Angela Bates, a Nicodemus descendant and historian, looked around Krehbiel Auditorium with a wry smile on her face and started to speak Wednesday morning at Bethel College. She had stories to tell, stories of slavery and the long-term effects that still linger in American culture today.
“It is the culture,” Bates said. “It has been there since slavery. … You can't just 'get over' something instilled in you generation after generation.”
She spoke of how families train black women to be independent, because of a prevailing thought that women can not count on black men. She then traced that back to slavery — when black men had little to no control of any aspect of their lives.
And women didn't either. It was that lack of control over their own lives that seeded deep divisions and distrust — and Bates called the root of many of the societal ills of today.
Bates was born in Nicodemus, a small town in Kansas that was settled by freed slaves after the civil war.
“It was quite a dynamic to understand,” Bates said. “To be born into a family where your siblings were born slaves and you were born free.”
Her family moved out of Nicodemus when she was young, heading to California. When they would return for a short time, she would love her time in the small town. She would later return, and has studied the history of the community — and the history of slavery as well.
The town of Nicodemus was formed by African-American slaves from Kentucky who came together in Graham County after the Civil War.
“I had a stereotypical look in my mind that all slaves were bent over picking cotton,” Bates said. “Not in Kentucky.”
In Kentucky, farmers grew hemp for use in rope factories. Slaves grew and harvested that hemp — until the Civil War. Kentucky converted to tobacco after the war as the slaves began to go free.
In Nicodemus relatives lived close to each other, starting businesses and creating a culture that was influenced by the years they had experienced in slavery.
Emancipation gave the former slaves the freedom to make choices about their lives and families. Motherhood, in particular, was very different, as women no longer had to fear that their children would be taken from them.
From mistrust of law enforcement to social taboos about interracial relationships, Bates spoke about modern issues that have their roots in the history of slaves in America.
“We have a lot of cultural differences that we never talk about,” Bates said.