Conserving Historic Land and Places Facilitates Connection and Learning
Our desire to connect to our past is the impetus behind our efforts to preserve sites with significance for Black history and culture.
One such undertaking centers on Nicodemus, a town in Kansas where, in 1877, 300 newly freed Black Americans arrived to start a new life in the West. A symbol of their tenacity and enterprising spirit, Nicodemus is the oldest—and only remaining—Black settlement west of the Mississippi River.
Protecting public land doesn’t have to take the shape of a sweeping landscape or even a green outdoor space. As in the case of Nicodemus, acquiring and protecting a small plot of land can contribute to community placemaking and sometimes results in critical built infrastructure.
While only a small number of residents remain in Nicodemus full time, every July hundreds of former residents and descendants of the founders return for a weekend of festivities as part of the annual Emancipation/Homecoming Celebration.
A new chapter in Nicodemus is now unfolding. Designated a National Historic Site a quarter century ago, Nicodemus lacked a permanent visitor center. Trust for Public Land is helping the town to rectify that. With support from Sony Pictures and the National Park Foundation, we recently acquired land there and donated it to the National Park Service, which will build a dedicated visitor center.
The current visitor center is located inside the Nicodemus Township Hall. In addition to its administrative functions, the hall had, over the years, hosted community dances, gatherings, and meetings. Given that the town hall doubles as a visitor center, those events are now constrained.
“A new visitor center will return Township Hall to the community and open up the space so residents can use it the way they historically have for generations,” says Dr. Jocelyn Imani, Trust for Public Land’s national director of Black history and culture. “I believe in self-determination and people being able to do what they want with their resources.”
LueCreasea Horne, a park ranger based at the Nicodemus National Historic Site, is a sixth-generation descendant of original settlers Thomas and Zerina Johnson, who arrived in 1877 with three children after their emancipation. (Their former owner, slaveholder Richard M. Johnson, was vice president of the United States under President Martin Van Buren—thus the family’s surname.)
For Horne, whose own family moved to the Nicodemus area from Kansas City when she was 12, a permanent visitor center will allow the site to properly convey the community’s rich history. “It will make the descendants and the people of Nicodemus really feel like we are official,” said Horne, now 44, “and that we’re not the stepchild of the National Park Service.”