The Disappearing Story of the Black Homesteaders who Pioneered the West

An article by Richard Edwards in the Washington Post tells of a significant piece of American history that is in danger of disappearing. The once vibrant African American homesteading communities are now falling to ruin, their locations are mostly unmarked, and the achievements of their pioneers are mostly forgotten.

Edwards writes:

“These places are precious not just to descendants but to all Americans, and their loss is a national shame. The homesteading story is usually told as one of white Americans’ westward movement. But the 1862 Homestead Act had no racial restrictions, and after the 1866 Civil Rights Act clarified that black Americans were citizens, they too were entitled to 160 acres of public land if they paid a modest fee and lived on the property continuously for five years.

“Some black homesteaders, former slaves, tried to settle on public lands in the South, but relentless white violence mostly defeated them. In the Great Plains, they found success.”

You can read a lot more at:


The University of Kansas published a small book some years ago on Nicodemus. I just googled the name and was surprised to learn that it is the only surviving black town in the west that was founded after the Civil War.


These black communities were established during a period called the Exoduster Movement when so many blacks, facing Jim Crow laws in the South after Reconstruction was ending, left the Louisiana-Mississippi area that white plantation owners, alarmed that they were losing cheap labor, asked Congress to stop the former slaves from going West. There was a Senate subcommittee hearing in 1880 but no new legislation came out of it.


The African American Genealogy Group of Kentucky (AAGGKY) several years focused one of its meetings on Nicodemus, as many black Kentuckians went there. I have thus heard of Nicodemus for as long as I have been working with black records here in central Kentucky. There appears to be a strong connection between our area and Nicodemus.


Author Beverly Jenkins wrote a romance novel set in one of the Exoduster towns, about a school teacher and a USCT soldier. It’s how I first learned about Nicodemus, Henry Adams, etc, and it was great to see how black history could be meaningfully incorporated into genre that’s generally considered “fluffy.”


Lots of disappearing “homesteader” experiences have disappeared, black & white. Recommend you visit many homestead towns in Nebraska ca 1890-1900 and see how/where they are today.


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