Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 1, Winter 2008, pp. 49-62.
Nicodemus, one of the first all-black settlements in Kansas, and the sole remaining western town founded by and for African Americans at the end of Reconstruction, has received a good deal of scholarly attention. Yet one basic matter about it remains unclear: how the town came by its unusual name. Most scholars now think that the name of the town derives from a legendary slave rather than the biblical character.
This essay challenges that consensus, contending the name Nicodemus indeed refers to the biblical character, and in doing so exemplifies the way that the dominated disguise their speech, making it cryptic and coded. The biblical reference to Nicodemus conveys, in veiled form, significant meanings for African Americans. On the surface, Nicodemus referred to a legendary slave remembered as the Civil War was drawing to its bitter end; but in its veiled and biblical deployment, the name communicates protest and defiance of the dominant culture and its dominant white Bible. By choosing a a name with multiple meanings, the founders of Nicodemus were able to resist the identity conferred upon them (as slaves). In its coded form, the name Nicodemus provided subterfuge, a "sheltered site for subversive meanings." The pressing question here is just what resistant, indirect, and euphemistic meanings the biblical Nicodemus, a minor New Testament character, affords.
Examining the encoded biblical reference to Nicodemus allows for a richer, more textured understanding of the town's rather curious name and illuminates the arts of resistance that likely guided these settlers' decision to name their town Nicodemus. Stripping the name of its biblical resonance, as most researchers have, reduces and simplifies the complex imagery of the African American settlers in Kansas.