We have a friend, a flamboyant, beautiful woman, a singer who can electrify a room with her voice, a person who can talk to anyone anywhere and make them love her. We’ve known her for years and we always knew she was born in Kansas.
But we didn’t know she was born in Nicodemus until a few weeks ago. And we didn’t know what that meant until today.
Our friend’s ancestors were among the former slaves who bought shares in the Nicodemus Town Company and traveled from Kentucky to Kansas in 1877 expecting to find houses waiting for them, instead the folks who had come before them were literally living in the ground in dugouts. From this hard beginning, the families founded “what would become the oldest continuously occupied town west of the Mississippi planned and settled by African Americans.” (National Park Service)
There are still people living in Nicodemus. Not very many. Among them are our friend’s relatives, one of whom was in the video shown in the museum. Ernestine. We bought her homemade barbecue sauce to take home.
People came to Nicodemus to be free, finally free. To make their own lives, build their own houses, plow their own fields, play and sing and pray in their own ways. And that’s what happened. That’s what Kansas gave them. A new start in a free place. So it was inspiring to walk on the wide streets of Nicodemus. Even if most of the people were gone, it felt alive and true. American.
The thing about road trips, the thing that makes them worth the long rides and the endless turkey sandwiches out of the cooler in the backseat, the thing that makes road trips the joy that they are is this: stopping in the places where few people stop. Not rushing to the famous and glorious. Never standing in line because what you’ve come to see is small and quiet. Making U-turns to read historical markers made green with age. Taking time to study the beautiful faces in the old photos.
I’ll miss the road. I’ll miss stopping in random places. I’ll miss pulling over to the side of a road and eating lunch. I’ll miss the coleslaw dripping on my jeans for the umpteenth time. I’ll miss the big bag of chips and the cold sodas. But I’ll miss this most of all.
Photos of children and young woman from the Nicodemus National Historic Site