From 1846 ‘Runaway’ ad to the Exoduster Movement

Published 4:03 pm Tuesday, November 1, 2022

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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 a “mulatto,” which meant he was of mixed race.
Contrary to Weakly’s wishes, Singleton made it to Ontario, Canada, and would never be enslaved again. However, “Pap” Singleton — as he was called from that point onward — 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, 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.
“Brethen, friends & Fellow Citizens,” one of the company’s handbills said. “I feel thankful to inform you that the 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 was 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 Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana for destinations in Kansas, Missouri, Colorado 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, 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 Parsons [Kansas] Weekly Sun on January 15, 1880.
In fact, little is left of the small towns on the plains the Exodusters migrated. For instance, one occupied by more than hundreds 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 was largely settled by former slaves from Kentucky, has a handful of buildings, including a stone town hall that now serves the visitors center for the Nicodemus National Historic Site.
However, there’s 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 and which 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. 

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