More than 130 years ago, some of the 350 black families who eventually settled in Nicodemus, Kan., boarded trains in Sadieville, determined to leave behind their oppressive reality in the Bluegrass for the uncertainty of self- determination on the plains.
They were headed for a place billed as the promised land for freed slaves. But the West in 1877 proved to be formidable for some who expected the rich forests of Kentucky and Tennessee but found earlier settlers living in underground dugouts.
"About 60 of them turned around and headed back," said Angela Bates, executive director of the Nicodemus Historical Society. Bates is a descendant of one of the Kentucky families who stuck it out. She will be talking about those hardy settlers in the Bluegrass on Saturday and Sunday and will stay longer to research other newly discovered connections.
Nicodemus became a prosperous town, governed by blacks, with black-owned businesses and farms, and a black-run post office. Some 700 people called it home at its peak.
"There was a whole movement of blacks to the West, and they established their own towns," Bates said. There were a half a dozen towns in Kansas and about 25 in Oklahoma; Colorado had one, and there were also settlements in Nebraska and California.
"They wanted a piece of the American pie, and they wanted to govern themselves," she said.
But, Bates said, Nicodemus is the most famous and the longest lasting. Now designated a National Historic Site, Nicodemus has five buildings and about 25 residents, only four or five of whom are younger than 60.
About 17 years ago, Bates unveiled research that became an exhibit, Kansas-Kentucky Connection, Black Kentuckians in the Promised Lands of Kansas. The exhibit is in the basement of the Georgetown-Scott County Museum, where she will speak at 2 p.m. Saturday.
On Sunday, Bates will attend the unveiling of a highway marker in Sadieville, designating Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, 714 Pike Street, as a historic landmark. Sunday is the 125th anniversary of when the church was deeded to the congregation. Then, at 3 p.m., she will highlight the Nicodemus-Sadieville connection in a talk at City Hall, 650 Pike Street.
Bates said some of the families who migrated to Nicodemus from Sadieville founded a Mount Pleasant Baptist Church there. She wants to research that connection.
"Part of that congregation left and part of it stayed," said Cynthia Foster, Sadieville city clerk and treasurer.
Bates estimates about three-fourths of the congregation left.
Foster said the train depot in Sadieville, which is now city hall, was the site where many families boarded trains for Kansas.
Bates is no stranger to Scott County, visiting several times over the years. She will meet with Foster, members of Sadieville Renaissance Inc. and others to explore ways to start more intense research of other towns in Scott, Fayette and Bourbon counties that the families came from.
Bates said she wants to examine slave marriage records, the social climate of this area during and after slavery, and the role of the black church in the exodus.
Several families who had been slaves on the Richard M. Johnson plantation made their way to Nicodemus, she said. And she is a descendant of one of those families.
"Kentuckians have a whole lot to be proud of," Bates said, "knowing those families did not continue to endure the Jim Crow laws. Kansas has some of the largest black-owned farms in the country."