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The Reparations Movement’s Kansas Prophet

  • June 1, 2021

Mississippi-born John W. Niles was co-founder of famous Black frontier settlement of Nicodemus, Kansas. He mounted a campaign in the 1880s to win reparations for ex-slaves from the U.S. government, resulting in the first ever proposal of reparations to be introduced in the U.S. Senate.

140 years after Niles’ first step, the House of Representatives in April held the first hearing on a reparations resolution.

From Nicodemus: Post-Reconstruction Politics and Racial Justice in Western Kansas, by Charlotte Hinger:

In July 1880, Niles wrote the following letter to the Millbrook (Kansas) Times, attracting statewide attention and soon national attention:

Allow me space in your columns to suggest an idea to the colored people throughout the United States, beginning in the State of Kansas, where the first precautionary step was taken regarding the rights of the down-trodden race, which right has never been secured and never will be without a concert of action. That action must consist in bringing suit against the U.S. government for damages to life, person and property, which according to the constitution and laws can be collected. The damage claimed is for the incarceration of slavery upon the whole race, for all of which the government owes us a compensation and must pay it or the constitution and laws will be disregarded and damned forever in the future. Therefore I, John W. Niles, as one of the aggrieved do assume the authority to call a state mass convention to be held at Nicodemus, Graham county, on Sept. 17th. Come one come all. It is hoped that all the friends of the race will be present. You are all respectfully invited to meet us on the occasion to hear and help us investigate the matter.

Another Exoduster echoed Niles call:

I, for one[,] highly endorse Niles’ unique idea and hope he will be successful in his masterly undertaking. It is true the way in which we were set at liberty without a single dollar or farming utensil to commence with, and it was better for us to have remained in slavery where we were looked after as other brutes; but since emancipation we were forced to steal our neighbor’s bread to save our lives and have thereby been made too dissipated and worthless to inhabit the earth. I wish Niles success. My sympathies are with him.

More from BlackPast.org

In 1880, Niles launched a campaign for slave reparations. He began on the county level by sending a letter to the Millbrook Times stating that the United States government owed African Americans compensation for the time spent in slavery. He called for a state convention at Nicodemus and hoped that all friends of blacks would be present. He began his oratorical career at that time. Then Niles progressed from crusading on the county level to attracting statewide attention. He even persuaded the esteemed Kansas State Senator, James Legate, to introduce a resolution backing his appeal for slave reparations.

In 1882, Niles left Kansas and moved to Lee County, Arkansas, after successfully defending himself from charges of swindling a local bank in Graham County. While in Arkansas, Niles formed the Indemnity Party and continued to lobby for slave reparations. With the backing of his Party, he took his campaign to Washington, D.C., where his fame as an orator continued to grow.

In 1883, he persuaded Ohio Senator John Sherman, brother of Civil War hero William T. Sherman, to present a petition to the United States Senate for slave reparations in the form of a large area of land designated exclusively for the settlement of African Americans. This petition was tabled at a later session by Kansas Senator John J. Ingalls. Following the defeat in the Senate, Niles stayed in Washington and was elected treasurer of a new immigration committee.

There are no extant records about the remainder of John Niles’s life. In 1884 he simply disappeared from the pages of history