As life in the South worsened after the Civil War, many African Americans considered leaving for more promising lands. Blacks understood that land ownership provided the economic foundation for political and social independence, yet most were unable to secure acreage for their families. This apparent lack of progress in the South motivated Benjamin "Pap" Singleton to initiate a westward colonization movement.
Benjamin "Pap" Singleton
Born in 1809 in Nashville, Tennessee, Singleton was an escaped slave who returned to the city following the Civil War to help his people. When an effort to buy acreage in Tennessee failed in the late 1860s, Singleton turned his attention to Kansas.
He described his motivation in testimony before the U.S. Senate in 1880:
"These men would tell all their grievances to me in Tennessee -- the sorrows of their heart. You know I was an undertaker there in Nashville, and worked in the shop. Well, actually, I would have to go and bury their fathers and mothers. . . . Well, that man would die, and I would bury him; and the next morning maybe a woman would go to that man (meaning the landlord), and she would have six or seven children, and he would say to her, 'Well, your husband owed me before he died. . . . You must go to some other place; I cannot take care of you.' Now, you see, that is something I would take notice of. That woman had to go out, and these little children was left running through the streets, and the next place you would find them in a disorderly house, and their children in the State's prison."
Singleton and his associates sent exploration committees to investigate Kansas in the early 1870s. Singleton himself later "went into Southern Kansas, and found it was a good country."
Unfortunately, the Singleton Colony in southeastern Kansas never carried beyond the planning stage. Although a few black families migrated to the area between 1875 and 1876, serious attempts to form a colony did not take place until 1877. Land was priced beyond the reach of most blacks, and the large influx seeking employment was more than the little town of Baxter Springs could handle. By 1878 Singleton had withdrawn from the failed project, and the black citizens were suffering. Relief efforts in 1879 and 1880 proved inadequate and many abandoned Cherokee County.
Very few African Americans arrived in Kansas with enough funds to start a farm or a business, and many were forced into economic conditions similar to those they had left behind in the South. One of Singleton’s delegations reckoned what it would cost African Americans to relocate to Kansas. Including the outlay for a team of good mules, a pair of plows, tools, lumber, the cost of digging a well, and $500 for transportation and provisions, it estimated that each migrant would need a minimum of $1,000. This was a tremendous sum for southern blacks in 1875.
Kansas: The Land of Opportunity
Despite these findings, many blacks in Tennessee held fast to the idea of taking up farms in Kansas. Some became renters or sharecroppers, while most simply worked as day laborers for the white population. It was not an advantageous situation, and many eventually abandoned the region. The 1880 federal census lists 90 African American households in Baxter Springs; although there were still 85 black households in 1885, only 38 had been part of the town five years earlier.
Singleton gave his followers the best advice he could and never intentionally led them astray, but adverse economic and social conditions in America overwhelmed him and the black settlers of Cherokee County. Singleton learned some hard lessons from the Baxter Springs experiment and, rather than accept defeat, endeavored to make his subsequent colonists more self-reliant. He also founded the Freedman's Aid Association, which provided important educational opportunities for blacks.
The failure to establish an African American colony in southeastern Kansas did not deter efforts in other parts of the state. In spring of 1878, Singleton redirected his efforts to a part of Kansas where cheaper land was available through the 1862 Homestead Act, and successfully established a colony at Dunlap in Morris County (central Kansas). The famous Nicodemus Colony in Graham County was established in the summer of 1877, and the Hodgeman County Colony was first settled in the spring of 1878.
Singleton’s attempts to form a colony in southeastern Kansas demonstrate the determination of black Americans to break free from the social and economic oppression of the South, and it served as a forerunner to the more worldly-wise Dunlap Colony. Thus it remains an important milestone in African American history. Blacks defied southern stereotypes and risked the only life they knew when they strove to become farmers on the Kansas prairie. Singleton was an inspiration to many who followed.
The flier pictured above announces a public celebration to honor Singleton’s efforts on the date of his 73rd birthday in 1882. It is on display in the main gallery of the Kansas Museum of History.
Entry: Exoduster Flier
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2002
Date Modified: April 2015
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.