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Voices and Votes: Edward P. McCabe, Political Pioneer


Edward P. McCabe, c. 1883. Courtesy of, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply. 

When Edward P. McCabe stepped off the train in Ellis, Kansas, hefted his bag, and set out on a 35-mile walk to the fledgling new town of Nicodemus with his friend, he was a man filled with aspirations and ideas. He was also taking the first steps to a political career that would shape the young state of Kansas. 

Born in New York in 1850, McCabe and his family moved frequently throughout the Northeast – Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine – during the pre-Civil War and Civil War years and when his father died, McCabe set his sights on New York City and began working as a clerk for the Shreve, Kendrick & Co. law firm on Wall Street. A few years later he headed west to Chicago and secured a job clerking for business tycoon and hotel magnate, Potter Palmer. By 1872, educated and connected, McCabe was appointed to the Cook County office of the federal treasury in Chicago as a clerk. His political career was in motion.  

Six years later, at the age of 28, McCabe was stirred by stories of Black migration and decided to take advantage of the free land made available through the Homestead Act and move west. In 1878 McCabe and his friend and political ally Abram T. Hall, Jr., who was the city editor of the Chicago Conservator newspaper, moved to the brand-new, all-Black town of Nicodemus. The two men set up a law office, specializing in real estate and land location. McCabe and his family had not been enslaved, and he had an interest in helping those who were building a free life on the high, arid plains of western Kansas. The business had the potential to be lucrative and further his political aspirations.   


Nicodemus, Kansas, 1885. Courtesy of, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply. 

Nicodemus, located in Graham County, was a town with purpose and promise. Founded by formerly enslaved people in 1877, Nicodemus was seen as a refuge – a safe place for African Americans to build new lives. It was the very first Black community west of the Mississippi River and is the only predominantly Black community west of the Mississippi that remains a living community today. With the forced removal of thousands of Indigenous people living in the area between the 1850s and 1870s, Kansas became a destination for Black farmers, families, entrepreneurs, activists, and businessmen wanting a fresh start and a fair shake.  

Earlier in the decade, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed and Kansas was the 25th state to ratify it. The amendment made it illegal to deny U.S. citizens the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But African Americans knew that although amendments may allow for rights, they do not ensure them. Voices and votes – advocacy and civic engagement – were critical to the success of this town and others like it, and McCabe and Hall immediately got involved.  

Given his experience in such matters and his interest in politics, McCabe was elected secretary of the Nicodemus Town Company, while Hall petitioned to make Graham County an official county in Kansas. The growing number of white settlers in the area had other ideas. Kansas Governor John Pierce St. John acknowledged the validity of Hall’s petition for county status and appointed him to complete the requisite census. In doing so, Hall became the first African American census taker in the United States.


A petition to Governor John P. St. John calling for Graham County to be recognized as a “bona fide” county, notarized by Edward P. McCabe, October 11, 1879. Courtesy of, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply. 

Between 1878 and 1880, Hall continued his work as a journalist and established himself as the official correspondent from Graham County. He sent letters and wrote persuasive columns to newspapers throughout Kansas. His skillful writing is credited with helping to shape Kansans’ favorable perception of the Nicodemus colony. Meanwhile, their land office became prosperous and, with frequent trips to Topeka, the two men became acquainted with African American politicians in eastern Kansas, and they soon became influential in state politics.  

In 1880, Hall departed Nicodemus for St. Louis while McCabe had a banner year in Kansas. He was elected to be the county clerk in Graham County, selected by the Kansas Republican Party to be a delegate-at-large from Kansas to the Chicago convention of the Republican Party, and he married Sarah Bryant, a friend from his days in Chicago. McCabe had linked his future and his fortunes on the success of Black settlements. The African American population in Kansas had grown from 17,700 in 1870 to 43,000 a decade later but it remained less than five percent of the state’s total population. McCabe wanted it larger. 

“The illustrious career of Edward P. McCabe is indicative of a political dream realized.” 

By his 32nd birthday, McCabe was elected to the post of state auditor, making him the first African American in Kansas to hold state office. The position was important and a key function of state government. State auditors were authorized to inspect all records of all departments and institutions of state government and to investigate any misuse in the disbursement of public funds. His election to this high-ranking position was impressive. He had only been in Kansas for five years. McCabe held this position for two terms between 1883 and 1887 before losing for re-election the third time.

After the loss, McCabe became the federal representative of the Oklahoma Immigration Society, a group of African Americans from Kansas who organized a real estate venture and moved to the new territory. McCabe ultimately went on to help establish approximately 20 towns in both Kansas and Oklahoma populated with Exodusters. 

Edward P. McCabe died in Chicago in 1920, survived by his wife, Sarah, and daughter, Lenore. McCabe and his wife are buried in the Topeka Cemetery.   

“The illustrious career of Edward P. McCabe is indicative of a political dream realized. A pivotal time in American history fostered his goals in a place and state that incubated opportunities for African Americans who dare reach for the stars,” shared Angela Bates, executive director of the Nicodemus Historical Society. “2023 marks another pivotal time in history as the country is divided along racial and political lines, and with the threat of losing our democracy front and center. To host the Voices and Votes exhibit is most timely, as we can participate in providing perspective and history to these issues.” 

Learn more about McCabe’s remarkable story and those of others in Nicodemus Politicians, the companion exhibition to the Voices and Votes: Democracy in America Smithsonian traveling exhibition presented by the Nicodemus Historical Society, in partnership with the Nicodemus National Historic Site. The exhibitions will be on display July 1 – August 13, 2023. Visit for more information.  


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