“We’ve got plenty of acreage, but not a lot of people,” she says. The population currently stands at 19, and most of those folks are far from spring chickens. Retired farmer Florence Howard, 86, remembers her grandparents, George Moore and Effie Johnson – former slaves and two of Nicodemus’ original settlers – planting long-neck squash, blue crowder peas, and sweet potatoes. “They farmed mostly with their hands, because they didn’t have machinery,” Howard says. Johnson’s skin bore the marks of a Kentucky master who whipped and raped her. “She had a cut above her hip and wore that scar to her grave. There’s nothing left of George and Effie’s house except a pile of stones down Highway 24.”
ABOVE Retired farmer Florence Howard is the granddaughter of George Moore and Effie Johnson, among the freed slaves who first migrated to the Kansas town.
Another direct descendant, Dr. JohnElla Holmes, recently moved back to town at Bates’ urging. “Angela’s dragging us all back here and motivating us,” says the 60-year-old, a former assistant professor at Kansas State University’s College of Education and the current executive director of the Kansas Black Farmers Association. Holmes also runs an agriculture camp in the town to expose inner-city kids from across the country to people like Gil Alexander. “Our mission is to grow new farmers and get them excited about conservation and learning how to feed their families,” she explains. “You feel your worth just being connected to Nicodemus. It’s such a beautiful birthright, and farming’s at the heart of that. It’s our responsibility to make sure our children and grandchildren know this history.”
Abandoned farm equipment rusts in a Nicodemus field.
Holmes’ daughter, LueCreasea Horne, may be the torchbearer her elders long for. The 38-year-old came home a few years ago with her husband and two children.
“It’s time for the younger generation to step up and keep Nicodemus going,” Horne says. She worked as a National Park Service guide here for three consecutive summers during college and dreams of someday overseeing the site as superintendent. “One way or another,” Horne insists, “Nicodemus will survive.”
This shot of three young women on a Nicodemus farm was likely taken in the 1940s.
Gil Alexander hopes she’s right. “I don’t have any kids. I don’t know what’s going to happen,” the fourth- generation farmer says. “There have been times when I’ve come close to saying, ‘To hell with this, I’m done,’ but then I think about the ones who came before. What kept them going? Our heritage. You can’t really explain that. You have to feel it. You have to have a passion for it. This is what built America, working the land.”
Dr. JohnElla Holmes (left), a retired college professor, recently returned to Nicodemus, where she runs an agricultural camp for kids. Her daughter, LueCreasea Horne (right) moved back a few years ago to raise her two children, including daughter Lauryn.