Washington, D.C., January 1880 – The big questions on lawmakers’ minds: why were so many Southern Blacks disappearing and where to?
The Senate formed an investigating committee to look at two main issues. Was it a secret plan to deprive Southern White manufacturers of cheap Black labor? Was it a Republican plan to move Blacks who couldn’t vote in the Democratic South to northern and western states where they could vote Republican, and turn the balance of power in Washington?
After interviewing 153 witnesses, the committee hit a clear answer: Blacks were so oppressed by violence and disenfranchisement that they just wanted to leave.
Among the witnesses were Benjamin “Pap” Singleton of Tennessee and Henry Adams of Louisiana.
Singleton and Adams would be credited with motivating up to 40,000 African American men, women and children to leave the South in 1879, according to the book “Black People Who Made the Old West” by William Loren Katz.
These people were called Exodusters – a handle that referenced both the windblown plains and the Biblical story of Exodus, in which the Israelites left their enslavement in Egypt to seek their promised land.
During the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, former soldier Henry Adams became dissatisfied with the treatment of Blacks, so he and others formed a committee that sent out agents to “see whether there was any state in the South where we could get a living and enjoy our rights.” No state fit the criteria.
They received no responses when they appealed to the U.S. government to set aside a territory for freedmen, or to fund repatriation to Africa, or from other nations to grant them settlement.
By 1879, Adams’ committee membership through the South had grown to 98,000, and many were restless to build new lives elsewhere.
Singleton had escaped slavery years before and been able to establish himself as a businessman. Determining that Blacks could not thrive as a group without economic freedom, he set about organizing efforts to buy real estate where Black communities could settle and support themselves.
After failed attempts to buy land from Whites in his home state of Tennessee, he hit upon using the federal government’s Homestead Act to enable people to settle out West.
The Homestead Act said that a homesteader had to file an application for $18, live on the designated land (usually about 160 acres), make improvements, farm it for five years, and then they could file for the deed for full ownership.
Singleton visited Kansas, thought the area prime for growth, and through his guidance, Exodusters sprouted communities there. He settled in Topeka.
When the five-man Senate committee of 1880 filed its final reports, the three-Democrat majority blamed Black “rabble rousers” and White “meddling” for the migration.
The two-Republican minority, however, wrote, “In the spring of 1879, thousands of colored people, unable longer to endure the intolerable hardships, injustice, and suffering inflicted upon them by a class of Democrats in the South, had, in utter despair, fled panic-stricken from their homes and sought protection among strangers in a strange land. Homeless, penniless, and in rags, these poor people were thronging the wharves of Saint Louis, crowding the steamers on the Mississippi River, and in pitiable destitution throwing themselves upon the charity of Kansas.”
They traveled hard roads, but in addition to settling in larger cities like Kansas City, Topeka, and St. Louis, African Americans established themselves in Nicodemus, Hodgeman, Morton City, Parsons and Dunlap, Kan.; Blackdom and Dora, New Mexico; Dearfield, Colo.; DeWitty, Neb.; Empire, Wyoming; Sully County, South Dakota; Langston, Boley and other towns in Oklahoma; and many smaller communities that we don’t know much about.
For more info on the Exodusters and Black Homesteaders, or to share your family’s story, visit www.unl.edu/plains/homesteading-research.