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Exodusters of Kansas

 

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Heading to Kansas

 

 

"When I 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 Kansas in 1879 and 1880 because of the state’s fame as a Free-State and the land of the abolitionist John Brown. These many people were called Exodusters.

 

The 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 the Kansas 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

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 County, Kansas 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 like this:

"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 Freedman's Relief Association was established in May, 1879.

 

 

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