THE BLACK EXODUS
By the late 1870s, those blacks who had become convinced that the future held nothing for them in the South began to emigrate to the West, most of them to Kansas. Once there, many settled on the frontier to endure hardships for which even they were totally unprepared (Doc. 17, 25).
The movement itself sprang from unpretentious origins, but must be sought in the conditions of southern life. An 1874 contract for black agricultural laborers in Alabama (Doc. 2), indicates how much power to control the black work force rested in the hands of whites. The earliest organization established to promote emigration was founded in Tennessee in 1869 when 400 blacks decided to leave the state (Doc. 1). In 1873, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a fugitive slave from Tennessee who had escaped to Canada, returned to lead 300 Negroes to Kansas to start “Singleton’s Colony.” Already seventy when the exodus began, Singleton spent the remainder of his life organizing colonies and relief for Kansas settlers (see note 82). Apprehension that disfranchisement was eminent, weariness over the “interminable agitation,” and inadequate compensation, even the possibility “of ever receiving any reasonable remuneration” for faithful labor (Doc. 3, 20, 39), all accelerated the emigration of other southern blacks to Kansas. The causes of the exodus gained national attention by the late 1870s. Even the eastern newspapers, such as the New York Times, carried numerous articles about the gruesome details of oppression and suffering (Doc. 10–15).
Others saw the promised land in Africa, rather than in Kansas. In South Carolina the Liberian Joint Stock Steam Ship Company, founded in 1876, claimed to have enrolled 150,000 exiles for Liberia (Doc. 6). Richard H. Cain, a black congressman from the same state, wrote in 1877 that thousands were ready to leave for Africa (Doc. 7). This general groundswell of discontent erupted in 1879 and 1880 when thousands packed their meager belongings and vacated the plantations. Some, such as the 100 poor blacks from Arkansas who arrived in New York bound for Liberia, felt that they “would rather starve in Africa” than continue to be persecuted in the South (Doc. 30–34). But most seemed bent on going to Kansas. How this spontaneous movement developed, and how the grass-roots leadership functioned, is vividly illustrated in Document 36, the testimony of Henry Adams (see note 85), a Louisiana laborer who organized the local emigration movement to Kansas, before a select Senate investigative committee. Men like Henry Adams were the unsung “heroes” of the movement, which, like poet Langston Hughes’ figurative raisin in the sun, swelled and burst forth.
Reaction to the exodus was mixed. Many white southerners believed that the blacks were being led astray by subversives and attempted to stop the migration by nefarious means, such as the “Common Road Law” (Doc. 19). Others proposed that white immigrants could be an even better source of labor than Negroes (Doc. 5). Politicians of the race, such as W. p. B. Pinchback, a mulatto ex-governor of Louisiana, deplored the conditions under which blacks lived, but remained unconvinced that emigration would be “productive of more good than harm” (Doc. 10). The New York Times’ basic editorial policy was openly sympathetic to the exodusters, charging that there was little wonder that blacks chose “another and a better country” considering the systematic oppression which prevailed (Doc. 23). Other white northerners shared the Chicago Tribune’s ambivalence, believing that the only solution to the problem was for blacks to leave the South, even though fear was widespread that these poor freedmen would come north to compete with white workers. This, the Tribune lamented, would “only be changing the location of the race conflict.” These people agreed with the position expressed by President U. S. Grant that Santo Domingo should be annexed as a United States Territory and then utilized as a colony for Afro-Americans (Doc. 21).
Vol. II concludes with the Kansas Exodus, a short-lived movement which, for all its drama, revealed the problems of black workers rather than solved them. Vol. III primarily will examine the attempt by the Knights of Labor to create a solidified labor movement by black inclusion rather than exclusion.