The Exodusters were African-Americans, typically emancipated slaves, that journeyed to Kansas after the Civil War. The legacy of these unique pioneers, traveling en masse to find a better life, has captured the state’s imagination, making them among the most memorable of Kansas immigrants.
The end of slavery did not mark the end of hardships for many of the blacks living in the South during the Reconstruction. Hard feelings simmered and all too frequently erupted among Southerners. Blacks were forcibly barred from entering voting places, while the Ku Klux Klan carried out their rampage of violence. Even the Northerners all too often used African-Americans as pawns for achieving political advantage.
While at first many freed slaves dabbled in ministry and politics, they often found themselves living in poverty and plagued by disease. In an effort to raise their condition, some turned back to the soil. Tenant farming was the norm among these blacks, as few could afford to buy land themselves, and even if they could black codes frequently prohibited sales of land to African-Americans.
Many African-American tenant farmers ended up working for their former masters at low wages, which was hard enough. When drought struck, little wonder that some blacks began to question whether or not they were really free.
The Promised Land
Steeped as many of the freed slaves were in the imagery of the Biblical Exodus, they could readily accept the idea of an escape from bondage and a journey to a better land. The question was, where could they go?
Liberia was discussed in several colonization conventions. However, the sea passage would be extremely expensive, and funds were lacking.
The established Northern states were out of the question. Not only had Northern profiteers proven themselves untrustworthy, too many African-Americans had journeyed that way already and ended up living in squalor. The newer, less populated regions of America held out more promise.
Foremost among the possibilities was Kansas. It had been the home of John Brown and other ardent abolitionists. Its statehood was founded on freedom. Its men had shed their blood for Lincoln and liberty in the Civil War.
On the practical side of things, Kansas was not that far from the South. Transportation as far as St. Louis was readily available, and once the Exodusters reached St. Louis their destination was not too far away. And the sunny Kansas climate was said to be superb for agricultural purposes.
But perhaps most influential was the fact that Kansas boasted a prophet ready to guide the people to freedom. Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a former slave himself, had already escaped to start his own life afresh at the outbreak of the Civil War. He had spied out the land and learned the best way to succeed in Kansas. He had already accurately prophesied:
Hyar you all is potterin’ around in politics, tryin’ to git into offices that you ain’t 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?
The favorable reports of Kansas that African-Americans in the South heard from Singleton and others of their race were encouraging. Early in 1879, rumors began to circulate.
It is hard to say precisely where the rumors came from. Somehow, however, it became common knowledge among the Southern blacks that Kansas had been set aside just for them. The Federal government was going to offer each African-American homesteader mules, farm implements, and 40 acres of land. Free transportation and lodging would be offered every mile of the way. And, as the crowning touch, General William Tecumseh Sherman himself would be there to conduct the blacks to their new homes.
The blacks already in Kansas warned the hopeful Exodusters that these rumors were untrue, but few listened. As soon as the weather turned fair, they were ready to move.