Exodusters–Voting with one’s feet

                  One of the greatest rights any person can hold is the “right to exit,” that is, the right and ability to depart a bad situation in search of a better one.  With the failure and end of post-Civil War Reconstruction in 1877, numerous ex-slaves voted with their feet, leaving the South for the American West.  The 1870s and 1880s witnessed the beginning of the plains settlement boom, and blacks migrated in significant numbers to western Kansas, western Nebraska, and Oklahoma.  Known as Exodusters, these blacks shook the dust of southern prejudice off their feet.  The Homestead Act of 1862, one of the most liberal and republican of all American laws, did not discriminate on basis of race, and any black males or single black females were welcome to take up a government-provided homestead.  Though records were poorly kept, almost 40,000 blacks migrated to the new communities.  Like many or the original European-derived Great Plains communities, few of these black Gilded Age settlements remain at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  The most prominent of those still extant is Nicodemus in Graham County, Kansas.  It had been the earliest of the Exoduster communities, founded in 1877.

                  The two most prominent individuals in the great exodus from the South were Louisianan Henry Adams, a former slave, and Benjamin “Pap” Singleton.  Both men mixed self-help philosophy and God-given drive with entrepreneurial boosterism to promote the black settlements.  “What’s going to be a hundred years from now ain’t much account to us,” Singleton said, and the “whites has the lands and the sense, an’ the blacks has nothin’ but their freedom, an’ it’s jest like a dream to them.” The promoters sent advertising circulars to black churches, mostly located in the border states and upper South.  Most of the Exodusters came from Tennessee.

                  The enterprise faced many obstacles.  First, many southern whites feared the loss of exploitable, cheap labor.  Armed throughout river ports in the South, whites physically prevented innumerable blacks from migrating.  Second, unlike the many European immigrants to the high plains who had first lived in the steppes of Russia, the blacks from the South had no experience with dry farming.  Continental weather patterns and very little rain hindered black agricultural efforts at first.

                  Still, the new settlers overcame these difficulties and created thriving communities.  “When I landed on the soil I looked on the ground and I says this is free ground,” one black settler said. “Then I looked on the heavens and I says them is free and beautiful heavens. Then I looked within my heart and I says to myself, I wonder why I was never free before?”  A Great Bend, Kansas, newspaper editorialized: “We have been so long aiding white people coming here that certainly no one would think of refusing the freedom of the state to a few hundred colored people seeking liberty and a home.  Treat the colored people exactly the same as if they were white people in like circumstances.”  By 1890, blacks owned roughly 20,000 acres in Kansas.  Inspired by the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, another 50,000 blacks settled in Indian Territory in the 1890s.  The leader of the Oklahoma migrations, Edward McCabe, desired the creation of an independent black state.

                  Blacks participated in more western activities than just farming.  A goodly percentage worked as cowboys or on railroads.  Most famous among western blacks were the so-called “Buffalo Soldiers,” who fought in several important Indian battles between the Civil War and 1890.  Stripped down to peacetime size after the Civil War, the frontier army relied heavily–sometimes exclusively–on black soldiers.  Buffalo soldiers served in campaigns against the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Comanche, the Kiowa, the Ute, and the Apache.  Black troops also protected the United States border against Mexican bandits.  Congress awarded fourteen medals of honor to black soldiers between 1870 and 1890.

–Brad Birzer