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landed on the soil, I looked on the ground and I says this is free
ground. Then I looked on the heavens, and I says them is free and
beautiful heavens. Then I looked within my heart, and I says to
myself I wonder why I never was free before?"
John Solomon Lewis, on his arrival in Kansas
When the last Federal
troops left the southern states in 1877, Reconstruction gave way to renewed
racial oppression and rumors of the
reinstitution of slavery. Fearful for their lives, many African Americans began
to flee the south for
in 1879 and 1880 because of the state’s fame as a
Free-State and the land of the
John Brown. These many people were called Exodusters.
Kansas Exodus was an unorganized mass migration which began in 1879, led by several men
including Benjamin "Pap" Singleton. Though local relief agencies, such as
Freedman's Relief Association, tried to provide aid, but they could never do
enough to meet the needs of the impoverished refugees.
Appleton's Annual Cyclopedia for 1879 summarized it
somewhat like this:
"The attention of the country during
the past year has been attracted to the movements among the African-American
population, chiefly in the states bordering on the Mississippi River. There was
no appearance of organization or system among these people -- their irregularity
and absence of preparation indicating spontaneity and earnestness. Bands moved
from the plantations to the Mississippi River, and then to
St. Louis and other
cities, with no defined purpose, except to reach a state west of the Mississippi
River, where they expected to enjoy a new prosperity. Their movements received
the name of the 'Exodus.'"
Various theories have been advanced to account for this
unusual course on the part of the African-Americans. Some contended that the
exodus was due chiefly to the loss of political power by the blacks at the end
of the reconstruction period. Others insisted the African-Americans were
instigated by unscrupulous politicians in some of the Northern states with the
hope of securing their support in close elections. Another theory was that land
speculators in the new states west of the Mississippi circulated alluring
reports in the lower Mississippi Valley, and that the promise of "Forty acres
and a mule" was too tempting for them to withstand. But the chief cause of the
discontent among the blacks, and the one which led them to emigrate, was
probably stated by Governor Stone of Mississippi in his message to the
legislature of that state in 1880, when he said: "A partial failure of the
cotton crop in portions of the state, and the un-remunerative prices received
for it, created a feeling of discontent among plantation laborers, which,
together with other extraneous influences, caused some to abandon their crops in
the spring to seek homes in the West."
Benjamin "Pap" Singleton
One influence was at work; however, which was not considered
by the theorists of the time, was that the influence wielded by blacks who had
found homes in the North and West in their letters to friends and relatives in
the South. One of these men was Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, who located in Morris
shortly after the war, and who began the agitation for immigration as early as
1869. Singleton was president of a committee to invite African-Americans to come
to "Sunny Kansas."
He was from Tennessee, visited that state in his efforts to induce the blacks
there to emigrate, and in other ways was so active that he was designated as the
"Father of the Exodus." It is said that his favorite argument ran was something
"Hyar you all is potterin' around in politics, tryin' to git
into offices that you aint fit for, and you can't see that these white
tramps from the North is simply usin' you for to line their pockets, and
when they git through with you they'll drop you, and the rebels will come
into power, and then whar'll you be?"
It is not strange that Kansas -- the state where the great conflict began that ended in the
liberation of the slaves -- should be the goal of many of the "Exodusters."
The Kansas Monthly for April, 1879, referred to the movement as
a "stampede of the colored people of the Southern states northward,
and especially to the State of Kansas,"
and gave an account of a meeting held at
Lawrence, which adopted a
series of resolutions, one of which was as follows:
"In view of the fact that large numbers of these
immigrants are arriving in Kansas in a destitute condition, and need our aid and direction to enable
them to become self-sustaining, we believe that a state organization
for this purpose should be effected at the earliest possible moment,
and this philanthropic work in the hands of an efficient and
responsible state executive committee."
As a result, the
Relief Association was
established in May, 1879.
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