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Archive for Sunday, May 24, 2009

Student dig uncovers more of historical town’s past

May 24, 2009

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— The windblown dirt had collected under their fingernails, not to mention in their eyes, ears and noses. Where perhaps a sunburn should have been, one student’s back was coated with fresh Kansas soil.

But the students stopped the day’s dig — in a privy on the outer edge of all-black Nicodemus — to partake of cookies and tea with community residents.

There, students from Washburn University in Topeka and Howard University in Washington listened as Tom Wellington, president of the Nicodemus Historical Society, in a deep, booming voice told of the settlement of the Graham County community — the arrival of former slaves to the promised land.

‘It’s about history’

Wellington is a descendent of Nicodemus slaves and today is a resident of the community.

“I was born and raised in Los Angeles,” he said. “I spent 28 years in Anchorage, Alaska. People thought I was crazy to come to Kansas.”

But come he did, joining a dwindling number of people who live in a living, breathing national historic site.

“It’s not only about black history,” Wellington said. “It’s about history.”

The students, an even dozen, are spending nearly three weeks, through the first of June, in the community, digging out two historically significant sites.

One is a privy, just southwest of the District No. 1 school house. But it’s thought the privy instead served an even older school, perhaps the first one that was built in 1879, burning down in 1917.

Margaret Wood, the Washburn professor leading a team of students, is hopeful the privy might contain the charred remains of the original school.

Privies can tell a lot, she said, “because stuff drops down into it.”

Uncovering remains

Already, the students have found a hinge entombed in the hardpan soil, scraped away with a trowel and then poured through a screen to ensure no foreign — historical — objects are missed.

This is the fourth year since the first dig started in Nicodemus. Two years ago, the privy site was opened — covered back up with plastic when time for the field trip expired.

Students and archeologists — professional and amateur alike — also have been digging north of the community in what is called the Johnson-Williams site.

Florie Bugarin, a professor at the historically black Howard University, will be leading the dig there.

That’s where the dig first started four years ago and was home for more than 140 people participating in the Kansas Archeology Training Program field school in 2007.

In addition to the dugout, a root cellar and privy have been found there as well.

“That site’s important,” Bugarin said, “because it was a dugout to a soddy to a frame house.”

It also was the site of the first baby born in Nicodemus.

During the course of the 90-minute break with Nicodemus descendants, Wood and Bugarin talked about the project.

Wood said the Johnson-Williams dig came about as she cast out for someplace to take students, just as the National Park Service put out a call for anyone wanting to dig. So far, about a third of the site has been uncovered, Bugarin said.

Students had only praise for the opportunity to join in the dig, noting that when they find something, it is the history of someone living in the community.

“What’s so unique about this place,” said park superintendent Mark Weaver, “is it’s still got the people.”

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