Thursday, May 28, 2015


published on: 3/4/2004

Contributing Teacher(s): Caroline Helmkamp

Subject Area: Social Studies/Geography

Grade Range: Middle Grades (6-8), High School (9-12)

Materials Needed:



  • Build awareness of geographic factors behind post-Civil War black migration.

    Process Standards:

    • Goal 1.6 discover and evaluate patterns and relationships in information, ideas and structures

    Content Standards:

    • Communication Arts 3. Reading and evaluating nonfiction works and material (such as biographies, newspap...)
    • Social Studies 5. The major elements of geographical study and analysis (such as location, place, movement,...

      Time Allowance:

      Description: Students are asked to find the geographic reasons for black westward migration after the Civil War. -- Movement, Region

      Comments: Submitted by Missouri Geographic Alliance

      Classroom Component:


      Suggestions for Teaching

      Review the events preceding the end of the Civil War. How did geography shape those events?

      After reading the article ask student to identify the "push" and "pull" migration factors. How did geography shape these forces?

      Between 1870 and 1880, the number of African-Americans living in Kansas increased from 16,250 to 43,000. In the early 1870's, these people came mainly from Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. A person could catch a steamboat in Nashville, Tennessee, and travel to Kansas City for the price of $10.00. The ride from Nashville to Cairo, Illinois, cost $2.50; on to St. Louis was $1.50 more, and from St. Louis to Kansas City was between $5.00 and $6.00. Some of these travelers came by train as well.

      In 1877 and 1878, five groups of African-Americans came to Kansas from Lexington, Kentucky. In April, 1877, they founded the town of Nicodemus, Kansas. By 1880, there were 700 people living in Nicodemus. Some of them became farmers in the area, but some had to stay in eastern Kansas to work on farms, railroads, and mines or do domestic work to get enough money to move farther west.

      But the biggest movement of people occurred in 1879 and 1880. In the space of one year twenty thousand African-Americans went to Kansas. They came mostly from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, and the majority of them stopped over in St. Louis. Traveling on boats with names like the "Belle of Memphis," the "Grand Tower," the "Maud," and the "Fanny Lewis," former slaves left by the thousands for the promised land of Kansas.

      Why did they choose Kansas for their destination? Most of these people had no idea where Kansas even was. What "pulled" them to Kansas? What kind of place was it?

      Kansas at the time was trying to attract settlers, both black and white. There was plenty of homestead land with the promise of abundant crops. But for African-Americans there was something else. Their memories of slavery were still vivid, and the story of John Brown's exploits in Kansas gave a special quality to Kansas in the eyes of African-Americans in the Deep South. In fact, a myth grew up about the opportunities in Kansas available to the former slaves. Most of them believed (incorrectly, as it turned out) that each former slave would receive free transportation to Kansas, forty acres, plows, and rations to help get them started.

      There was also something which "pushed" these people out of Mississippi and Louisiana. The former slaves were now free; they had been made citizens by the Fourteenth Amendment, and the African-American men had gotten the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment. However, their living conditions in the South were often bad. Many former slaves lived in poverty as sharecroppers for white bosses. Many years they did not earn enough to make a profit, and they were often in debt to the white owner for supplies and rent. They saw themselves falling farther and farther behind, so that their lives seemed little better then when they were slaves. Also, the election of 1878 was marked by violence against the newly freed slaves. Many were frightened to vote, and some were killed for speaking out politically. They grew more and more afraid that the violence would get worse in the future, and that they would be forced to be slaves again. These fears "pushed" the African-Americans out of the South.

      By the hundreds and the thousands, they sold their homes and possessions, often at a fraction of their real value, and walked to the Mississippi River banks. There they waited to hail the next packet boat bound for St. Louis. No matter how little money they had, they preferred to leave the South and head for the promised land of Kansas. In fact, they often compared themselves to the Israelites fleeing Egypt for the promised land. Just as the Red Sea divided the land of slavery from the land of freedom for the Israelites, the African-Americans looked at St. Louis as the dividing point between their slavery and freedom.

      The trip from Vicksburg to St. Louis took about eight days at a cost of $4.00. Passengers who rode on the deck, as these people did, had to supply their own bedding and food. When they arrived in St. Louis, many of them had to get off the boat at the levee because they did not have the $3.00 to pay for the rest of the trip. During one month's time in 1879, over six thousand African-Americans unloaded at the St. Louis levee with nowhere to go. Many shivered in the cold and damp without proper clothing; the African-American community of St. Louis opened their homes and churches to these refugees and tried to help them with money for the rest of the trip. One young woman with a tiny baby was asked why she would make such a difficult trip. She replied that she'd rather starve in St. Louis than return to the South. During 1879 and 1880, twenty thousand Exodusters reached St. Louis.

      Some of the passengers who continued on from St. Louis to Kansas got off in Kansas City, Missouri, and chose to live there. Many more, however, knowing that Missouri had been a slave state, continued on to Kansas. They rode the few miles more and got off at Wyandotte, which is now Kansas City, Kansas.

      Poor Wyandotte; it was a small town of only five hundred people and in the month between March 15 and April 15, 1879, two thousand cold, hungry people arrived in their city looking for free land, mule, and plows.

      The people of Wyandotte did the best they could to help the thousands of new arrivals, but they soon realized that they could not resettle so many people so quickly. Finally, they refused to let the boats unload and sent them to Leavenworth, Kansas. When the same thing happened in Leavenworth, the boats were told to go on to Atchison, Kansas.

      There were also former slaves who migrated from Texas to Kansas. They came mainly from the counties of east central Texas such as Washington, Burleson, and Nacodoches. Some travelers went by railroad from Denison to Sherman, Texas, to Parsons, Kansas. Others traveled the approximately three hundred miles by wagon across Arkansas and part of the Indian Territory. Between November, 1879 and March, 1880, between three and four thousand African-Americans left Texas for Kansas.

      This mass migration of people lasted little more than a year. It seemed to die out almost as quickly as it had begun. But the people who left the southern states were determined that nothing would stand in their way. For them this "exodus" had the same intensity as when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt.



      Athern, Robert G. "In Search of Canaan, Black Migration to Kansas", 1879-80. The Regents Press of Kansas, 1978.

      Painter, Nell Irvin. "Exodusters, Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction". University Press of Kansas, 1986.

      "Post-Script" by Debra Doyle of Kansas City

      The Exodusters were greatly influenced by Benjamin "Pap" Singleton (1809-1892). Born a slave in Tennessee, he escaped to Canada and lived their until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Pap Singleton led the movement for the migration and colonization of Negroes from the cotton states to Kansas. He wanted black people to have their own community free from white competition. Pap singleton traveled the South promoting Kansas. In 1873, he founded the town of Singleton's Colony in Missouri. Over nineteen thousand African-Americans moved from the South to Kansas in a twenty month period. A congressional investigation stopped the exodus in 1881.

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