The Exodus to the West

Having come through the halcyon days of the Reconstruction only to find themselves reduced almost to the status of slaves, many Negroes deserted the South for the promising west to grow up with the country. The immediate causes were doubtless political. “Bulldozing”, a rather vague term, covering all such crimes as political injustice and persecution, was the source of most complaint. The abridgment of the Negroes’ rights had affected them as a great calamity. They had learned that voting is one of the highest privileges to be obtained in this life and they wanted to go where they might still exercise that privilege. That persecution was the main cause was disputed, however, as there were cases of Negroes migrating from parts where no such conditions obtained. Yet some of the whites giving their version of the situation admitted that violent methods had been used so to intimidate the Negroes as to compel them to vote according to the dictation of the whites. It was also learned that the “bulldozers” concerned in dethroning the non-taxpaying blacks were an impecunious and irresponsible group themselves, led by men of the wealthy class. 1

Coming to the defense of the whites, some said that much of the persecution with which the blacks were afflicted was due to the fear of Negro uprisings, the terror of the days of slavery. The whites, however, did practically nothing to remove the underlying causes. They did not encourage education and made no efforts to cure the Negroes of faults for which slavery itself was to be blamed and consequently could not get the confidence of the blacks. The races tended rather to drift apart. The Negroes lived in fear of re-enslavement while the whites believed that the war between the North and South would soon be renewed. Some Negroes thinking likewise sought to go to the North to be among friends. The blacks, of course, had come so to regard southern whites as their enemies as to render impossible a voluntary division in politics.

Among the worst of all faults of the whites was their unwillingness to labor and their tendency to do mischief. 2 As there were so many to live on the labor of the Negroes they were reduced to a state a little better than that of bondage. The master class was generally unfair to the blacks. No longer responsible for them as slaves, the planters endeavored after the war to get their labor for nothing. The Negroes themselves had no land, no mules, no presses nor cotton gins, and they could not acquire sufficient capital to obtain these things. They were made victims of fraud in signing contracts which they could not understand and had to suffer the consequent privations and want aggravated by robbery and murder by the Ku Klux Klan. 3

The murder of Negroes was common throughout the South and especially in Louisiana. In 1875, General Sheridan said that as many as 3,500 persons had been killed and wounded in that State, the great majority of whom being Negroes; that 1,884 were killed and wounded in 1868, and probably 1,200 between 1868 and 1875. Frightful massacres occurred in the parishes of Bossier, Catahoula, Saint Bernard, Grant and Orleans. As most of these murders were for political reasons, the offenders were regarded by their communities as heroes rather than as criminals. A massacre of Negroes began in the parish of St. Landry on the 28th of September and continued for three days, resulting in the death of from 300 to 400. Thirteen captives were taken from the jail and shot and as many as twenty-five dead bodies were found burned in the woods. There broke out in the parish of Bossier another three-day riot during which two hundred Negroes were massacred. More than forty blacks were killed in the parish of Caddo during the following month. In fact, the number of murders, maimings and whippings during these months aggregated over one thousand. 4 The result was that the intelligent Negroes were either intimidated or killed so that the illiterate masses of Negro voters might be ordered to refrain from voting the Republican ticket to strengthen the Democrats or be subjected to starvation through the operation of the mischievous land tenure and credit system. What was not done in 1868 to overthrow the Republican regime was accomplished by a renewed and extended use of such drastic measures throughout the South in 1876.

Certain whites maintained, however, that the unrest was due to the work of radical politicians at the North, who had sent their emissaries south to delude the Negroes into a fever of migration. Some said it was a scheme to force the nomination of a certain Republican candidate for President in 1880. Others laid it to the charge of the defeated white and black Republicans who had been thrown from power by the whites upon regaining control of the reconstructed States. 5 A few insisted that a speech delivered by Senator Windom in 1879 had given stimulus to the migration. 6 Many southerners said that speculators in Kansas had adopted this plan to increase the value of their land. Then there were other theories as to the fundamental causes, each consisting of a charge of one political faction that some other had given rise to the movement, varying according as they were Bourbons, conservatives, native white Republicans, carpet-bag Republicans, or black Republicans.

Impartial observers, however, were satisfied that the movement was spontaneous to the extent that the blacks were ready and willing to go. Probably no more inducement was offered them than to other citizens among whom land companies sent agents to distribute literature. But the fundamental causes of the unrest were economic, for since the Civil War race troubles have never been sufficient to set in motion a large number of Negroes. The discontent resulted from the land tenure and credit systems, which had restored slavery in a modified form. 7

After the Civil War a few Negroes in those parts, where such opportunities were possible, invested in real estate offered for sale by the impoverished and ruined planters of the conquered commonwealths. When, however, the Negroes lost their political power, their property was seized on the plea for delinquent taxes and they were forced into the ghetto of towns and cities, as it became a crime punishable by social proscription to sell Negroes desirable residences. The aim was to debase all Negroes to the status of menial labor in conformity with the usual contention of the South that slavery is the normal condition of the blacks. 8

Most of the land of the South, however, always remained as large tracts held by the planters of cotton, who never thought of alienating it to the Negroes to make them a race of small farmers. In fact, they had not the means to make extensive purchases of land, even if the planters had been disposed to transfer it. Still subject to the experimentation of white men, the Negroes accepted the plan of paying them wages; but this failed in all parts except in the sugar district, where the blacks remained contented save when disturbed by political movements. They then tried all systems of working on shares in the cotton districts; but this was finally abandoned because the planters in some cases were not able to advance the Negro tenant supplies, pending the growth of the crop, and some found the Negro too indifferent and lazy to make the partnership desirable. Then came the renting system which during the Reconstruction period was general in the cotton districts. This system threw the tenant on his own responsibility and frequently made him the victim of his own ignorance and the rapacity of the white man. As exorbitant prices were charged for rent, usually six to ten dollars an acre for land worth fifteen to thirty dollars an acre, the Negro tenant not only did not accumulate anything but had reason to rejoice at the end of the year, if he found himself out of debt. 9

Along with this went the credit system which furnished the capstone of the economic structure so harmful to the Negro tenant. This system made the Negroes dependent for their living on an advance of supplies of food, clothing or tools during the year, secured by a lien on the crop when harvested. As the Negroes had no chance to learn business methods during the days of slavery, they fell a prey to a class of loan sharks, harpies and vampires, who established stores everywhere to extort from these ignorant tenants by the mischievous credit system their whole income before their crops could be gathered. 10 Some planters who sympathized with the Negroes brought forward the scheme of protecting them by advancing certain necessities at more reasonable prices. As the planter himself, however, was subject to usury, the scheme did not give much relief. The Negroes’ crop, therefore, when gathered went either to the merchant or to the planter to pay the rent; for the merchant’s supplies were secured by a mortgage on the tenant’s personal property and a pledge of the growing crop. This often prevented Negro laborers in the employ of black tenants from getting their wages at the end of the year, for, although the laborer had also a lien on the growing crop, the merchant and the planter usually had theirs recorded first and secured thereby the support of the law to force the payment of their claims. The Negro tenant then began the year with three mortgages, covering all he owned, his labor for the coming year and all he expected to acquire during that twelvemonth. He paid “one-third of his product for the use of the land, he paid an exorbitant fee for recording the contract by which he paid his pound of flesh; he was charged two or three times as much as he ought to pay for ginning his cotton; and, finally, he turned over his crop to be eaten up in commissions, if any was still left to him.” 11

The worst of all results from this iniquitous system was its effect on the Negroes themselves. It made the Negroes extravagant and unscrupulous. Convinced that no share of their crop would come to them when harvested, they did not exert themselves to produce what they could. They often abandoned their crops before harvest, knowing that they had already spent them. In cases, however, where the Negro tenants had acquired mules, horses or tools upon which the speculator had a mortgage, the blacks were actually bound to their landlords to secure the property. It was soon evident that in the end the white man himself was the loser by this evil system. There appeared waste places in the country. Improvements were wanting, land lay idle for lack of sufficient labor, and that which was cultivated yielded a diminishing return on account of the ignorance and improvidence of those tilling it. These Negroes as a rule had lost the ambition to become landowners, preferring to invest their surplus money in personal effects; and in the few cases where the Negroes were induced to undertake the buying of land, they often tired of the responsibility and gave it up. 12

There began in the spring of 1879, therefore, an emigration of the Negroes from Louisiana and Mississippi to Kansas. For some time there was a stampede from several river parishes in Louisiana and from counties just opposite them in Mississippi. It was estimated that from five to ten thousand left their homes before the movement could be checked. Persons of influence soon busied themselves in showing the blacks the necessity for remaining in the South and those who had not then gone or prepared to go were persuaded to return to the plantations. This lull in the excitement, however, was merely temporary, for many Negroes had merely returned home to make more extensive preparations for leaving the following spring. The movement was accelerated by the work of two Negro leaders of some note, Moses Singleton, of Tennessee, the self styled Moses of the Exodus; and Henry Adams, of Louisiana, who credited himself with having organized for this purpose as many as 98,000 blacks.

Taking this movement seriously a convention of the leading whites and blacks was held at Vicksburg, Mississippi, on the sixth of May, 1879. This body was controlled mainly by unsympathetic but diplomatic whites. General N.R. Miles, of Yazoo County, Mississippi, was elected president and A.W. Crandall, of Louisiana, secretary. After making some meaningless but eloquent speeches the convention appointed a committee on credentials and adjourned until the following day. On reassembling Colonel W.L. Nugent, chairman of the committee, presented a certain preamble and resolutions citing causes of the exodus and suggesting remedies. Among the causes, thought he, were: “the low price of cotton and the partial failure of the crop, the irrational system of planting adopted in some sections whereby labor was deprived of intelligence to direct it and the presence of economy to make it profitable, the vicious system of credit fostered by laws permitting laborers and tenants to mortgage crops before they were grown or even planted; the apprehension on the part of many colored people produced by insidious reports circulated among them that their civil and political rights were endangered or were likely to be; the hurtful and false rumors diligently disseminated, that by emigrating to Kansas the Negroes would obtain lands, mules and money from the government without cost to themselves, and become independent forever.” 13

Referring to the grievances and proposing a redress, the committee admitted that errors had been committed by the whites and blacks alike, as each in turn had controlled the government of the States there represented. The committee believed that the interests of planters and laborers, landlords and tenants were identical; that they must prosper or suffer together; and that it was the duty of the planters and landlords of the State there represented to devise and adopt some contract by which both parties would receive the full benefit of labor governed by intelligence and economy. The convention affirmed that the Negro race had been placed by the constitution of the United States and the States there represented, and the laws thereof, on a plane of absolute equality with the white race; and declared that the Negro race should be accorded the practical enjoyment of all civil and political rights guaranteed by the said constitutions and laws. The convention pledged itself to use whatever of power and influence it possessed to protect the Negro race against all dangers in respect to the fair expression of their wills at the polls, which they apprehended might result from fraud, intimidation or bulldozing on the part of the whites. And as there could be no liberty of action without freedom of thought, they demanded that all elections should be fair and free and that no repressive measures should be employed by the Negroes “to deprive their own race in part of the fullest freedom in the exercise of the highest right of citizenship.” 13

The committee then recommended the abolition of the mischievous credit system, called upon the Negroes to contradict false reports as to crimes of the whites against them and, after considering the Negroes’ right to emigrate, urged that they proceed about it with reason. Ex-Governor Foote, of Mississippi, submitted a plan to establish in every county a committee, composed of men who had the confidence of both whites and blacks, to be auxiliary to the public authorities, to listen to complaints and arbitrate, advise, conciliate or prosecute, as each case should demand. But unwilling to do more than make temporary concessions, the majority rejected Foote’s plan. 14

The whites thought also to stop the exodus by inducing the steamboat lines not to furnish the emigrants’ transportation. Negroes were also detained by writs obtained by preferring against them false charges. Some, who were willing to let the Negroes go, thought of importing white and Chinese labor to take their places. Hearing of the movement and thinking that he could offer a remedy, Senator D.W. Voorhees, of Indiana, introduced a resolution in the United States Senate authorizing an inquiry into the causes of the exodus. 15 The movement, however, could not be stopped and it became so widespread that the people in general were forced to give it serious thought. Men in favor of it declared their views, organized migration societies and appointed agents to promote the enterprise of removing the freedmen from the South.

Becoming a national measure, therefore, the migration evoked expressions from Frederick Douglass and Richard T. Greener, two of the most prominent Negroes in the United States. Douglass believed that the exodus was ill-timed. He saw in it the abandonment of the great principle of protection to persons and property in every State of the Union. He felt that if the Negroes could not be protected in every State, the Federal Government was shorn of its rightful dignity and power, the late rebellion had triumphed, the sovereign of the nation was an empty vessel, and the power and authority in individual States were supreme. He thought, therefore, that it was better for the Negroes to stay in the South than to go North, as the South was a better market for the black man’s labor. Douglass believed that the Negroes should be warned against a nomadic life. He did not see any more benefit in the migration to Kansas than he had years before in the emigration to Africa. The Negroes had a monopoly of labor at the South and they would be too insignificant in numbers to have such an advantage in the North. The blacks were then potentially able to elect members of Congress in the South but could not hope to exercise such power in other parts. Douglass believed, moreover, that this exodus did not conform to the “laws of civilizing migration,” as the carrying of a language, literature and the like of a superior race to an inferior; and it did not conform to the geographic laws assuring healthy migration from east to west in the same latitude, as this was from south to north, far away from the climate in which the migrants were born. 16

The exodus of the Negroes, however, was heartily endorsed by Richard T. Greener. He did not consider it the best remedy for the lawlessness of the South but felt that it was a salutary one. He did not expect the United States to give the oppressed blacks in the South the protection they needed, as there is no abstract limit to the right of a State to do anything. He would not encourage the Negro to lead a wandering life but in that instance such advice was gratuitous. Greener failed to find any analogy between African colonization and migration to the West as the former was promoted by slaveholders to remove the free Negro from the country and the other sprang spontaneously from the class considering itself aggrieved. “One led out of the country to a comparative wilderness; the other directed to a better land and larger opportunities.” He did not see how the migration to the North would diminish the potentiality of the Negro in politics, for Massachusetts first elected Negroes to her General Court, Ohio had nominated a Negro representative and Illinois another. He showed also that Mr. Douglass’s objection on the grounds of migrating from south to north rather than from east to west was not historical. He thought little of the advice to the Negroes to stick and fight it out, for he had evidence that the return of the unreconstructed Confederates to power in the South would for generations doom the blacks to political oppression unknown in the annals of a free country.

Greener showed foresight here in urging the Negroes to take up desirable western land before it would be preempted by foreigners. As the Swedes, Norwegians, Irish, Hebrews and others were organizing societies and raising funds to promote the migration of their needy to these lands, why should the Negroes be debarred? Greener had no apprehension as to the treatment the Negroes would receive in the West. He connected the movement too with the general welfare of the blacks, considering it a promising sign that they had learned to run from persecution. Having passed their first stage, that of appealing to philanthropists, the Negroes were then appealing to themselves. 17

Feeling very much as Greener did, these Negroes rushed into Kansas and neighboring States in 1879. So many came that some systematic relief had to be offered. Mrs. Comstock, a Quaker lady, organized for this purpose the Kansas Freedmen’s Relief Association, to raise funds and secure for them food and clothing. In this work she had the support of Governor J.P. Saint John. There was much suffering upon arriving in Kansas but relief came from various sources. During this year $40,000 and 500,000 pounds of clothing, bedding and the like were used. England contributed 50,000 pounds of goods and $8,000. In 1879, the refugees took up 20,000 acres of land and brought 3,000 under cultivation. The Relief Association at first furnished them with supplies, teams and seed, which they profitably used in the production of large crops. Desiring to establish homes, they built 300 cabins and saved $30,000 the first year. In April, 1,300 refugees had gathered around Wyandotte alone. Up to that date 60,000 had come to Kansas, nearly 40,000 of whom arrived in destitute condition. About 30,000 settled in the country, some on rented lands and others on farms as laborers, leaving about 25,000 in cities, where on account of crowded conditions and the hard weather many greatly suffered. Upon finding employment, however, they all did well, most of them becoming self-supporting within one year after their arrival, and few of them coming back to the Relief Association for aid the second time. 18 This was especially true of those in Topeka, Parsons and Kansas City.

The people of Kansas did not encourage the blacks to come. They even sent messengers to the South to advise the Negroes not to migrate and, if they did come anyway, to provide themselves with equipment. When they did arrive, however, they welcomed and assisted them as human beings. Under such conditions the blacks established five or six important colonies in Kansas alone between 1879 and 1880. Chief among these were Baxter Springs, Nicodemus, Morton City and Singleton. Governor Saint John, of Kansas, reported that they seemed to be honest and of good habits, were certainly industrious and anxious to work, and so far as they had been tried had proved to be faithful and excellent laborers. Giving his observations there, Sir George Campbell bore testimony to the same report. 19 Out of these communities have come some most progressive black citizens. In consideration of their desirability their white neighbors have given them their cooperation, secured to them the advantages of democratic education, and honored a few of them with some of the most important positions in the State.

Although the greater number of these blacks went to Kansas, about 5,000 of them sought refuge in other Western States. During these years, Negroes gradually invaded Indian Territory and increased the number already infiltrated into and assimilated by the Indian nations. When assured of their friendly attitude toward the Indians, the Negroes were accepted by them as equals, even during the days of slavery when the blacks on account of the cruelties of their masters escaped to the wilderness. 20 Here we are at sea as to the extent to which this invasion and subsequent miscegenation of the black and red races extended for the reason that neither the Indians nor these migrating Negroes kept records and the United States Government has been disposed to classify all mixed breeds in tribes as Indians. Having equal opportunity among the red men, the Negroes easily succeeded. A traveler in Indian Territory in 1880 found their condition unusually favorable. The cosy homes and promising fields of these freedmen attracted his attention as striking evidences of their thrift. He saw new fences, additions to cabins, new barns, churches and school houses indicating prosperity. Given every privilege which the Indians themselves enjoyed, the Negroes could not be other than contented. 6

It was very unfortunate, however, that in 1889, when by proclamation of President Harrison the Oklahoma Territory was thrown open, the intense race prejudice of the white immigrants and the rule of the mob prevented a larger number of Negroes from settling in that promising commonwealth. Long since extensively advertised as valuable, the land of Oklahoma had become a coveted prize for the adventurous squatters invading the territory in defiance of the law before it was declared open for settlement. The rush came with all the excitement of pioneer days redoubled. Stakes were set, parcels of land were claimed, cabins were constructed in an hour and towns grew up in a day. 21 Then came conflicting claims as to titles and rights of preemption culminating in fighting and bloodshed. And worst of all, with this disorderly group there developed the fixed policy of eliminating the Negroes entirely.

The Negro, however, was not entirely excluded. Some had already come into the territory and others in spite of the barriers set up continued to come. 22 With the cooperation of the Indians, with whom they easily amalgamated they readjusted themselves and acquired sufficient wealth to rise in the economic world. Although not generally fortunate, a number of them have coal and oil lands from which they obtain handsome incomes and a few, like Sara Rector, have actually become rich. Dishonest white men with the assistance of unprincipled officials have defrauded and are still endeavoring to defraud these Negroes of their property, lending them money secured by mortgages and obtaining for themselves through the courts appointments as the Negroes’ guardians. They turn out to be the robbers of the Negroes, in case they do not live in a community where an enlightened public opinion frowns down upon this crime.

During the later eighties and the early nineties there were some other interstate movements worthy of notice here. The mineral wealth of the Appalachian mountains was being exploited. Foreigners, at first, were coming into this country in sufficiently large numbers to meet the demand; but when this supply became inadequate, labor agents appealed to the blacks in the South. Negroes then flocked to the mining districts of Birmingham, Alabama, and to East Tennessee. A large number also migrated from North Carolina and Virginia to West Virginia and some few of the same group to Southern Ohio to take the places of those unreasonable strikers who often demanded larger increases in wages than the income of their employers could permit. Many of these Negroes came to West Virginia as is evidenced by the increase in Negro population of that State. West Virginia had a Negro population of 17,980 in 1870; 25,886 in 1880; 32,690 in 1890; 43,499 in 1900; and 64,173 in 1910. 23Citations:

  1. “Atlantic Monthly”, LXIV, p. 222; “Nation”, XXVIII, pp. 242, 386.[]
  2. Thompson, “Reconstruction in Georgia”, p. 69.[]
  3. Williams, “History of the Negro Race”, II, p. 375.[]
  4. Williams, “History of the Negro Race”, II, p. 374.[]
  5. American “Journal of Social Science”, XI, p. 34.[]
  6. “Ibid.”, XI, p. 33.[][]
  7. “Nation”, XXVIII, pp. 242, 386.[]
  8. Williams, “History of the Negro Race”, II, p. 378.[]
  9. “Atlantic Monthly”, LXIV, p. 225.[]
  10. “Ibid.”, LXIV, p. 226.[]
  11. “Atlantic Monthly”, LXIV, p. 224.[]
  12. “The Atlantic Monthly”, XLIV, p. 223.[]
  13. “The Vicksburg Daily Commercial”, May 6, 1879.[][]
  14. “Ibid.”, May 6, 1879.[]
  15. “Congressional Record”, 46th Congress, 2d Session, Vol. X, p. 104.[]
  16. For a detailed statement of Douglass’s views, see the “American Journal of Social Science”, XI, pp. 1-21.[]
  17. “American Journal of Social Science”, XI, pp. 22-35.[]
  18. Williams, “History of the Negro”, II, p. 379.[]
  19. “In Kansas City,” said Sir George Campbell, “and still more in the suburbs of Kansas proper the Negroes are much more numerous than I have yet seen. On the Kansas side they form quite a large proportion of the population. They are certainly subject to no indignity or ill usage. There the Negroes seem to have quite taken to work at trades.” He saw them doing building work, both alone and assisting white men, and also painting and other tradesmen’s work. On the Kansas side, he found a Negro blacksmith, with an establishment of his own. He had come from Tennessee after emancipation. He had not been back there and did not want to go. He also saw black women keeping apple stalls and engaged in other such occupations so as to leave him under the impression that in the States, which he called intermediate between black and white countries the blacks evidently had no difficulty.–See “American Journal of Social Science”, XI, pp. 32, 33.[]
  20. “American Journal of Social Science”, XI, p. 33.[]
  21. “Spectator”, LXVII, p. 571; “Dublin Review”, CV, p. 187; “Cosmopolitan”, VII, p. 460; “Nation”, LXVIII, p. 279.[]
  22. According to the “United States Census, of 1910”, there are 137,612 Negroes in Oklahoma.[]
  23. See “Censuses” of the United States.[]


Woodson, Carter G. A Century of Negro Migration. Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. 1918.

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