A Trip Home Revels More Than Just The Family
The instant we laid eyes on Ora Switzer, we knew we'd found a living, breathing piece of history. She was seated on a stool with a cane at her side, beneath a banner that read: "Happy 97th Birthday, Grandmother Switzer." She beckoned us forward with ebony fingers wrinkled with time. When my uncle and I greeted her louder than necessary, she said "For heaven's sakes, I'm old, not deaf! Now come sit yourself down."
As soon as we did, the stories began to flow. "I was born right out there," she pointed at the prairie behind her small, brick home. "I had 13 brothers and sisters. They all left but me. When I was 18, I married a man who wasn't going anywhere, so I stayed here and had seven kids, 20 grandkids and I can't even tell you how many great-grandkids."
What a homecoming!
These offspring are just one of Grandmother Switzer's legacies. At 97 (with a birthday in February), she is the oldest living resident of Nicodemus, Kansas - the first western town planned for and by African Americans. She alone can account for the past century of its history.
"The worst was the '30s," she shook her head at the memory of the dust storms that plagued western Kansas. "It'd get so black, we couldn't see. I had to put sheets around the windows to keep the dust from coming through and getting at the children. Them was the days."
Hardship has never been a stranger to Grandmother Switzer or her people. It was the very reason they ventured to Nicodemus in the first place. Despite the Union's victory in the Civil War and the subsequent abolition of slavery, African Americans still faced extreme oppression in the South. They were stripped of the few political and economic gains they had made over the years and were treated like third-class citizens. Frustrated with their situation, thousands of African Americans decided to enjoy their newly founded freedom elsewhere. So they sold their homes and belongings and walked to the nearest bank of the Mississippi River. There, these so-called "exodusters" awaited the next St. Louis-bound boat and traveled as far as their money allowed.
Right about this time, Kansas launched a promotion campaign to lure in settlers with the promise of rich land. One flyer read: "All colored people that want to go to Kansas, on September 5, 1877, can do so for $5.00." The town of Nicodemus was advertised as a place for African Americans to establish their own self-government. For ex-slaves who'd lived under the white man's brutal rule, this sounded tremendously appealing. A few brave souls decided to take part in this social experiment of black rule - including Grandmother Switzer's grandfather.
To their shock and horror, what had been advertised as a "Western Eden" turned out to be an endless stretch of nothingness, save for a single river. Those first years in Nicodemus were a test of sheer endurance for the former slaves. There were so few natural resources, families had to live in dugouts like prairie dogs. Some simply could not handle it, and headed back South. But those who did gradually built a thriving community that boasted two newspapers, three general stores, at least three churches, a number of small hotels, one school, a literary society, an ice cream parlor, a bank, a livery and 700 African American residents.
Nicodemus had all the makings of a prosperous town - save for one: They needed to be a stop on the railroad. Back then, railroads determined which towns boomed and which ones busted. The townspeople rallied together, but the railroad passed them by and stopped on the opposite side of the river. Nicodemus' businesses followed and the town began a long, gradual decline. Indeed, when my uncle Reed and I first drove up the road leading to Nicodemus, it seemed we had stumbled upon a ghost town. There wasn't a Dairy Queen or Texaco in sight, and there seemed to be more tumbleweeds than people. Grandmother Switzer said she had to travel at least 20 miles for food or clothing, and she estimated the town's population at about 60. "We're short on children," she remarked.
Yet, she wouldn't have changed her upbringing for the world. Since the bulk of Nicodemus' residents were African American, Grandmother Switzer never experienced the racism and prejudices that so many of her people had to endure in other parts of the nation.
"We never did have any trouble here," she said.
The good news is that Nicodemus' future is looking brighter. In 1996, it was declared a National Historic Site, which means the town receives help in maintaining its historic structures like the First Baptist Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church, St. Francis Hotel, the Nicodemus Township Hall, and the old schoolhouse. And once a year, the town wipes the sleep from its eyes and welcomes home about 1,000 of its former residents and descendants for an "Emancipation Day" celebration that includes a parade, fashion show and cook-out.
I was sorry to have missed these festivities, but felt incredibly lucky to spend an afternoon with Grandmother Switzer. Before we parted company, she passed on one of her many life lessons: "If I'd a known when I was a young 'un that I'd be a piece of Nicodemus history some day, I sure would have asked more questions."
This comment really resonated within me. Every single day, we bear witness to history. Are we prepared to relay it to future generations?
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Links to Other Dispatches
Stephanie - Taking freedom back
Nick - Sojourner's Truth marches on
Daphne -- A couple of aliens and a not-so-grand wizard
Teddy -- Reading, writing, and making freedom real
Rebecca-Americans torturing Americans
Kevin - Welcome to New York. Now get in line for delousing