By Bill Carey
In 1846, Rutherford County slaveholder Robert Weakly published an ad in a Nashville newspaper offering $50 for the return of an enslaved man named Ben Singleton. In the ad, Singleton was described as “five feet five or six inches in height” and “a serviceable sprightly fellow.” He was also called a “mulatto,” which meant he was of mixed race.
Contrary to Weakly’s wishes, his ad did not result in the return of Singleton to captivity. Singleton made it to Ontario, Canada, and would never be enslaved again. However, “Pap” Singleton, as he came to be called, would be heard from again in the Volunteer State.
During the Civil War, Singleton moved back to Middle Tennessee and went to work as a cabinetmaker. As the war ended, he had high hopes for the future of African Americans in the South. But after the Ku Klux Klan became a force, like many others he became convinced that black people would never receive fair treatment in the South.
In 1874, Singleton and a Sumner County minister named Columbus Johnson cofounded the Edgefield Real Estate and Homestead Association. It went into the business of encouraging and helping African Americans move from Tennessee to Kansas.
“Brethren, friends & fellow citizens,” read one of the company’s handbills. “I feel thankful to inform you that the Edgefield Real Estate and Homestead Association will leave here the 15th of April 1878 in pursuit of homes in the southwestern lands of America, at transportation rates cheaper than ever were known before.”
Why Kansas? It had plenty of vacant land and few people. Also, the Homestead Act of 1862 said any U.S. citizen could lay claim to 160 acres of land there if they lived on the land for five years, improved it, and built a home on it. There was also something symbolic about Kansas, the state which had produced abolitionists such as John Brown.
In 1878 and 1879, hundreds of African Americans boarded steamboats in Nashville. From there they migrated to Kansas towns such as Dunlap, Parsons, Lawrence, and Topeka. Under Singleton’s leadership, as many as 10,000 people left Tennessee for Kansas in this manner.
The mass migration of African Americans from Tennessee to Kansas was part of a larger movement in the South that become known as the Exodusters. Large numbers of former enslaved men, women, and children left states such as Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee for destinations in Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
How did these migrants make out? Most had a hard time and were unprepared for the flat, treeless plains. Many of the migrants lived in dugout homes, which means they were practically living underground for a time, as was the case with a lot of Kansas pioneers.
Some didn’t remain in rural Kansas for long. They were run off by the lack of water, blizzards, prairie fires, and other difficulties of life in that part of the country. “Considerable suffering is reported among the Exodusters here,” reported the Kansas Parsons Weekly Sun on Jan. 15, 1880.
In fact, little is left of the small towns on the plains to which the Exodusters migrated. For instance, one occupied by 100’s of former enslaved people from Tennessee – Dunlap, Kansas – is now a ghost town with a large cemetery.
A four-hour drive away, the town of Nicodemus, which largely was settled by former slaves from Kentucky, has a handful of buildings, including a stone town hall that now serves as the visitors center for the Nicodemus National Historic Site.
There is a part of Topeka known as “Tennessee Town” because of the large number of former enslaved people who migrated there after the Civil War. In fact, some of the descendants of the Tennesseans who moved to Topeka were among the plaintiffs in the Brown v. Board of Education legal case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately resulted in the desegregation of all public schools.
Bill Carey is the founder of Tennessee History for Kids, a non-profit organization that helps teachers cover social studies.