“Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” – John 3:4
Tucked away in the sprawling prairies of Northwestern Kansas is a town not unlike thousands of other rural communities spread across the country. It is a town built on agriculture that has subsisted for over 130 years on the determination of its citizens and their love of the land. The only outward sign that sets this community apart from the other towns around it is that its citizens are predominately African American. They have their roots in the post-Civil War movement which freed millions of individuals from plantation slavery. Their town is called Nicodemus.
In 1870, Nicodemus boasted over 700 residents and was on its way to discovering a self determination that might have seemed impossible ten years before that. Nicodemus thrived for 100 years and everything that was needed was provided even throughout the tough times that would befall farmers from all walks of life.
Like so many other rural communities, times have changed in Nicodemus. Now there are fewer than 50 residents and the town is governed primarily through the Graham County commissioners. Most of the black farmers have retired and it is difficult to know what will become of the town. Nevertheless, there is a hopefulness in the town that gets replayed every year during the annual Nicodemus Homecoming. The Homecoming brings hundreds of the area’s former residents back to town for parades, music, food, talent shows, dance, and worship.
In July of 2006, the Kansas Black Farmers Association (KBFA) held an event to closely coincide with the Nicodemus Homecoming called “Spotlighting USDA in NW Kansas.” Edgar Hicks, President of the KBFA, was on hand to partake in the Nicodemus Homecoming. For Hicks, the Nicodemus story has become a passion in his life.
“One of my greatest disappointments is that people just see a piece of history in Nicodemus,” said Hicks. “They just see five old buildings and they think their heyday is over so let’s just let it die peacefully. I see the history of that county as the best economic engine that a community could have.”
It seems the national news media agrees with Hicks. National Public Radio, ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and others have all made their way to the small Kansas town of Nicodemus to tell their story.
“We’ve had all these news agencies that come out and buy into it but leadership has to be there too. It has to be a team effort to make the project a success and that just hasn’t happened.”
A current project taking place near Nicodemus that Hicks is most interested in is the Tef Project. Tef is an Ethiopian grain that is currently being researched through the KBFA, in coordination with Kansas State University and the University of Nebraska. The possibility of introducing a new crop into the economy is exciting to Hicks. And although it is not offi cially a SARE project, Hicks, who previously received a SARE grant through the KBFA, sees it as one.
“To me it’s like the ultimate SARE project because that’s what it’s about -- sharing. The whole idea of this is a cultural one to start with. Nicodemus is a faith driven community. Even the town name, Nicodemus, being born again is like an emancipation proclamation. I forget how many times [Nicodemus] is mentioned in the Bible, but there’s a real connection there.”
That rebirthing idea is what drives Hicks to not let the town’s original essence and character die.
“The people of Nicodemus were really people who were just barely able to read and write after the Civil War and they were very interested in what was happening on the continent of Africa. There’s a connection between how those communities existed back then. When you read the early 1880’s newspapers, they are writing about Ethiopia and Liberia. And even though people from Nicodemus weren’t from Ethiopia the newspapers from Kansas identified the people and lumped them all together and called them Ethiopians.”
The connection with growing tef to help build a sustainable community in Nicodemus goes even further than the Ethiopian issue for Hicks. Issues such as current Great Plains drought conditions, the fact that tef is mostly gluten free, and traditional friendship values all interrelate when it comes to growing tef.
“Tef is drought tolerant so it doesn’t use a lot of water. It’s also a medical and nutritional issue for those people who are gluten intolerant with the celiac disease. It grows fast. And when you sit down and eat bread it’s communal. In Latin, bread means something like companion and that’s really what we need. All the symbols that this project represents feed you in different ways.”
Perhaps most important to Hicks is an issue which resonates with him regarding empowering all farmers.
“The bottom line is that I want to see farmers have control of their own destiny. It bugs me when I hear what’s going on with what the energy companies make and what the railroad companies who are some of the biggest users of energy make. They still make profi ts. It really is an inequity when the farmer is the only guy who can’t tell you what you’re going to pay for the product that he’s selling. So that’s my focus. I think when they finish outlining the opportunities and risks for growing tef it will be a little more embracive. This stuff goes for good money. I went to a whole foods store and I paid $7.00 for 18 ounces of tef flour. So it has value. It’s just a very small seed and it is labor intensive but the best part is that the farmer controls the pricing of it. And that’s what it’s all about -- how does the farmer control the pricing and say, ‘I’m setting this price. I’m not taking this price, I’m establishing a price.' There’s a bottom line and hopefully we can build a community off of that and also a bridge between the Ethiopian communities and communities like Nicodemus.”
Hicks has been working for some time trying to generate interest to major corporations to invest in the area. He is aware that tef alone can’t solve everything that needs to be accomplished in Nicodemus. He recognizes that it will have to come from local initiative and the same work ethic that originally founded Nicodemus.
“A day doesn’t go by that I’m not working on some aspect of the project. I still think it’s a powerful economic development tool for the whole area. Not just for the county but for the surrounding areas as well. The companies have an interest and we just need to go to them and say, ‘Hey, this is our plan.’”
The commitment that Hicks has to the Nicodemus area through sustainable agriculture and community planning may just be the key to another rebirth.
Other information about Nicodemus can be found through their National Historic web site at https://www.nps.gov/nico/.
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