Big Little Town on the Prairie

updated 09/23/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/23/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AT 88, ORA SWITZER IS THE OLDEST OF the 50 permanent residents of Nicodemus, Kans. You can't miss her: She wears high-top black sneakers with her rolled-down hose and walks with the aid of a cane. "I was married 62 years, five months and 11 days to one man," says Ora, whose husband, Fred, died 12 years ago. Now Ora is blind in her left eye, but that doesn't stop her from driving her 1973 Chevy 140 miles each week to Russell, Kans., to visit her boyfriend. "I can see with one eye," she says. "Life was fun—still is."

The words of Ora Switzer reveal an underlying truth about her and the community she lives in—that appearances don't tell the whole story. For at first glance, Nicodemus seems almost a ghost town. It has 16 homes, a township hall, an abandoned schoolhouse, a Baptist church, a 10-unit senior-citizens apartment building—and the worn-out look of any number of isolated settlements on the plains, where the old have gone weary and the young have just gone.

But look a little deeper; this town is unique. Founded 12 years after the Civil War by freed slaves, Nicodemus is the oldest all-black town—the only one left, in fact—west of the Mississippi. And instead of a community dwindling inexorably into nothingness, Nicodemus is a place where those who once left are trickling back.

Take Veryl Switzer, who is one of Ora's six children. He left Nicodemus in 1950 to attend Kansas State University, where he was a football standout. After graduating, Switzer became the first black to play for the Green Bay Packers. Now 59 and the associate athletic director at K-State, he and his wife, Fern, make the 400-mile round-trip from Manhattan, Kans., every weekend to tend the 300-acre farm they own outside Nicodemus. Switzer started buying land in the '60s and a couple of years ago bought the house he was born in, the oldest in town, built in 1878. "I look out and see the land I played on as a kid," he says, "and it still speaks back to me."

Then there is the Bates family—James, 64, and Charlesetta, 62, who left Nicodemus in the '50s to find work in southern California. "I only had me a few pennies and six kids to feed when I went," says James, who drove a truck for the city of Pasadena for 24 years. Charlesetta worked as a cook. In 1981 the Bateses returned to Nicodemus, paying $12,000 for 40 acres north of town and building a small house. "Negroes homesteaded all of this," says James, pointing toward the horizon. "Coming back is like going to Heaven, all this peace and quietness."

A "Garden of Eden" was exactly what a silver-tongued land speculator named W.R. Hill had promised back in 1877 to attract settlers to Nicodemus. The new town was named for an African Prince, brought to America in chains, who reputedly became the first slave to buy his freedom. Hill's handbills, addressed to "Colored Citizens of the U.S.," described frontier land in northwest Kansas that was "rather rolling and looks most pleasing to the human eye"—with rich soil, thick forests and coal underground. Better yet, the railroad would soon be coming through Graham County, ensuring commerce and prosperity.

W.R. Hill lied. The 350 exhausted immigrants arriving by wagon in Nicodemus 114 years ago found a windswept, treeless plain so desolate that the Osage and Potawatomi Indians only passed through it, never tarrying, on their buffalo hunts. Elsewhere in Kansas, dozens of other settlements that lured 20,000 southern blacks during the 1870s withered, then disappeared. But the 60 founding families of Nicodemus were made of sterner stuff.

Epic tales of those early days still live. Parents tell children how the first settlers survived the bitter winters by burrowing into the ground like prairie dogs. Passing Indians taught them to make fires from dried buffalo chips, to snare jackrabbits and to gather bleached buffalo bones to sell for $6 a ton. Slowly they broke the soil, planted crops, built a town.

The promised railroad bypassed the town by a full 30 miles. But there was an advantage to the isolation: Racism never came to Nicodemus either. Ponzetta Garner, 75, remembers when she was the only black on the girls' high-school basketball team at nearby Bogue in the 1920s. During a tournament, a hotel manager in Hill City told the team, "You can't bring that nigger in here." If that's how you feel, Ponzetta's white teammates said, we'll just go home and skip our game. In that case, said the manager, come on in. "There's always a hassle if you're black," Garner says, "but around here, white folks has always treated us good."

Even so, Nicodemus's population dwindled from a peak of 600 to 200 by 1910. And by 1939, after the Depression and Dust Bowl years, only a tavern, the church and a few homes remained; in 1950 the post office closed. Still, Nicodemus endured because "A strong sense of historical accomplishment and community spirit pervade the town," wrote U.S. Park Service historian Gregory D. Kendrick. In 1976 the Interior Department designated Nicodemus a national historic landmark.

Without realizing it themselves, the founders of Nicodemus had planted a seed of renewal right from the start: an annual Emancipation Celebration of songs and dance inaugurated in 1878 and held without fail every July since. This year's celebration attracted no fewer than 500 returning Nicodemus descendants from all over the country, including Marvin Switzer, 36, one of Ora's 20 grandchildren. "This is a storybook place for us," says Marvin, who, like his Uncle Veryl, starred at K-State and in the pros (with the Buffalo Bills). "This town has always produced successful people, and I think it's because as kids we sat around and listened to the old people talk about their difficult times and how they never gave up." Adds Marvin, now a freight manager for a Seattle trucking company: "Not giving up is part of our heritage."

"Each summer we'd reestablish the ties that bound us together," says Nicodemus-born Angela Bates, 38, who grew up in Pasadena and lived in Denver and Washington, D.C., before coming home to stay last year. "To read the history books, you'd think only white people went west," says Angela, now president of the Nicodemus Historical Society. "Nicodemus is an overlooked chapter in American history, and the beauty of it is, it still lives."

As always, octogenarian Ora Switzer's explanation for Nicodemus's longevity is more direct. "It won't ever die, and you know why? Because I'm not ever gonna die," she says, laughing. "I'll keep it alive."

BILL SHAW in Nicodemus

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