Special to The Gardner News
They saw Kansas as the promised-land; home to abolitionist John Brown, a state seeking to increase its population, a place where you could taste and smell freedom. Kansas, with its rich, black soil and abolitionist roots promised a better life one where they, not the color of their skin, controlled their own destiny. So the Exodusters came, 26,000 strong, to forge a better life.
Exodusters are Black migrants who fled the South for Kansas in mass from 1878 to 1880 during the period after Reconstruction ended.
“The term is usually applied by historians to a fairly short period of time when slaves were migrating in large numbers from the Deep South,” explained Virgil Dean, historian for the Kansas State Historical Society. “They came from Louisiana and Mississippi as opposed to the migrants that came earlier from the Border States.”
After the Compromise of 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes pulled all Federal Troops from the South. This left Blacks with no support in the South.
The tide of politics had turned against them as Dixiecrats in the South took control of the government and placed great restrictions to the freedmen.
According to Robert Athearn in his book In Search of Canaan, “…the enactment of legislative codes so strict, and aimed so directly at blacks, northerners were not far wrong in their suspicions about a massive re-enslavement program being under way south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
So thorough were the codes that to say these people were second-class citizens was to assign them a higher rank than was the case.”
“Blacks who had opportunity are losing those by the late 1870s,” said Dean. “They are looking for opportunities. Groups of people were forming and moving north, seeking new opportunities.
Kansas got an extra large number of these migrants.
This was thought of as a place where blacks will be able to get ahead economically and with their treatment in the eyes of the law.”
Spawned by a changing tide in politics, many southern blacks felt they had no choice; they could stay and live at the mercy of the southern Dixiecrats, or they could move to the place that gave birth to the Civil War.
Kansas, by virtue of entering the Union as a freestate, indirectly led to the start of the War.
According to Dean, during this time Kansas was promoting itself to settlers across the country and Europe.
Homestead Law was opening the state up for settlement, and the population was growing with both whites and blacks.
“It was the quintessential Free State, the land of John Brown,” said Nell Irving Painter, author of Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction. “…old abolitionists, temperance Republicans ruled the state, and they held out precisely the same welcome to black settlers as to white.”
Two men, who never met and never worked together o the project, inspired the grassroots movement to migrate to Kansas. Henry Adams, a 36 year old faith doctor from Caddo Parish, La., and Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a 70 year old coffin maker from Nashville, Tenn., had little in common with one another except that they were both former slaves and they had a desire to see their people flourish . Both men recognized that this couldn’t happen in the South.
According to Painter, in the early 1870’s several small groups of men headed for Kansas and sent word to Singleton that homesteading in the state had proven to be a positive experience. Later, several families made the same trek to the state and reported similar findings. Singleton and a friend, Columbus Johnson, made several trips scouting land in the southeastern part of the state in the latter half of the 1870’s He established Singleton Colony in Cherokee County and began sending emigrants to the state.
When Singleton returned to Tennessee, he began advertising in newspapers and on fliers that he could supply information to all people, black or white, about moving to Kansas.
Adams story is different from that of Singleton, where Singleton may have, in part, been motivated by money, Adams was an activist. A former slave who managed to buy his freedom before being emancipated, Adams joined the Army where he learned to read and write. Following his discharge from the Army, he became a campaigner for black rights. He fought many injustices in the South, including waging allegations of voter fraud in his home state of Louisiana.
Adams eventually joined a committee to study the conditions of Blacks in the south and find solutions to the problems they faced. After scouting possible locations in the South, the group concluded that Kansas, Nebraska and parts of Colorado would provide better living and working conditions for the freedmen.
“They did go to other places, too. Kansas got an extra large number of these migrants. They came here for two reasons,” said Dean. “First, John Brown and Free Kansas and that identification with the state was really strong. You can see that in the newspaper writings of the time. Also, this is thought of as a place where blacks will be able to get ahead economically and with their treatment in the law.”
With both Adams and Singleton encouraging settlement in the state, the movement came in large waves. Blacks packed whatever they had of value and attempted to head west. There were roadblocks in the way, but their determination would carry them through.
White Southerners saw their cheap labor force leaving the area and they employed tactics tantamount to terrorism to put an end to it. They convinced the river boats to pass waiting blacks by and not allow passage; this caused blacks to form settlements along the Mississippi River as they continued to wait on River Boat passage. After more than a month, the boat captains conceded and many freedmen were allowed to board.
Southerners also arrested and “confiscated” money the exodusters had in their possession; for most it was all the money they had n the world. Some exodusters attempting to flee the south were intimidated with violence and murdered. The group traveled on faith, believing a better life lie ahead in Kansas.
“Exodusters had set out knowing nothing of Kansas, trusting entirely in the Kansas Fever ides,” stated Painter. “Although eyewitness descriptions often cruelly ridiculed the Exoduster’s faith, they caught the special character of the movement.”
Most of the former slaves had very little money; many used what little they had to reach the state. Once they arrived, without money or means, homesteading proved difficult.
“The Exodusters movement was hugely controversial because social services were completely overwhelmed,” explained Charlotte Hinger, Kansas historian and author. “Many of the exodusters were poverty stricken and had no means at all.
“Black churches had a very strong humanitarian tradition ad they did everything that they could to assist. There was the Freedman’s Bureau that provided all the assistance they could as well as other church committees. Basically it (the system) was overwhelmed.”
Most of the freedmen settled in the eastern part of the state, in Wyandotte and Quindaro, Atchison and Leavenworth, Topeka and Lawrence. Some traveled west to the established black settlement of Nicodemus.
Black settlers found similar economic opportunities here that the white settlers found but many didn’t have the same resources of the white settlers, Dean said. Kansas, as good as it was, wasn’t the Utopia many had been told about. While Kansas had a reputation for tolerance, it didn’t always live up to that image.
“Blacks had additional disadvantages, depending on where they settled or their situation. They didn’t always receive the treatment they had come to expect. There was prejudice,” Dean explained. “Even though they were expecting, and found more opportunity and more freedoms in Kansas then they had in the areas they left, they didn’t find a colorblind and egalitarian society. It was pretty rare in America to find that at this time. There were no Jim Crow laws, but in practice there was a lot of that,”
This story first appeared in a 2007 edition of The Gardner News.