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Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction Paperback – May 17, 1992
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“A genuine folk movement, the Exoduster migration has . . . been undeservedly ignored. Nell Irvin Painter has produced a book which rescues the Exodusters from obscurity and demonstrates her considerable talents as a researcher and writer.”
- American Historical Review
“What makes this book so important is . . . [that it] is the first full-length scholarly study of this migration and of the forces that produced it. . . . Most previous students have focused on nationally recognized black leaders; [Painter] calls for attention to the black masses.”
- David H. Donald, New York Times Book Review
From the Back Cover
'In 1879, fourteen years after the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands of blacks fled the South. They were headed for the homesteading lands of Kansas, the 'Garden Spot of the Earth' and the 'quintessential Free State, the land of John Brown'....Painter examines their exodus in fascinating detail. In the process, she offers a compelling portrait of the post-Reconstruction South and the desperate efforts by blacks and whites in that chaotic period to 'solve the race problem' once and for all.'--Newsweek
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The Exoduster movement involved the movement of approximately 6,000 southern blacks from the South to Kansas starting around 1876 and peaking in 1879. It was a reaction to the terrorism used by the planter class and the white authorities of that time to keep the blacks in their place politically and economically. The fact that blacks outnumbered the white planter class and their minions in parts of the South meant that "appropriate methods" needed to be used by these same people to prevent the black populace from voting.
A story worth telling and well told by the author. It is a well documented and footnoted book. The book pays homage to the courageous spirit of the Exodusters, but also provides a reality check against those that would have us conveniently forget terrible injustices in our history.
Something to remember as we go forward in our grand national adventures in this year of our Lord, 2007.
A fascinating story from a unique perspective.
There was talk of going to Africa, specifically to Liberia, but the cost to get there was out of the reach of the masses of poor freeman. They just wanted to left alone to live their lives in peace and dignity.
Unfortunately, only a small number were able to get to Kansas. There was a successful and concerted effort by the government to keep their cheap black labor in the South on the plantations, under near slave conditions.
When many of our ancestors got to Saint Louis waiting for a boat to take them across the river, the river boatmen were made to ignore the mass of humanity or the shores or suffer the consequences.
I recommend this book.
Stylistically, Painter has the odd habit of taking end paragraphs to both sum up the previous chapter and introduce the next chapter. It breaks the flow of the book and makes it difficult to read. Also at times, Painter seems to be saying too much too fast. Some of her ideas, the study of black schools and the racial politics that controlled them, and the lineage of the black spiritual/political leaders for example, are books in themselves.
Early on, Painter posits that class was just as important as race in the history of the Exodusters (vii). Respectable African-Americans, that is those who agreed with the Anglos, who had been to white schools and spoke like the whites, came out against the Exoduster movement, and for the political party of the planter. Interestingly enough, in the discussion of class issues, Painter doesn't touch much on the poor whites and how they felt about the black movement to Kansas. For example, whether it became easier for them to find work and buy land. Painter is silent on this issue, other than mentioning that poor whites had at one point united with poor blacks in political clubs (39).
Painter argues that it was the enactment of certain rules that led to the Southern black's desire to leave the South. These rules forced black membership in "clubs" that obligated them to vote a Democratic party line, required passes to move around freely, and attempted to stop them for owning property. The well-known poll tax (37) is an example of these rules that were an attempt to control and curtail the political power of the African American. These rules led to stress and that stress bred a desire to move whether it be to Africa, to Kansas, or to Oklahoma to establish that territory as a black state (259).
Painter does a good job of portraying the changing of the Exoduster leadership from the un-educated but intelligent Henry Adams and the spiritual leader Pap Singleton, who saw the move to Kansas as one of Biblical import and spiritually motivated, to the classically Anglo-educated leaders who emerged in the beginning of the twentieth century.
In the first section of the book, Painter brings out the fact that for the first time since the Civil War, whites felt challenged by blacks. Many former slaves could read, they had bolstered their self-esteem through Army service in the war, they were older, wiser, able to buy property and the white planters, their former owners, were running scared (5). Painter spends a lot of time discussing the political machinations of the blacks and how the whites used political separation to help divide and conquer. The many different ways the wealthy whites attempted to stop the blacks from gaining power are detailed: "bulldozing", the terroristic activities by the KKK and groups like them, by disarming them, or out arming them by theft from government armories, and by stopping their attempts at cooperative ventures.
Although Painter does say that some whites "helped" the Blacks by warning them of bulldozing attacks, she claims that this was merely an attempt on the part of the whites to bolster their own opinion, making them feel better about themselves, and to disenfranchise the blacks by proving that they could not take care of themselves without the outside paternalistic influence of the Anglos (18).
Part Two of Exodusters involves the big figures of the movement, Henry Adams and Pap Singleton, a man who saw himself as the sole reason for Kansas immigration and that immigration as a holy obligation. These men helped lead the movement that casted around for a new black homeland. Cyprus, Liberia, and Kansas were all under consideration. All the factors that Painter had enumerated in the first part led to the desire and madness for moving that eventually landed tens of thousands of migrants in Kansas with no means of support and no free land as they had thought.
Painter details the different groups of Exodusters. The first came from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, and then later waves from the Gulf States. He discusses the political upheaval which this massive migration caused in both the states from which they were leaving and to the territory in which they would soon arrive. Rents suddenly dipped in the regions they had left, leading planters to promise safe-conduct and better treatment. This was a promise that many of the Exodusters treated warily and refused to accept (211). Finally, when reaction from the exodus had begun to set in, the South began to realize that it must change. Leading newspapers, for the first time, advocated the sale of property to blacks (240). Still though, many Exodusters didn't return. Painter's figure is that, "in early 1880 roughly fifteen thousand migrants still remained in Kansas" (256).
Painter points out that while the Kansas Fever Exodus was mad and rushed, with no central leadership and little thought given to actually making a living once arriving in Kansas, in contrast, later moves would be well-thought out and carefully planned. Yet all that careful planning did not keep the Exodusters and their saga alive in the minds of most Americans. It is especially tragic that because of the fact that the Exodusters were second class citizens, little if any of their accounts were recorded. It is America's loss as we attempt to come to terms with our national Western myth that we do not have more accounts like the Exodusters with which to work.