By CRISTINA JANNEY
Nicodemus will be part of a larger documentary series on African American history in the Midwest set to air on PBS in 2024.
Dan Manatt of Democracy Films was in Nicodemus last year filming for his documentary "Black Pioneers and the Buffalo Soldiers," which will be shown at noon at the National Historic site in Nicodemus during the Nicodemus Pioneer Days on Saturday.
"Black Pioneers and the Buffalo Soldiers" is part of a larger series "The African American Midwest: 400 Year Fight for Freedom."
Now based in the Washington, D.C., area, Manatt grew up in Iowa and said he has a strong interest in the history of the Midwest.
"The African American Midwest documentary is meant to show the tremendous, overlooked African American history of the region," Manatt said. "Some of them are inspiring. Some of them are troubling, but none are more extraordinary and inspiring, that we have come across, than the Nicodemus story."
In September 1878, freed slaves from Kentucky disembarked from the train
in Ellis and made their way on foot 35 miles across the prairie to
their new home in Nicodemus. The settlers encountered a barren prairie, and built the community from the ground up.
Black history has been limited to a telling of the history of the South, specifically the slave history of the South, Manatt said.
However, he said African American history is rich and diverse across the United States. Nicodemus combines two very important aspects of American history — the U.S. Calvary's Buffalo Soldiers and the Black pioneer settlement of the region.
"This struck me as a double icon," he said of the Nicodemus homesteaders. "This is the African American formerly enslaved family, and it's the iconic, pioneer family.
"From a storytelling perspective and historical perspective, there was nothing more exciting than coming across the Nicodemus story."
Manatt has worked on the Nicodemus portion of the series with Angela Bates, longtime Nicodemus historian and descendant of the original Nicodemus settlers.
Bates also said she thought African American history, except for the negative aspects of the slave experience, has been neglected in American history.
"It not only has been overlooked, it just hasn't been written about. It doesn't mean that it doesn't exist," she said. "I think what people are saying is there is more to our history than we have been presented."
Bates began doing outreach on Black history of the area in the 1980s. At that time, only one book had been written about the "exodusters," Black ex-slaves who left the South to homestead in the Midwest after the Civil War.
That history has been written about more and more in academic circles and just now is becoming a part of the knowledge of the greater American public.
She said she was speaking to a group at the Moundridge Public Library recently and a retired history professor approached her and said he was learning aspects of history he never knew.
"It's because it has not been important to the story of America from the perspective of a white male," she said.
Bates and the Nicodemus National Historic Site have worked for years to educate children about the history of Nicodemus and its settlers. She said she hopes this documentary will further inspire children and people of all ages.
"All people are interested in this history, not just African Americans," Bates said. "It's a story that adds color to what has been presented as strictly a white perspective only. When you start to get that other side of the story, you start to see the richness and fullness of that story."
The Buffalo Soldiers, which are also featured in Manatt's documentary, helped clear the way for homesteaders, including those who came to Nicodemus. The Black cavalrymen were so named by Native Americans because their dark skin was similar to that of bison.
Bates has a descendant who was a Buffalo Soldier, who settled in Nicodemus after his military service.
Manatt's documentary specifically addresses the Buffalo Soldier's engagement with the Cheyenne at the Battle of the Saline in August 1868. That battle site was only recently rediscovered on the CT2 Ranch in northern Ellis County.
The Buffalo Soldiers' Company F, who fought at the Battle of Saline, was dispatched out of Fort Hays after railroad workers were killed by Native Americans at Victoria.
The Buffalo Soldiers engaged Native Americans in a series of skirmishes in a line northwest leading up to the Battle of Beecher Island just across the Colorado line.
"This whole region is a hotbed for that history, as well as Nicodemus and the migration of the folks west," Bates said. "It's fascinating, and I'm doing my best with all the people in the area to bring their stories to life as it fits into the bigger story of what was going on then."
Manatt said the story of Nicodemus takes on more importance because it is a living story.
"It is a community that is still there," he said. "Not only is it still there, but it is also a story that inspires the descendants of the families to come back every year and re-enact. It is history, yes, but it's also the present. ... It's a continuing inspiration."
Bates has also written and directed another film on the Nicodemus' settlers' journey from Kentucky and across the Ellis Trail to Nicodemus. That film was shot over the Labor Day Weekend, is in production and may be ready for viewers next year.
"The American American Midwest: 400 Year Fight for Freedom," of which Manatt is the producer is sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council and other states' humanities agencies across the Midwest.