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Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction

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  • John Brown (Abolitionist) (1800 - 1859)
    John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist who advocated and practiced armed insurrection as a means to end all slavery. He led the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856 in Bleedi...
  • Benjamin "Pap" Singleton (1809 - 1900)
    Benjamin "Pap" Singleton (1809–1892) was an American activist and businessman best known for his role in establishing African American settlements in Kansas. A former slave from Tennessee who escaped...
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    Henry Adams was a Louisiana leader who advocated the emigration of southern freed blacks to Liberia after emancipation. Born a slave in Newton County, Georgia on March 16, 1843, Henry Adams was origi...

Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction

Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction

The first major migration to the North of ex-slaves. "In 1879, fourteen years after the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands of blacks fled the South. They were headed for the homesteading lands of Kansas, the 'Garden Spot of the earth' and the 'quintessential Free State, the land of John Brown'....painter examines their exodus in fascinating detail. In the process, she offers a compelling portrait of the post-Reconstruction South and the desperate efforts by blacks and whites in that chaotic period to 'solve the race problem' once and for all."--Newsweek.

The Exodus of 1879 (also known as the Kansas Exodus and the Exoduster Movement) refers to the mass movement of African Americans from states along the Mississippi River to Kansas in the late nineteenth century, and was the first general migration of blacks following the Civil War. One of the most important figures of the Exodus was Benjamin "Pap" Singleton. To escape the Ku Klux Klan, the White League and the Jim Crow laws which continued to make them second-class citizens after Reconstruction, as many as forty thousand Exodusters left the South to settle in Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado. In the 1880s, blacks bought more than 20,000 acres (81 km2) of land in Kansas, and several of the settlements made during this time (e.g. Nicodemus, Kansas, which was founded in 1877) still exist today. This sudden wave of migration came as a great surprise to many white Americans, who did not realize that black southerners were free in name only. Many blacks left the South with the belief that they were receiving free passage to Kansas, only to be stranded in St. Louis, Missouri. Black churches in St. Louis, together with Eastern philanthropists, formed the Colored Relief Board and the Kansas Freedmen's Aid Society to help those stranded in St. Louis to reach Kansas.

The Kansas Fever Exodus refers specifically to six thousand blacks who moved from Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas to Kansas. Many in Louisiana were inspired to leave the state when the 1879 Louisiana Constitutional Convention decided that voting rights were a matter for the state, not federal, government, thereby clearing the way for the disenfranchisement of Louisiana's black population.

The Exodus was not universally praised by African Americans; indeed, Frederick Douglass was a critic of the movement. It was not that Douglass disagreed with the Exodusters in principle, but he felt that the movement was ill-timed and poorly organized.

By 1879 of the "Great Exodus", 50,000 freedmen known as Exodusters had migrated from the South to escape poverty and racial violence following whites' regaining political control across the former Confederacy. They migrated to Kansas, Missouri, Indiana and Illinois seeking land, better working conditions and the chance to live in peace. Part of Topeka, Kansas was known as "Tennessee Town" because of many migrants from that state. Most had no direct connection with Singleton's organized colony movement, but Singleton and his followers were sympathetic to their plight. Many white Kansans began to object to the arrival of so many desperately poor blacks into their state. Singleton stepped forward to defend the Exodusters' right to try to make better lives in the American West.

In 1880 Singleton was requested to appear before the United States Senate in Washington, D.C., to testify on the causes of the Great Exodus to Kansas. Singleton rebuffed the efforts of southern Senators to discredit the Exodus Movement. He testified to his own success in setting up independent black colonies and noted the terrible conditions which caused freedmen to leave the South. Singleton returned to Kansas as a nationally recognized spokesman for the Exodusters. Unfortunately, the arrival of so many poor blacks put more of a financial burden on the Dunlap Colony than the original settlers could bear. By 1880, the Presbyterian Church had taken charitable control of the settlement and made plans to build a Freedmen's Academy in the town. Singleton had no more dealings with his colony at Dunlap.

Exodusters was a name given to African Americans who fled the Southern United States for Kansas in 1879 and 1880. After the end of Reconstruction, racial oppression and rumors of the reinstitution of slavery led many freedmen to seek a new place to live.

Many migrated to, and then settled, primarily in Kansas because of its fame as the land of the abolitionist John Brown (1800–1859). The state was reputed to be more progressive and tolerant than most others. Separatist leaders such as Benjamin "Pap" Singleton had promoted it among black Americans.

At the time of the Exodus to Kansas, yellow fever ravaged many river towns along the way (in Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana for example). Because many of the black migrants who stopped over in these towns—coming by steamboat, train, or horseback—were poverty-stricken, it was assumed by those town and city officials that the Exodusters were a cause, primary because they contracted yellow fever from a yellow canary. This caused great alarm in such cities as St. Louis, which imposed unnecessary quarantine measures to discourage future migrants.

The Kansas Exodus was an unorganized mass migration which began in 1879. Local relief agencies, such as the Kansas Freedman's Relief Association, did try to provide aid, but they could never do enough to meet the needs of the impoverished migrants. The Exodusters continued coming to Kansas through the summer of 1880; then the movement died out. Nicodemus, Kansas is an example of an all black town settled during this period located in the northwest corner of Kansas.

Of note, however, western migration of African-Americans was not limted to the Exoduster period, and places like Quindaro, Kansas thrived for some period before, during, and after the Exoduster movement. Similarly, in following years (although not part of the original Exoduster movement of the 19th century) in the early 20th century black migrations to the American West and Southwest—generally known as the Old West -- would continue, and several additional all-black towns would be established, especially in Indian Territory, which was to become the current state of Oklahoma.



1870 - Census







1877 - The last Federal troops left the South and Reconstruction gave way to renewed racial oppression.



1880 - Census










1890 - Census