The Exodusters

Exodusters was a term applied to African-American ex-slaves who fled the Southern United States and migrated to Kansas in 1879 and 1880. Reconstruction brought a different sort of racial oppression and and there were rumors of the reinstitution of slavery. These conditions prompted many former slaves to find a new and better place to live. A large number settled in Kansas due to its fame as the home of the legendary abolitionist John Brown (1800–1859).


Kansas had a reputation as being more progressive and tolerant than some others, and was well known among black Americans because of the efforts of such separatist leaders as Benjamin "Pap" Singleton. The Kansas Exodus, from which the term "Exoduster" is drawn, was really an unorganized mass migration, which began in 1879 and continued through the summer of 1880.

A Contemporary History of the Exodusters
By William G. Cutler (1883)
In 1865, by an amendment of the constitution, slavery was forever prohibited any place within the jurisdiction of the United States. At the close of the war the Freedman's Bureau was instituted, and continued in operation several years, to furnish some guidance and maintenance to the waiting mass of blacks, and to organize and set in some sort of running order the new system of labor which was to prevail in the South. After a trial of about a dozen years, the growing generation, growing up in freedom, weary of the restrictions and disadvantages under which they continually labored, and excited and in many cases deceived by the attractive stories circulated by parties traveling through the South, who represented to them that by coming to Kansas they would obtain forty acres of land, a mule, and provisions to last a year, felt their condition unbearable at home, and in some cases sacrificed everything in order to raise money to migrate to the promised land of rest and plenty. This condition of things prevailed most extensively in the States bordering on the Mississippi. The scheme of migration was opposed by many of the leading Freedmen--notably by Frederick Douglass--but the desire of a home and a "better chance" to live was too strong to be turned aside by arguments.

On May 7, 1879, a colored convention assembled in the city of Nashville, which was largely attended by delegates from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and South Carolina. The report set forth the various obstructions to the progress of the blacks, during the fifteen years since emancipation, which were attributed to prejudices of color and caste. It recounted the services of their people during the war, and demanded social and political equality. The subject of migration to the new States west of the Mississippi had already caused much excitement among the blacks, particularly in the States bordering on the Mississippi, many of the leaders, notably Frederick Douglass, opposing the movement. At the Nashville Convention, the following resolution was adopted:

Resolved, That it is the sense of this conference that the colored people should emigrate to those States and Territories where they can enjoy all the rights which are guaranteed by the laws and constitution of the United States, and enforced by the executive departments of such States and Territories; and we ask of the United States an appropriation of $500,000 to aid in the removal of our people from the South.

The excitement among the colored people at this time with the consequent disorganization of labor, threatened disaster to the Southern crops, and planters' conventions were held, to devise means to induce the laborers to "sustain their reputation for honesty and fair dealing, by preserving intact until the completion of contracts for labor-leasing which have already been made."

On May 5, there was a large attendance of planters and representative colored men at a labor convention which met at Vicksburg "to adopt such measures as will allay the excitement prevailing, or will enable them to supply the places of those laborers who have gone, or who may hereafter go to the Western States." Among others, the following resolution was adopted:

Resolved, That this convention call upon the colored people here present, to contradict the false reports circulated among, and impressed upon, the more ignorant and credulous and to instruct them that no lands, mules or money await them in Kansas or elsewhere, without money or price, and report to the civil authorities all persons disseminating such reports.

It is apparent from the above resolution, that many of the exodites looked to Kansas with extravagant and baseless expectations, created often by the exaggerated publications in the newspapers, and by the reports of speculators. The first refugees to Kansas reached Wyandotte in the beginning of April. By the 1st of August, over seven thousand had arrived in the State. A relief society was formed, with head-quarters at Topeka, and temporary barricks were erected at North Topeka, for the shelter of those who poured into the city. The following appeal to the friends of the colored people, shows the situation of affairs soon after the arrival of the refugees at Topeka:

TOPEKA, KAN., June 26, 1879.

The directors of the Kansas Freedman's Relief Association, in view of the present situation, deem it proper to make public this address, and ask the friends of the colored people to further aid in caring for the helpless and destitute refugees.

This is a matter not local to our State, but is one of national concern. It involves the solution of a great question, important alike to people of the whole country, and if properly met will go very far to work a cure of the ills of the freedmen of the South. If we prove equal to the occasion, and can assist these people who are seeking homes in the North, and utilize their labor, those who remain behind will discover a kindlier feeling and better treatment in the South.

In organizing this association, we are moved by two controlling motives. The first was one of humanity. Many of them were old and decrepit, and many young and helpless, and with few exceptions were destitute. They were landed on the river banks by hundreds, in the chilly days of early spring, after a long and tedious journey, fraught with hardships and privations. Many were sick and dying from exposure, and many were suffering for food, clothing and medical assistance. The simplest dictates of humanity demand immediate and organized effort for their relief.

Another incentive to meet this emergency was to maintain the honored traditions of our State which had its conception and birth in a struggle for freedom and equal rights for the colored man. She has shed too much blood for this cause to now turn back from her soil these defenseless people fleeing from the land of oppression.

We ave not sought to stimulate or encourage their migration hither. We have always endeavored to place before the colored people of the South the plain facts, hoping thus to properly restrain an improvident hegira based upon delusive hopes and expectations. We have also sought to impress upon them that other Western and Northern states possess equal advantages for homes for the laboring man. In brief, we have undertaken, so far as lies in our power, to provide for the destitute of these people, who come voluntarily among us, the common necessities of life, and to assist them in obtaining situations where they can earn a livelihood.

We have made an effort to establish a colony about fifty miles west of this city in Wabaunsee County. Finding that good land could be bought for $2.65 per acre, we are locating about thirty families on forty acres each. This is university land, one tenth to be paid down, and the balance in nineteen years at seven per cent interest. We have furnished for their use teams and some agricultural implements, built barricks to be used in common, and furnished rations. We also agreed to make the first payment for them. Some ground has been broken and planting done, but it was too late to realize much this season. This is an experiment, and so far seems successful; but it requires more money than we anticipated. The ultimate success of this colony must depend on future contributions. The refugees have established three other colonies--one in Graham, one in Hodgeman, and one in Morris County. The association is not responsible for these, but they will need assistance.

This association has taken charge of, and aided more or less, about three thousand of these people, and there are still here and on the way from St. Louis about four hundred more. We have received money from all sources, $5,819.70. We have expended and incurred obligations for the whole of this fund. A large quantity of clothing and blankets have been received, and we have a large lot of clothing now on hand. What we need is money with which to obtain shelter, medical assistance, and furnish transportation to such places as will give them employment. This we must have, or relinquish all further efforts at organized assistance to these refugees.

The good people who have already so generously contributed to the cause, have our sincere thanks.

All contributions should be sent to Gov. John P. St. John.

JOHN P. ST. JOHN, President.
JOHN FRANCIS, Treasurer.
P. I. BONEBRAKE, Auditor.
ALBERT H. HORTON, Chief Justice.
C. G. FOSTER, United States District Judge.
JAMES SMITH, Secretary of State.
J. C. HEBBARD, Secretary.
WILLARD DAVIS, Attorney General.
J. B. JETMORE, Board of Directors.

In spite of generous efforts on the part of the association the temporary barricks erected in North Topeka became over-crowded, the exodus continuing unabated through the winter of 1879-80, and increasing in the spring. During the winter and spring about $25,000 were expended in relieving them and aiding them to find employment. In March from 250 to 300 landed in Topeka every week, and there had already immigrated into the State between 20,000 and 25,000, increased during 1880 to 40,000.

A large number of these remained in Topeka, and have finally made themselves good and comfortable homes, but many were at first entirely incapable and unwilling to do anything for their own support, and had it not been for the energetic and untiring efforts of Mrs. Elizabeth L. Comstock, Mrs. Laura S. Haviland, and Mr. John M. Brown and other benevolent workers, both white and black, their condition, notwithstanding all that had been done, would have been deplorable.

During the first year of their residence in Kansas, about $150,000 were contributed to their support, and it was estimated that their total surplus earnings during the same period amounted to about $40,000, or $2.25 per capita. They bought and entered about 20,000 acres of land. The earlier refugees were from Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama, nearly all field hands, and incapable of any kind of skilled labor. Those who came in the winter of 1879-80 and later, were mainly from Texas, a portion of whom were forwarded into other States.

The Kansas Freedman's Relief Association, which worked so faithfully for the interests of the refugees, was organized as a corporate body at Topeka, May 8, 1879, and finally dissolved April 15, 1881. The Mission House and Barricks to be closed on and after May 1, 1881.

Prior to the great exodus of 1879-80, colonies of colored people had immigrated to Kansas and formed settlements. In 1873, Benjamin Singleton, President of the Tennessee Real Estate and Homestead Association, came to Kansas to make observations relative to the expediency of forming a settlement of colored people. Being convinced that the conditions were favorable, he returned to Tennessee and brought out his first colony, which he located near Baxter Springs.

A committee, of which Columbus M. Johnson was a member, visited Kansas soon after the organization of the Tennessee association in 1869, but although they reported favorably, the people were not yet ready to try their fortunes in a new country. In the fall of 1879 and spring of 1880, a large number of exodites from Tennessee located, under the direction of Messrs. Singleton and Johnson, in Morris and Lyon Counties. These were a very good class, nearly self-sustaining. Mr. Singleton traveled back and forward between Kansas and Tennessee regularly every year from 1875 to 1880, and has been instrumental in bringing to and finding homes for about 10,000 of his people in Kansas. He is now a citizen of Topeka, was seventy-three years of age on the 15th of August, 1882, and rejoices in the title of "Old Pap Singleton" the "father of the exodus."

Mr. Columbus M. Johnson moved to Topeka in 1877 as agent of the Tennessee association and is now General Agent of the Freedman's Aid Association of Dunlap, Morris Co., Kan. Dunlap, which point was selected by Mr. Johnson as a suitable location for a colony, is in the Neosho Valley on the line of the Missouri, Kansas & Topeka Railway. There are at this colony two primary schools of sixty pupils each, a school for adults, a business and literary academy, and a sewing school.

The Nicodemus Colony, from Kentucky, located in Graham County in 1877, but was unfortunate in getting settled so late in the season as to be unable to make any provision for the first winter. The site was selected by W. R. Hill, and every freedman was promised a lot for $5. Six hundred of the exodites of 1879-80, located at the place, which is about eighteen miles west of Stockton.

The Little Coney Colony located in Chautauqua County in 1881. It consisted of about fifty-six families, and was assisted to procure land and the necessaries of life by the Relief Association.

The Kentucky Colony was formed in Lexington, September, 1877, with the design of consolidating with the Nicodemus, but finally located in Hodgeman County about twenty-five miles north of Dodge City. It contained about 150 people.

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