After the Civil War and the Reconstruction era, the cattle industry grew, and so did the number of African American cowboys throughout the West, but the largest catalyst for population increase was a desire among African Americans to escape the South and migrate to a free state. In the 1870s and 1880s with the failure of the federal government to provide adequate amounts of land, jobs, education, and protection for the millions of newly freed African Americans, thousands left their Southern homes. In 1879, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a former slave from Tennessee, became known as the leader of the “Exoduster Movement.” Kansas-based white reformers, such as Elizabeth Comstock, reported that African Americans suffered atrocities in Southern states: “Hanging, shooting, whipping, and mutilation have not ceased.” Lynchings of African Americans actually increased nationwide between the 1880s and 1930s, totaling over 3,000 during the period.
Kansas was not immune from Jim Crow segregation, race riots, or violence. Newspapers recorded incidents of a lynching of an African American man in Fort Scott and white mobs attacking African Americans held in local jails in Leavenworth, Topeka, and Kansas City. Gordon Parks, author, photographer, and director, spent his early years in Fort Scott, which he fictionalized as Cherokee Flats in the 1963 novel, The Learning Tree. His memory of Kansas included tranquil hills and the smell of delicious barbecue, but he also detailed memories of segregated restaurants, schools, and graveyards in his writing. For example, Parks described the protagonist’s hometown as especially complicated because of its position so close to the Missouri border, where the laws “stood for equal rights, but the law...never bothered to enforce such laws in such books.”
The idea that Kansas had a particular claim to freedom still appealed to African Americans, who saw migrating to Kansas as a positive alternative to their current conditions. “Leave the south if you have to crawl, come where you can have some protection,” the Afro-American Advocate claimed. Many African Americans thought of making new starts in the relatively young state of Kansas, where the possibility of “growing up with the country” reflected their optimism for more freedom. Some white politicians encouraged rhetoric that portrayed Kansas as especially welcoming to African Americans. For example, Jacob Winter, a state senator and civil right proponent, referenced Kansas as “this State that was born free; this State that stood in the front ranks in the great contest for freedom.”
Pap Singleton’s fliers urging African Americans to “Ho for Kansas!” ultimately prompted tens of thousands of individuals and families to leave the South. In an issue of the Wyandotte Gazette, the Freedmen’s State Central Organization called on several counties to prepare for the influx of refugees from southern states because “the dictates of humanity, as well as the honor and good name of Kansas demand that the destitute of this class of people should not be neglected, nor permitted to suffer for the necessary wants of life.”
Although Kansas had claimed to be the quintessential “free state,” Exodusters did not necessarily find the absolute freedom and equality that they had hoped to discover there. New residents brought with them large hopes for land ownership, but could not always successfully negotiate the purchase of property from white landowners. Many had to rely on aid societies, such as the Kansas Freedmen's Relief Association, for food and supplies. Local aid societies also intervened with Exodusters to provide them support for acquiring housing, job training, and education.
African Americans often established “black towns” or neighborhood colonies as distinctly separate from white communities. Segregation in black towns often meant fewer prospects of buying land and increasing job opportunities, but segregation also meant that black communities could concentrate their efforts on social uplift in their own communities. For example, in 1877, when 300 migrants from Scott County, Kentucky settled Nicodemus in Graham County, Kansas, they established their own churches and a school. They also prohibited saloons or other “houses of ill-fame” within the colony’s first five years. The trustees of Nicodemus recruited new residents by posting advertisements that referred to their establishment as a “beautiful Promised Land.”
In another black town, Tennesseetown, founded in 1880 within the city limits of Topeka, residents developed neighborhood improvement clubs, created a community library, and sent their children to a school that claimed to be the first African American kindergarten west of the Mississippi River. Elisha Scott, an African American lawyer who attended the Tennesseetown Kindergarten as a child, went on to establish a career as a civil rights lawyer and helped to argue the Brown v. Board of Topeka case before the United States Supreme Court. The court case, initiated in Topeka, Kansas, would not bring a conclusion to the state’s frequent contests over the meaning of freedom, but would stand as another important watershed moment in their long and ongoing struggle for civil rights that would continue for decades.
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