truck on a Sunday morning and strike out on highways 24 and 40 for Nicodemus, which is in northwest Kansas near the Nebraska border. They would be hosted by a local family (they didn’t go to Hill City because it was a sundown town), hunt all day Monday through Thursday (Dad says they hunted on the Switzer family’s land) and then head home with their birds.

“If it was a poor hunting season, there was no pheasant for holiday meals,” Charles Weems recalled.

The men would drive straight through back to Kansas City because Black people were not allowed to stay in hotels along the way, and the men apparently had no access to the Green Book, which identified businesses that would have accepted Black customers during segregation.

Once Papa returned home, Dad recalls, my grandmother Flora Belle’s work began. She skinned the pheasant and took particular care with the breast because it was the prime cut and most sought after for holiday dinners. She often would take the red-green-black-white feathers and stick them in her favorite hats, Dad says.

 

Remembering our roots

Descendants of Nicodemus keep the story of this sometimes-forgotten prairie town alive through word, deed, song. After the parade, there were activities for everyone — live entertainment, a fashion and talent show, a baseball game, watermelon feed, a church service on Sunday morning.

Families shared, shared and shared stories of how their relatives came here in search of freedom after slavery.

That is the only way for us to continue sharing our history. Yes, we learned in school about the big events — revolutions, slavery, wars, migrations of people, moon landings, medical breakthroughs. While these big events influenced our lives, it is the everyday that makes us who we are.

I got my love for history in the plethora of volumes that lined our bookshelves, in the dinner table conversations about Dr. King and other events of the day, in the Black History Month classes that my Aunt Christine took us to, in the stories that my grandparents shared with us about growing up in the South and in the Midwest. Who learned how to spell Mississippi: M-i-crooked letter-crooked letter-i-crooked letter-crooked letter-i-humpback-humpback-i?

I got my love for history in the plethora of volumes that lined our bookshelves, in the dinner table conversations about Dr. King and other events of the day, in the Black History Month classes that my Aunt Christine took us to, in the stories that my grandparents shared with us about growing up in the South and in the Midwest.

– Patricia E. Weems Gaston

And who on vacation insisted that their two children do “history and culture” before they went to the amusement park or ballgame, or saw the Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty?

I did, and that is because history has always been valued in my family, in school, in church, in my community. One must know from where they have come. How else would we know where to take your place in life?

That is why traveling to Nicodemus and hearing about my grandfather’s hunting trips warmed my heart.

It is hard to fathom the times we are in because of a need to revise history, grossly downplaying the role of slavery in the development of this country, or banning of books that may talk about people who look different or think different. History is very much alive and present today.

As Kansas historian Angela Bates, who is a descendant of Nicodemus, remarks on the Humanities Kansas website: “Kansas history is not over, we are all still evolving.”

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Patricia E. Weems Gaston
Patricia E. Weems Gaston

Patricia E. Weems Gaston is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the Lacy C. Haynes Professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Gaston graduated from KU in 1981; she has a master's degree in sports management from The George Washington University. Before joining The Washington Post in 1997, she worked at the Dallas Morning News, where she was an assistant foreign editor and was co-editor of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning series on violence against women.

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