THE ROAD TO NICODEMUS: Black Towns in the Age of Steam!
Black Americans have played a vital role in building this nation. Eager to live and prosper as free people, we have established our own towns since Colonial times. Many of these communities were destroyed by racial violence or injustice, while some just died out. Let’s explore a few of these symbols of freedom, courage, hard work and ingenuity a bit more in-depth.
Fort Mose, Florida
Although this settlement was established well before the Age of Steam, it still merits mentioning, as it is a fascinating place with an even more fascinating history. Established in 1738, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose – or Fort Mose – was the first free black settlement in what is now the United States and played an important role in the development of colonial North America.
Amid the fight for control of the New World, Great Britain, Spain and other European nations relied on African slave labor. Exploiting its proximity to plantations in the British colonies in North America and the West Indies, King Charles II, of Spain issued the Edict of 1693 which stated that any male slave on an English plantation who escaped to Spanish Florida would be granted freedom, provided he joined the Militia and became a Catholic. This edict became one of the New World’s earliest emancipation proclamations.
By 1738 there were 100 Black men, mostly runaways from the Carolinas, living in what became Fort Mose. Many were skilled workers, blacksmiths, carpenters, cattlemen, boatmen, and farmers. With accompanying women and children, they created a colony of freed people that ultimately attracted other fugitive slaves.
When war broke out in 1740 between England and Spain, the people of St. Augustine and nearby Fort Mose found themselves involved in a conflict that stretched across three continents. The English sent thousands of soldiers and dozens of ships to destroy St. Augustine and bring back any runaways. They set up a blockade and bombarded the town for 27 consecutive days. Hopelessly outnumbered, the diverse population of blacks, First Nation peoples and whites pulled together. Fort Mose was one of the first places attacked. Lead by Captain Francisco Menendez, the men of the Fort Mose Militia briefly lost the Fort but eventually recaptured it, repelling the English invasion force. Florida remained in Spanish hands and for the next 80 years remained a haven for fugitive slaves from the British colonial possessions of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
The site was abandoned in 1763 when the British took possession of Florida. The residents of Mose evacuated to Cuba and formed a new town, Ceiba Mocha, Matanzas province, considered the hub of African spirituality in Cuba.
Rosewood – taking its name from the abundant red cedar that grew in the area – was established in 1870.
The town prospered as the Florida Railroad established a small depot to handle the transport of cedar wood to the pencil factory in Cedar Key and the transportation of timber, turpentine rosin, citrus, vegetables, and cotton throughout the State. In 1890 the cedar depleted and many of the white families moved to Sumner, three miles west of Rosewood and worked at the newfound saw mill established by Cummer and Sons. By 1900 Rosewood had a black majority of citizens.
On the morning of January 1, 1923 Fannie Coleman Taylor of Sumner Florida, claimed she was assaulted by a Black man. Although she was supposedly knocked unconscious for several hours due to the shock of the incident, she was not seriously injured and was miraculously able to describe, in detail, what happened. No one disputed her account, of course and no questions were asked. It was assumed she was reporting the incident accurately.
Sarah Carrier a Black woman from Rosewood, who did the laundry for Fannie Taylor and was present on the morning of the incident, claimed the man that assaulted Fannie Taylor was her white lover. It was believed the two lovers quarreled and he abused Fannie and left. However, in 1923 no one questioned Fannie Taylor’s account and no one asked Sarah Carrier about the incident. The Black community claimed Fannie Taylor was only protecting herself from scandal.
A posse was summoned and tracking dogs were ordered by James Taylor, Fannie Taylor’s husband and the foreman at Cummer and Sons saw mill. The local white community became enraged at the alleged abuse of a white woman by a Black man – an unpardonable sin in a world in which it was punishable for black men back then to even look at a white woman.
James Taylor summoned help from Levy County and neighboring Alachua County, where a large number of KKK members had been rallying and marching in opposition of justice for Black people.
A telegraph sent to Gainesville in regards to Fannie Taylor’s allegations provoked four to five hundred Klansmen, who headed to Sumner at the appeal of James Taylor. They arrived enraged and combed the woods behind the Taylor’s home looking for a suspect. Suspicion soon fell on Jesse Hunter, a Black man who had allegedly recently escaped from a convict road gang. No proof of the escape was ever provided.
The posse confronted Sam Carter at his home and Carter allegedly admitted to helping Hunter escape. The posse forced Carter to take them to the place where he last saw Hunter. When no trace of Hunter could be found the posse turned into an out of control lynch mob, torturing Carter, riddling him with bullets and hanging him from a tree.
The posse continued their hunt in Rosewood. They found Aaron Carrier, cousin and friend to Sam Carter, in bed at his cousin, Sarah Carrier’s house. They yanked him out of bed, tied a rope around his neck and dragged him behind a Model –T Ford from Rosewood to Sumner. They tortured him, beat him with gun butts and kicked him until he lost consciousness they then shot him numerous times.
Levy County Sherriff Bob Walker halted the gunfire before a fatal shot could be delivered, however, when he yelled, “Don’t, I’ll finish the nigger off!” Confident that the sheriff would take care of Aaron Carrier, the posse returned to Rosewood to hunt and kill more Black people.
Sheriff Walker threw Aaron Carrier in his vehicle and took him to Gainesville, to the Alachua County jail, begging Sheriff James Ramsey to hide Carrier from the public and his family until tempers settled down. Sheriff Walker also suggested that Sheriff Ramsey get medical help for Carrier. Sheriff Ramsey brought in two local Black doctors – Dr. Parker and Dr. Ayers – to treat Carrier. For six months, without any knowledge of the public or Carrier’s family, the doctors tending to Carrier’s wounds and returned him to health and strength.
Fuming with anger because they had not found the attacker James Taylor sent Sarah Carrier’s son, Sylvester Carrier, a message “We are coming to get you.”
Unbeknownst to the posse, Sylvester Carrier took heed to the threats and made contact with his Levy County friends who bravely traveled to Rosewood to help avert the planned ambush of its citizens.
After dark, the white posse traveled to Rosewood prepared to kill or be killed. The posse, intoxicated with moonshine and ignorance, was met head-on with resistance from Sylvester Carrier and his friends, however and several of them were killed or injured. The surviving posse members fled, returning to Sumner, leaving their guns behind at the order of Sylvester Carrier and his men. Other posse members lay dead and wounded in Sarah Carrier’s yard.
On January 3rd, many citizens of Rosewood fled into the swamp, hiding out and waiting for the train to come and take them to safety. Others fled to white store merchant John Wright’s home. He allowed them to wait there in hiding until they heard back from Sheriff Walker, who travelled back and forth to Cedar Key, Sumner, and Rosewood in an effort to move Rosewood’s citizens safely out of Rosewood on the 4 AM early morning train, which was conducted by the Bryce Brothers from Bryceville, Florida.
When the posse returned to Rosewood days later to make an assessment of the damages, they vengefully shot and killed anyone who remained in the town – mainly those too ill or too old to
Weeksville, New York
What is now Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, NY, Weeksville was the second-largest community for free blacks prior to the Civil War. James Weeks, a freed slave, purchased a significant amount of land from Henry C. Thompson, another freed slave. Weeks sold property to new residents, who eventually named the community after him. The town thrived, becoming a free Black enclave of urban trades-people and property owners comprised of both Southern blacks fleeing slavery and Northern blacks escaping the racial violence and draft riots in New York and other cities. By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, Weeksville was already a thriving area with its own doctors, teachers, publishers, and social services.
My Steamfunk fable, Seeking Shelter, is set in Weeksville.
Freedmen’s Town, Texas: Houston’s ‘Little Harlem’
Immediately following the Civil War, thousands of freed slaves purchased land and built their homes along the Buffalo Bayou, dubbing the area “Freedmen’s Town.”
Over a period of sixty years the town thrived, with churches, schools, stores, theaters and jazz spots lining the cobblestone roadways, earning Freedmen’s Town the nickname of “Little Harlem” by the 1920s.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression caused many residents of Freedmen’s Town to lose their homes. Most longtime residents were forced to move to other Houston neighborhoods, while others stayed in the town, only to watch the community deteriorate.
In 1984, Freedmen’s was designated a historic district.
Blackdom, New Mexico
Dispatched from Ft. Leavenworth for the New Mexico Territory in 1846 to fight the Mexican-American War, General Stephen W. Kearny led a force of 2,500 soldiers in the invasion (yes, invasion – just ask the First Nations in the area). One of those detailed to that force as a wagoneer was a Georgia freedman by the name of Henry Boyer. Upon reaching New Mexico, Boyer fell in love with the vast desert expanses of sky and land, upon his return home, he told his wife and children tales of his adventures in New Mexico, emphasizing the awesome beauty of the land.
One of Boyer’s children, Francis Marion (“Frank”) Boyer, was captivated by his father’s stories. Frank, a graduate of Morehouse College and a teacher, grew dissatisfied with his existence in Georgia and joined groups of other Black men who spoke out against the savageries of the Ku Klux Klan and other Southern atrocities.
Fearing for his son’s life, Henry Boyer suggested that Frank leave Georgia and move to New Mexico to seek a better life for himself and his family. In 1896, Frank Boyer and his friend and student, Daniel Keyes, decided to set out for New Mexico.
Being Black, Mr. Boyer and Mr. Keyes could not travel by stagecoach or rail, nor could they get secure passage on a wagon train. Undeterred, they set out on foot, and walked the entire distance from Pellum (nowadays known as “Pelham”), Georgia to Roswell, New Mexico – a distance of 1,200 miles.
Upon arrival, the two men worked multiple jobs while exercising their rights as freedmen under the Homestead Act, laying claim to acreage in the area of what is now Dexter. The following year, Franks’s wife, Ella Louise and their children joined him, and he was able to secure a loan from a bank to begin homesteading. He dug an artesian well, built a house, and began an active outreach campaign to other Black families in surrounding states, urging them to come to the beautiful desert land in the southeastern part of the Territory and help create the New Mexico Territory’s first Black community.
And they came…more than 300 people from across the country…despite the odds; despite the obstacles. Whites would not sell them train or stagecoach tickets and would not permit them to board in the event that they managed to secure tickets anyway; they would not sell wagons or horses to Black families, despite their ability to pay.
But they came…by cart; on horseback; on foot like the town’s founders…and in 1903, Frank Boyer filed the town of Blackdom’s articles of incorporation.
Unfortunately, in the 1920s, a severe drought led settlers to abandon the town.
Nicodemus, Kansas is the only remaining western community established by African Americans after the Civil War. The town is now recognized as a National Historic Site.
In the late 1870’s, as the Reconstruction following the Civil War failed to bring the long awaited freedom, equality and prosperity promised to Black people, along came a white man by the name of W.R. Hill – to black families in the backwoods of Kentucky and Tennessee – who described a “Promise Land” in Kansas. Hill told of a sparsely settled territory with abundant wild game, wild horses that could be tamed, and an opportunity to own land through the homesteading process in Nicodemus, Kansas.
The town site of Nicodemus was planned in 1877 by W.R. Hill, a land developer from Indiana, and Reverend W.H. Smith, a black man. Reverend Smith became the President of the Nicodemus Town Company and Hill, the treasurer. The two founders aggressively promoted the town to the Black refugees of the Deep South. The Reverend Simon P. Roundtree was the first settler, arriving on June 18, 1877. Zack T. Fletcher and his wife, Jenny Smith Fletcher, the daughter of Reverend W.H. Smith, arrived in July and Fletcher was named the Secretary of the Town Company. Smith, Roundtree, and the Fletchers made claims to their property and built temporary homes in dugouts along the prairie.
The Nicodemus Town Company produced numerous circulars to promote the town, inviting “Colored People of the United States” to come and settle in the “Great Solomon Valley.” The Reverend Roundtree became actively involved in the promotion, and worked with a man by the name of Benjamin “Pap” Singleton , a black carpenter from Nashville, who traveled all over the United States distributing the circulars, which portrayed Nicodemus as a place for African-Americans to establish Black self-government. Singleton, who could not read or write, distributed so many circulars that he was sometimes called the “Moses of the Colored Exodus.” The Blacks who decided to emigrate soon acquired the name “Exodusters”.
At the same time, railroads, needing to populate the West to create markets for their services, exaggerated the quality of the soil and climate in this “Western Eden.”
The desperate families of the South listened with rapt attention and in the late summer of 1877, 308 railroad tickets were purchased to take them to the closest railroad point in Ellis, Kansas. The families then walked the remaining fifty-five miles to Nicodemus, arriving in September 1877.
Building homes along the Solomon River in dugouts, the original settlers found more disappointment and privation as they faced adverse weather conditions. In the Promised Land of Kansas, they initially lacked sufficient tools, seed, and money, but managed to survive the first winter by selling buffalo bones and by working for the Kansas Pacific Railroad at Ellis, the city fifty-five miles away where they originally arrived. Others survived with assistance from the Osage First Nation, who provided food, firewood and staples.
Though most stayed, many settlers were disillusioned by the lack of vegetation and the harsh land and made a hasty return to the green fields of Kentucky and Tennessee. Of those who stayed, the spring of 1878 brought hope and opportunity as new Exodusters, bearing horses, oxen and farming tools began to farm the soil.
A local government was established, headed by “President Smith.”
One woman arriving in the spring, Williana Hickman, said years later of arriving at Nicodemus: “When we got in sight of Nicodemus the men shouted, ‘There is Nicodemus!’ Being very sick, I hailed this news with gladness. I looked with all the eyes I had. I said, ‘Where is Nicodemus? I don’t see it.’ My husband pointed out various smokes coming out of the ground and said, ‘That is Nicodemus.’ The families lived in dugouts… the scenery was not at all inviting, and I began to cry.”
Despite the poor living conditions, Williana and her husband, Reverend Daniel Hickman, stayed, organizing the First Baptist Church in a dugout with a sod structure above it. By 1880, a small, one-room, stone sanctuary had been erected at the same site. This structure evolved from limestone to stucco, and in 1975, a new brick sanctuary was built. Today, the church still stands in Nicodemus.
Zachary Fletcher, one of the town’s first settlers, became the first postmaster and the first entrepreneur in Nicodemus, establishing the St. Francis Hotel and a livery stable in 1880. His wife, Jenny Smith Fletcher, became the first postmistress and schoolteacher and one of the original charter members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The complex that Fletcher built, which housed the post office, school, hotel and stable, later became known as the Fletcher-Switzer House and was an important focus of activity in the community. The building still stands in Nicodemus today.
By 1880, Nicodemus had a population of almost 500, boasting a bank, two hotels, three churches, a newspaper, a drug store, and three general stores – surrounded by twelve square miles of cultivated land.
Edward P. McCabe, who joined the colony in 1878, served two terms as state auditor, 1883-1887, the first African American to hold a major state office.
By 1887 Nicodemus had gained more churches, stores, a literary society, an ice cream parlor, a lawyer, another newspaper, a baseball team, a benefit society and a band. Hopes were high in the community when the railroad talked of an extension from Stockton to Nicodemus and in March of 1887, the voters of the Township approved the issuance of $16,000 in bonds to attract the Union Pacific Railroad to the community. Despite the bond issue, the town and the railroad could not agree on financial compensation and the railroad withdrew its offer.
In 1888, the railroad established the extension six miles away south of the Solomon River, leaving Nicodemus a stranded “island”. Businesses fled to the other side of the river to the Union Pacific Railroad camp that later became known as the town of Bogue. With the businesses leaving, Nicodemus began a gradual decline.
Zachary Fletcher, the town’s first entrepreneur, sold his town lots to the original promoter, W. R. Hill, but continued to run his businesses. Eventually, the hotel reverted to Graham County for a time but was brought back into the family in the 1920′s by Fred Switzer, a great-nephew raised by the Fletchers. When Switzer married Ora Wellington in 1921, they made the hotel their home.
Despite all the hardships and calamities that Nicodemus faced, it survived…and thrived.
More than a half-dozen black settlements sprung up in Kansas after the Civil War but Nicodemus is the only one that still stands.
In the world that author Milton Davis and I have developed – the world you will experience in the upcoming Steamfunk feature film, Rite of Passage – the secret to Nicodemus’ survival lies in its four very powerful protectors – Harriet Tubman, Dorothy Wright, John Henry and Bass Reeves and the town’s President, “High” John Konker. Just as the Exodusters have been drawn by promises of self-government, freedom and economic success, the town’s protectors have been drawn by a mysterious and fearsome entity known only as Jedediah Green, who you will learn more of in the next phase of Rite of Passage stories.
The Rite of Passage movie is a pulse-pounding thrill-ride that introduces you to this dark and gritty world of steam, brass and iron and to the origins of its heroes.
With the might of our heroes – and with the imaginations of Milton Davis and Yours Truly – Nicodemus Town Company will never fall.