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Historic Black-owned farm town working to grow dwindling numbers of Black farmers

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Posted at 12:38 PM, Jul 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-19 12:30:30-04

NICODEMUS, Ks. — Black-owned farms in the United States are becoming fewer and fewer every year.

In 1910, Black farmers made up 14% of the U.S. farming population. Today, they make up just 1.4%. Poor weather, technology consolidating farm work, and what many say are discriminatory loan practices drove countless families to sell their land.

This is happening across the nation, but the story behind the numbers hurts even more deeply for the descendants of Nicodemus, Kansas. It’s a town homesteaded by freed African Americans after the Civil War. The town was named for Nicodemus, a slave who bought his own freedom.

“This became the promised land,” said Angela Bates, whose relatives were among the founding members of Nicodemus “It became a place where they could call their own. This provided an opportunity for African Americans that wanted to leave the war torn South and the Jim Crow South and seek a new life out in the West."

The original homesteaders came here to farm thousands of acres. It gave a much greater opportunity compared to the few dozen acres most freed African Americans had in the South.

“We had that connotation that farming was equated to slavery, and we were not going to have any parts of that, but farming is equated to home ownership, land ownership and prestige for your family that you own something, that you're growing something, that you're helping the country to move forward,” said JohnElla Holmes, PhD., another direct descendant of the town’s founders, who is now dedicated to preserving the history there.

Holmes is also part of the Kansas Black Farmers Association.

“I'm a proud fifth-generation descendant,” she said.

However, she and her family no longer farm the land. In fact, Nicodemus now has no African Americans actively harvesting the land themselves.

The farmland owned by Black families is leased out to white farmers, and Angela Bates’ farm is one of them.

“I don't believe there's anybody but a couple of us that actually own land that that we're leasing out to others that are farming because we can’t afford a combine,” said Bates. “Who could afford a John Deere tractor?”

Diversity in farming has been shrinking for decades. One hundred years ago, there were more than a million Black farmers in the nation. Today, there are fewer than 50,000.

The Land Loss and Reparations Project estimated Black farmers in the south have lost 90% of their land in the last century. That land loss equates to $250 billion to $350 billion of accumulated wealth and income lost for the Black farming community.

High operating costs, consolidation with farming technology and poor weather are part of that decline, but these women say discriminatory loan practices have driven many Black farmers out of business, especially in their own backyard.

“If nothing is done to reverse that and to look at the inequities, there will be no Black farmers,” said Holmes. “These are real people and real families that are going to be absolutely devastated by this.”

These women are determined to stop this decline. Bates runs a restaurant in town to support her dream of keeping her land forever.

“We enjoy being a part of the legacy. It's been my life's passion to preserve it for the generations to come,” said Bates.

Holmes is keeping her family legacy alive through education.

“I want to make sure that our youth understand that there's pride in being a farmer,” she said.

She runs youth camps to show students Nicodemus’ history.

“It's educating so that we can regain,” Holmes said.

On top of the camps, Holmes has worked for years to get several grants to bring in tiny homes. This is all to bring farmers back to Nicodemus.

She’s planting every seed she can to see this community blossom once again in the years to come.

“To see Nicodemus start to revitalize with our generation is exciting, and we feel that connection with one another, we feel that revitalization going on, and it's a good feeling,” said Bates. “About two years ago, we were down to about 12 people, and I began to think, ‘Ok, Lord, 12 people, 12 people!'”

But, now the town has more than 30 residents, and that number is growing.

“It's a good feeling, and so everybody's doing their own little part,” said Bates.

“We are people that have a pride and a history that defies what this looks like. Our history is absolutely America's history,” said Holmes.