STAKE CLAIM OR TAKE FLIGHT: THE BIRTH OF SOUTHERN CONVENTIONS AFTER THE CIVIL WAR
Jenny Smith Fletcher and Z. T. Fletcher
Because Jenny Smith Fletcher was a Black woman and domestic emigrant in the nineteenth-century American South, information pertaining to her is limited and often slippery. We do know, though, that Fletcher was the first postmistress of Nicodemus, Kansas. By 1878, she founded Nicodemus’s first school in her dugout home, teaching forty-five students. These details suggest that Jenny was a trailblazing, intelligent woman. No children are documented as having traveled with her and her husband from Kentucky to Nicodemus in 1877.
The couple arrived with the first group of emigrants. Her husband and father are notable figures in Nicodemus’ history, too. Her father, W. H. Smith, was the president of the Colony and founder of Nicodemus while her husband was the first postmaster and an entrepreneur. She was also one of the original members of the AME Church of Nicodemus, which stands in the town today. From newspaper accounts, we learn that Jenny was a well-dressed and attractive woman, known as the milliner of Nicodemus. Jenny appears to have been a woman of many hats. To learn more about industrious women like Jenny Smith Fletcher, see this exhibit that features women as powerful economic agents in the 1830s.
Newspapers attest to Jenny’s important presence in early Nicodemus. In an article titled “The Colored Pioneers” from August 1886, the Atchison Daily Champion commended Jenny for being well dressed, attractive, and successful in her work as a milliner. The article is quite long and focused on an annual emancipation celebration that took place in Nicodemus. The paper recognized the event as “surpass[ing] them all” in “interest, enthusiasm and attendance.” The paper makes clear the Fletchers’ role as leading members of the community.
“There is quite as much beauty and style in the colored women of Nicodemus as one will see in older communities. The ladies were dressed neat and tastily, and their conversation indicates fine schooling. In the matter of dress, Mrs. Z. T. Fletcher, the pleasant and entertaining wife of the postmaster, is the milliner of Nicodemus, and she is proficient in her profession.”
Jenny was mentioned in a second time in the article, “The Colored Pioneers.” She was recognized for her care for the community:
“The daughters of Zion and Sons of Union, a benevolent order, with Mrs. Z. T. Fletcher, as President, Mrs. Melvin Davenport, Treasurer, and R. M. Burnside, Secretary, has a membership of 47. There object is a most noble one. They look after the welfare of members, caring for them in sickness, comforting them in their bereavement, supplying them with the necessities of life, and burying the dead of those who have been unable to provide for themselves. These orders were in the procession to the grove carrying their banners.”
It seemed Jenny was often in a care-giving role in Nicodemus: as a schoolteacher, a daughter of Zion, and a member of the AME church. The image to the right features the AME church in Nicodemus. It might have been the first relatively significant stone church edifice on Nicodemus town site. Congregation members built it with a native stone structure, and it was valued at $1000 in 1895. It is an outstanding example of a vernacular religious building with evidence of some detailing, such as arched openings and a vestibule. The church epitomized the progress of building on the town site: additions over time are distinguishable. Limestone was treated with stucco to temporarily deter facade and structural deterioration.
Census records provide a fascinating view into the lives of early Nicodemus residents. Documentation of the young Black town appears to have been sporadic and unregulated, often being written with different pens, scattered at times and smashed together at others. Demographic records about early Nicodemus neglect to mention Jenny, their first female resident. Even in records where other women are documented as wives or persons with significant titles in the community, there is no sign of Jenny. On the other hand, her husband can be easily found in the archive. Through his story, we can read the traces of her presence.
Zachary T. Fletcher, in addition to being the first postmaster, established the first hotel, St. Francis, and a livery stable in just three years after their original relocation in 1880. Sometimes titled “Zach” or “Zachariah,” census records list “W” for Jenny’s husband’s marital status in 1900.1 From this small moment in the archive, we learn that Jenny died earlier than her husband, who lived to at least 73 years of age.
 Year: 1900; Census Place: Nicodemus, Graham, Kansas; Roll: 481; Page: 3B; Enumeration
“The Fletcher-Switzer site was an important focus of activity on the Nicodemus town-site. The existing house and outbuildings are remnants of a complex with historic origins and functions. The house is one of the few remaining examples of early residential architecture left on the town-site. The first owner of the site was Z.T. Fletcher who was secretary of the colony which arrived in Nicodemus in July 1877. He and his wife lived in a dugout on the northwest corner of Block 12; Lot 12. There he opened a post office and she ran a school. In 1880, Fletcher built the St. Francis Hotel on Lot 10 and a livery stable on Lots 13 and 14. A limestone structure was eventually built around the dugout where they continued the post office until 1886 and ran an emporium while living in a residence on Block 14. After rail service failed to materialize, he sold his town lots to the original promoter, W.R. Hill, but continued to run the businesses. The site reverted to Graham County for a time but was bought back into the family in the 1920’s by Fred Switzer, a great nephew raised by the Fletchers. When Switzer married Ora Wellington in 1921 they made the hotel their home. He farmed in the township and she ran a restaurant in the residence and later rented out the bunk house.”1
 “The African-American Mosaic: Nicodemus, Kansas,” from https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african/afam010.html