Black farmers fulfill 116-year-old dream of having local mill

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

NICODEMUS, Kan. -- It was 1886 when the Western Cyclone, a weekly newspaper once published in this black settlement, first printed the advertisement.

"Looking for a good flour mill," it said.

By that time, the number of former slaves who farmed this Kansas prairie had swelled to nearly 700. From one end of the township to the other, black farmers could be seen toiling their few acres.

Among them was Alonzo Gillan Alexander I, who farmed 600 acres of wheat with mules.

And 116 years later, his descendants have rallied the last remaining black farmers and residents to build that long sought-after flour mill. And, in the process, they hope to save the family farm and infuse new life into the dying black town.

During the late 1870s and early 1880s, several thousand blacks flocked to Kansas. From the exodus of former slaves, more than a half dozen black settlements sprung up in Kansas. Of those communities, only Nicodemus survived. The town is on the southeastern border of Graham County and is now a protected National Historic Park site.

Alexander's grandson -- A. Gillan Alexander III, or Gil as he is better known -- farms 650 acres of wheat. Alexander, his sister, Sharyn Dowdell, and three other farmers founded the Nicodemus Flour Co-op in 2000.

Last July, they took their hard white wheat crop to a neighboring mill and produced 250 three-pound containers of flour under the name "Promised Land Flour."

It quickly sold out.

But the dream of the town's own flour mill grew. Low grain prices raised hope that the entrepreneurs could make money by milling their own hard white wheat flour and marketing it under the name of the historic town.

"We want the standard set for this flour ... so people can know not only our milling flour but that we are maintaining the land that maintains us -- because, believe it or not, it is the only land we've got," Gil Alexander said.

The first black settlers came here from Kentucky to flee racial oppression after the Civil War. Soon others followed from Michigan, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Kansas was billed as the Promised Land for "all colored people" by land developers eager to populate the barren prairie.

Within a decade, settlers here boasted four general stores, a grocery, three land companies, two druggists, a lawyer, two hotels, two livery stables, a blacksmith shop, a harness and boot repair store and an ice cream parlor. The town even had a baseball team, a literary society and a band.

But more than a century later, little remains. The town began to decline after failing to attract a railroad. Businesses shut down, and the population shrank to as few as 23 people and two dogs.

Nicodemus, listed by Congress in 1996 as a national historic site, is the oldest surviving black settlement west of the Mississippi River. Every year since 1881, hundreds of descendants of these pioneers come home to Nicodemus to celebrate Emancipation Day.

Gil Alexander's cousin, Angela Bates-Tompkins, is the town's historian. She said she hopes the town's designation as a national park, and the flour's roots in Nicodemus history, will give the product an edge.

"It is in our blood to make it successful," she said.

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