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Exodusters

The end of the Civil War didn’t necessarily mean a better life for freed African Americans. In the South these same people who had farmed the cotton plantations as slaves, were now faced with renting farmland to make a living growing cotton. Tenant farmers as they were now called often couldn’t make enough to provide for their families. It was quite rare for a southern black to own his land. In addition violence upon blacks was increasing. Many families began to look for ways to leave the South.

Kansas seemed to be one solution. After all Kansas had been associated with freedom because of the events during the Bleeding Kansas era and the fame of John Brown.  In addition to this the ability to homestead made Kansas seem to be the ideal place to live. In 1855 the Kansas Territory census showed 151 free blacks and 192 slaves living in the territory.  Freed from slavery many began to come to Kansas during the 1860s and 1870s. In 1870 there were 17,108 blacks in the state.

NicodemusPart of the increase in the black population is credited to Benjamin “Pap” Singleton. Singleton, a former slave from Tennessee who had escaped to the north, returned to Tennessee after the Civil War with the dream of helping his fellow former slaves to improve their lives. Singleton encouraged his people to move to Kansas where they would be able to purchase land and establish a better life.  In 1873, he led a group of 300 to Cherokee County near Baxter Springs.  As the Cherokee settlement flourished he organized another colony to come from Lexington, Kentucky and settle in Graham County.  This settlement of Nicodemus grew and prospered for a time. However the prosperity soon ended when the railroad bypassed Nicodemus and built in a neighboring town. By 1880 the number of blacks living in Kansas had increased to 43,107.

Large numbers of blacks came between 1879 and 1881. These people were called Exodusters. The name comes from the exodus from Egypt during Biblical times. Most Exodusters arrived by steamboats landing in the river cities of Wyandotte, Atchison, and Kansas City. They had often traveled through areas riddled by Yellow Fever.  These people, often arriving sick with the fever, were not prepared to begin a new life.  Most came with little if any money. The cities were overwhelmed with the large number of needy persons.  Shelter and food had to be provided.  Wabaunsee County census 1880

On May 8, 1879, Kansas Governor St. John formed the Freedman’s Relief Association to help care for the people.  This group established colonies for the blacks, one in Wabaunsee to the west of Topeka, one in Chautauqua county, and another in Coffey county.  Black communities also formed within cities like Topeka and Kansas City.  Tennessee Town, Mudtown, Jordan Town, Mississippi Town, and Rattlebone Hollow, the names given to these communities, often reflected the growing prejudice against these newcomers.

Entry: Exodusters

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: June 2011

Date Modified: February 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.