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Exodusters: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:05 End of Reconstruction…
  • 0:50 The Great Exodus and…
  • 1:43 Figures in the Exodus
  • 2:27 Exoduster Communities
  • 3:15 Life for the Exodusters
  • 3:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

In this lesson, we discuss the migration of thousands of African Americans from the Southern states to the Plains after the Civil War. Learn more about why these Exodusters left the South and how they tried to start new lives.

End of Reconstruction in the South

The Civil War may have helped bring an end to slavery in the United States, but it did very little to eliminate racial tension in the South. There was some progress toward racial equality during Reconstruction, the era following the Civil War focused on rebuilding and reintegrating the South, including the election of several African Americans to Congress.

However, when federal troops left the South and Reconstruction ended in 1877, Jim Crow laws, or laws that enforced segregation against blacks in the South, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, a race-based organization dedicated to white supremacy in the U.S., created a dire situation for many African Americans. Faced with the choice between staying in the South or leaving home in search of new opportunities, thousands of African Americans packed all of their belongings and headed west.

The Great Exodus and Exodusters

Between the late 1870s and into the 1890s, nearly 40,000 African Americans migrated to the Great Plains. This mass movement was called 'The Great Exodus,' and the people that moved were nicknamed the Exodusters.

Approximately 26,000 Exodusters settled in Kansas, which was considered almost like a holy land for many former slaves. Kansas was the site of a slave revolt led by John Brown, a white abolitionist from the 19th century who led an armed revolt against slave owners. There was also a fierce battle over whether or not Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. Ultimately, Kansas joined the Union as a free state, and African Americans viewed it as a place where they could have equal opportunities under the law. Kansas was such a desired location for the Exodusters that some called the mass migration there the 'Kansas Fever Exodus.'

Figures in the Exodus

Called by some, including himself, the 'Father of the Exodus,' Benjamin 'Pap' Singleton believed that it was his mission from God to help African Americans establish their own colonies. The ex-slave was also a land speculator and charged $5 per person to lead groups to open land in Kansas.

Singleton encouraged African Americans to take advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862, which provided up to 160 acres of land for $1.25 an acre. Even if few people could afford the cost of building a home and starting a farm, the idea of owning their own land was still very tantalizing to many former slaves. Singleton traveled through the South to promote the idea that Kansas was the land of freedom, sunshine, and opportunity.

Exoduster Communities

The largest community of Exodusters was in Nicodemus, Kansas. The first residents arrived in the fall of 1877 and did not find much there other than the Solomon River. Still, they did best they could and built dugouts and sod homes into the sides of the low, rolling hills. By 1880, about 400 people called Nicodemus home.

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