The Exodusters

Many people know about the Great Migration and are aware that thousands of Blacks fled from the South for Northern cities such as Chicago and Harlem in the early 1900s. However, this was not the only voluntary mass Black migration in American history.

The end of the Civil War marked a turning point in U.S. history. It signaled the beginning of a new era that, among other things, promised freedom to African slaves held in bondage, or at least those held within the confederate states. The post-war Reconstruction, initiated to help bring the confederate states back into the Union and smooth the transition to a non-slave society, lasted from 1865 to 1877. During this time, ex-slaves experienced a level of liberty and equality unlike any before. The passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments abolished slavery, granted citizenship, and guaranteed every male citizen the right to vote. These newly granted rights were supported by organizations such as the Freedmen’s Bureau. Its programs covered a wide variety of services: provision of emergency food, housing & medical aid; initiation and support for educational activities; an intermediary in setting up work opportunities and supervising labor contracts; and finally, acting as a legal recourse for equality for ex-slaves.

When Reconstruction ended in 1877, the support system and protections enjoyed by the freed slaves were terminated. In fact, the end of Reconstruction meant a return to pre-Civil War society and all the unjust prejudicial practices. The reality was that white southerners resented the removal of those institutions that had kept slaves subjugated and subordinate to white society. As early as 1865, hostile white southerners introduced black codes, effectively controlling the ex-slave population by limiting and inhibiting their newfound freedoms. Mainstream society and organizations like the Ku Klux Klan enforced these codes, practiced social and economic discrimination, and used terror tactics to keep ex-slaves from attaining equality. In the end, the plight of the freedpeople, in many cases, was no better than it had been during slavery.

Frustrated and demoralized by their ever-worsening situation, freedpeople began to look for a way out of their desolate situation. All around them were tales of the opportunities of the West, including stories of the exploits of black cowboys who seemed to have obtained some measure of freedom, equality, and prosperity. Benjamin Pap Singleton, an ex-slave cabinetmaker and carpenter, and others encouraged freedmen and freedwomen to take advantage of laws like the Homestead Act of 1862. This Act encouraged settlement on the Great Plains by offering grants of 160 acres of public land to people who would live on and farm the land for five years. The ex-slaves believed that only by migrating out of the South would freedpeople be able to live in peace, control their own destiny, and attain true freedom. Singleton began his migration crusade in 1868 and brought the first migrants to Kansas in 1869. He had minor success with black migration until 1876 when [mass exodus overwhelmed his efforts].

Between 1878 and 1880, approximately 15,000–20,000 [some sources estimate as many as 50,000.. and thousands more had been turned back by whites patrolling the rivers and roads, afraid to lose their cheap source of labor] freed people made the journey from Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas to settle in Kansas. These immigrants became known as Exodusters because their migration resembled the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, as documented in the Hebrew bible.

(via Votaw Colony Museum)

A great book about this moment in history is Nell Irvin Painter’s Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction.