When a Town Becomes a National Historic Site

Now that the National Park Service is steward of an African-American frontier town, what will happen to its crumbling buildings?

1880s
1880s Baptist church, one of five Nicodemus buildings.

Credit: Don E. Scott

In north-central Kansas, at a windswept junction hungry for shade, residents of a small town have spent decades proving that reports of its death were greatly exaggerated. This is Nicodemus, the only remaining western town established by African-Americans during the Civil War Reconstruction period.

In the wake of slavery, this Great Plains settlement promised agricultural riches, fellowship, and freedom. Once there, however, settlers from Kentucky, Tennessee, and other southern states realized that the abundant trees and rich soil they envisioned did not exist. Severe storms were common, plans for a railroad collapsed, and the town withered. By the dustbowl years of the Great Depression, so many residents had left that observers feared the end of Nicodemus.

But several tenacious families stayed on, and about 40 residents remain in the town, even though it's more than 200 miles from Wichita, the closest city. To them, and to the hundreds of settlers' descendants, Nicodemus symbolizes emancipation and self-sufficiency.

Every year since 1878, Nicodemus has hosted settlers and their descendants for a homecoming celebration, held the last weekend in July. These descendants won a long campaign to make Nicodemus a national historic site, and they finally celebrated the site's dedication in 1998. But so far, the presence of the National Park Service in this dusty town has not meant that the site's structures have received more care.

AME
AME Church

Credit: Don E. Scott

The Nicodemus site comprises five historic buildings, all of which are privately owned and in disrepair. The First Baptist Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, both built in 1880, once served worshippers alongside a third church, now long gone. The 1880s St. Francis Hotel, also called the Fletcher-Switzer residence, is still inhabited by Switzer family descendants. A one-room schoolhouse, erected in 1918 and closed since the 1950s, overlooks the town from a small hill. And the Nicodemus Township Hall, built in 1939 as a New Deal project, now serves as the visitors center. 

Township
Township Hall, now a visitors center

Credit: Don E. Scott

Nicodemus presents a challenge for the Park Service. Although the agency has dealt with descendants associated with other park sites, in no other park are the families right next door and down the block. As a result, the agency treads especially carefully. "We try very hard to make sure that we don't harm the socio-cultural feelings of the town," says Sandra Washington, chief of planning and compliance for the NPS midwest regional office in Omaha. "We're in their town, and the population is so small. We could so quickly overwhelm them."

Although the Park Service is authorized to preserve and protect the sites, little meaningful action can take place until it completes a general management plan, expected in 2003. The Park Service is also writing a cultural landscape report for Nicodemus, which will describe the physical development of the historic landscape and make recommendations for the management plan. The report should be ready for public comment next summer—ideally in time for the 2002 homecoming.

Schoolhouse
Schoolhouse

Credit: Don E. Scott

In the meantime, however, the Park Service can only shore up the buildings, all of which are closed to visitors. In the last year, workers from another national park have replaced part of the roof and one wall of the African Methodist Episcopal church, careful to save old stones for future reconstruction. Although the Park Service has taken down a tree that was pushing on the Baptist church's already crumbling facade, the building has significant water damage and is threatening to collapse. At the schoolhouse, Park Service workers removed troublesome beehives and repainted the building its original white. The agency has also purged decades'-worth of junk from the structures.

But before it can do any real work, the National Park Service must decide whether to restore the buildings back to a single moment in time, say, 1880, or rehabilitate them for public use. After all, Nicodemus is still an active town. "In a lot of areas we don't need restoration to be the focal point," Washington says. "One of the significant pieces of Nicodemus is that it has an evolving character and represents a group of folks who were stalwarts in keeping the town going, so we don't want to stop all that and go back to 1894."

African
African Methodist Episcopal Church Sign

Credit: Don E. Scott

Another challenge—both for restoration and interpretation—is that the Park Service is working with an inconsistent historical record and incomplete museum collections. The agency maintains an archive of historical photographs, oral histories, and drawings from a Historic American Buildings Survey from the 1980s. Although the Park Service also has some museum pieces related to the Nicodemus story, the University of Kansas owns other artifacts. Figuring out what should be displayed and how it will be interpreted will have to be delicately managed by the park employees, the university, the residents, and the descendants.

Already, some residents have raised concerns that the Park Service is too bureaucratic to adequately handle the problems of Nicodemus. For example, the park must share its superintendent with Fort Larned National Historic Site, a hundred miles away. Funding is also scarce; because the site falls low on federal priority lists, the town must depend on private money for improvements.

The Nicodemus Historical Society, which was one of the biggest supporters of national park status for the site, is the agency's sharpest watchdog. The relationship between the two entities has had its share of growing pains. For example, well before the Park Service came to town, the Nicodemus Historical Society had been gathering and copying historic photographs from descendants to build an archival record. Yet in 1998, the Park Service began its own oral history and photograph collection—with little collaboration between the two efforts. The agency says it will address these and other interpretation issues as part of the general management planning process.

The tension has been most palpable during homecoming weekend, says Angela Bates-Tompkins, founder and executive director of the historical society. "The celebration has taken on a new perspective now that it's a national park," she says. "More than anything, there is a feeling of accepting the national park as a player, as a partner, instead of an adversary. But there are reservations about what the federal government is going to do."

Nicodemus endures today as both a physical entity and a spiritual home. If enough care is given to the site's future management, it will remain. "What makes me feel good is knowing that from the beginning, when the settlers came in the summer and had a short crop season, and then dealt with the pull-out of the railroad, the dust storms, and the Depression, Nicodemus has survived," Washington says. "That's what's monumental about this site."

Kim A. O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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