In the decade after the Civil War, former slaves in the South searched for a way out. They were sickened and exhausted by the racist terrorism that had followed emancipation. Though freed from slavery, African Americans were routinely cheated, attacked and killed by whites who tolerated them barely, if at all.
“Blacks who realized that Southern whites viewed them as basically units of labor … insisted that Negroes would have to leave the South,” historian Nell Irvin Painter wrote in her 1976 book, “Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction.”
So they left. The so-called Exodusters moved west to Kansas. Some settled in cities like Topeka and Kansas City, and others established towns like Bogue and Nicodemus in the western part of the state. By 1880, thousands had taken part in what historians call the first major migration of former slaves.
This western exodus has been overlooked in many tellings of black history. But scholars are using it and other mass migrations to construct a new framework for studying black history and experiences. Moving beyond focusing only on slavery and its consequences, scholars have identified 13 distinct migrations that “formed and transformed African America,” according to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of the New York Public Library.
Some are well known. The transatlantic and domestic slave trades are the largest of the migrations and also the only ones that were involuntary. The Great Migration of the 20th century – the movement of blacks from the rural South to the cities of the North – is also a touchstone of popular history.
Others are less often discussed: Haitian immigration to the United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s; the movement of free African-Americans to the North in the 1840s; and immigration from Africa and the Caribbean since the 1970s. The voluntary migrations demonstrate independence and a willingness to make choices for a better life – what scholars call agency. “That’s action. That’s taking your life in your hands,” said Painter, a professor emeritus at Princeton. “That’s the very definition of agency.”
Black Migrations: How 13 migrations of African-Americans changed the nation
Sylviane Diouf, visiting professor at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, said studying migration compensates for a bias found in conventional depictions of black history.
“The slave trade, slavery, emancipation, Jim Crow and civil rights – it’s mostly what has been done to (African-Americans),” Diouf said. “But when you look at history through migration, you see how people were agents of their own future.”
Diouf and Howard Dodson, director emeritus of the Schomburg center, were the experts behind “In Motion,” a multimedia exhibit and research project on African-American migrations.
The migration timeline starts in the 15th century with the transatlantic slave trade. From 1492 to 1776, about 6.5 million people came to the Western Hemisphere. Only 1 million of them were Europeans; the rest were enslaved Africans.
“The transatlantic slave trade laid the foundation for modern capitalism, generating immense wealth for business enterprises in America and Europe,” the exhibit says. At the same time, the devastating effects in Africa paved the way for European colonization of the continent.
Dodson says the slave trade also created a unique New World culture.
“A lot of people think about Africa as a country, (but) it’s a continent with diverse ethnic, religious and cultural groups. The population that was enslaved was drawn from all of these,” Dodson said. “In the context of the slave experience, they transform into a new people, creating new languages, new religions, new forms of cultural expression.”
Most of the millions of slaves brought to the New World went to the Caribbean and South America. An estimated 500,000 were taken directly from Africa to North America. But those numbers were buttressed by the domestic slave trade, which started in the 1760s – a half century before legal importation of slaves ended.
“The domestic slave trade displaced about 1.2 million African-Americans from the upper South to the Deep South,” Diouf said. “People from Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina were forced to go by foot and by train to the Deep South to develop cotton plantations.”
The impetus was the cotton gin, invented in 1794. Eli Whitney’s machine lowered production costs and helped make cotton fabric affordable. The increased demand led to increased cultivation and created a plantation economy dependent on slave labor. Before Whitney’s innovation, about 700,000 slaves lived in the South. By 1850 that population had soared to more than 3 million, according to the National History Education Clearinghouse.
Emancipation after the Civil War brought the hope of freedom, but the reality was more oppression.
“Slaves prayed for freedom, and then they got it,” former slave Patsy Mitchner said in 1937 when interviewed for the Works Progress Administration’s oral history of slavery. “They was turned out with nowhere to go and nothing to live on. They had no experience in looking out for themselves, and nothing to work with and no land.”
Technically Mitchner was wrong. On Jan. 16, 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman issued a field order setting aside 400,000 acres in coastal Georgia, South Carolina and Florida for the new freedmen. But that order was short-lived. President Andrew Johnson, a Confederate sympathizer, returned the property to plantation owners in 1865 – just months after the assassination of his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln. Thus another promise was given and broken.
In fact, the only asset many former slaves had was their labor, Painter wrote in “Exodusters.” They rented the land they worked, usually paying white landlords with a share of the crop. The landlord kept the books, so the workers invariably came up short.
In her book, Painter quoted a letter that a freed slave from Texas, Jasper Arnold, wrote about his plight.
“We are hard working people here … and give hige rent and big interest … we work and work and everry year we jest cand come out evean,” Arnold wrote to the governor of Kansas around 1879.
Add in the violence visited upon freed people and conditions were truly abominable. In fact, Painter began researching the circumstances of former slaves because she had a question: Why did people stay in such a horrible situation?
“The answer was they didn’t,” she said.
The new freedmen initially headed west at the urging of recruiters like Benjamin “Pap” Singleton. He was born into slavery in 1809 in Nashville, Tennessee. When he was 37, he escaped and headed to Detroit. After the Civil War, he came back to Tennessee, where he tried to help blacks buy land. When that failed, he traveled the South, organizing blacks to resettle in Kansas. He eventually headed west with 300 homesteaders in 1873.
His colonies eventually faltered, but his efforts flourished. As conditions in the South became more unbearable, blacks left by the thousands in a movement Harper’s Magazine called “The Great Negro Exodus.” Because of Singleton’s fliers, many blacks headed to Kansas. But they went north as well.
In fact, so many left the South that a Senate committee investigated the matter. Conspiracy theorists at the time claimed Republicans were settling freedmen in states like Indiana and Kansas for political gain. But a minority report blamed the crisis on repressive Southern Democrats, while noting how leaders like Singleton organized efforts to give blacks a new start.
“Here then, we have conclusive proof from the negroes themselves that they have been preparing this movement for many years,” the minority committee members wrote in 1879.
Such mobility placed blacks in the center of the American experience, which looks to movement as symbolic of freedom, and a means to start afresh.
“What was so devastating in slavery was the inability to move. Given that, we see lots of movement,” Painter said. “Americans are famously movers. Everywhere you look in American history, you will find people on the move.”
That movement continues into the 21st century. Since 1970, more Africans have come directly to the USA than were brought here during the slave trade. According to the Pew Research Center, 1.6 million African immigrants lived the United States in 2016. That’s more than double the 547,000 who lived here in 2000.
Dodson notes that migration is once again transforming not only the African-American community, but the entire country.
“Migration is not simply a demographic phenomenon. It’s cultural, it’s political, it’s economic. … Our presence changes the nature of the physical and cultural geography of the United States itself.”
Afi-Odelia Scruggs is a journalist and author of “Claiming Kin: Confronting the History of an African American Family.”
Black History Month commemorates the achievements of African-Americans throughout U.S. history.
USA TODAY NETWORK