Monday, June 18, 2012

Just Finished Reading

Two years ago I presented a paper at the National Underground Railroad Conference in Topeka, Kansas. During the welcome and introduction it was explained that the location of the hotel where the conference was being held was formerly known as "Tennessee Town" and was an Exoduster settlement. Naturally, from the study of American history I had heard of the Exoduster movement of the late 1870s and 1880s, but I didn't have much of an understanding of how it developed or know many of the tragic stories that its participants experienced. Nell Irvin Painter's Exoduster: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction did much to fill in the holes of my understanding and answered many of my questions.

Although this book was for sale at the conference, I passed on it at the time. Luckily I later found it for sale at my local library's "friends of the library" sale for next to nothing.

Painter paints a vivid picture of denied rights and physical violence toward African Americans in the South in the wake of the "Compromise of 1877," which landed Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House in exchange for the virtual end of Reconstruction troops and government in the former slave states that had not already been "redeemed." Once the few federal troops were removed, little protection was afforded to the freed people.

African American leaders' demands for the right to testify in court, serve on juries and participate more fully in elections without threats and the experience of violence went unheard by state and federal officials, so solutions were sought to remedy the problem. Some leaders suggested a move to Liberia, but costs proved prohibitive. Others suggested a move west. Black leaders and their followers associated Kansas with a more free existence. They saw the Sunflower state as the initial battleground of the Civil War and where the black man's friend, John Brown, had battled pro-slavery forces.

I was a little disappointed that Painter focused so much on the migration from the Deep South states, especially Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.  And, while the movement from Tennessee led by Nashvillian Benjamin "Pap" Singleton did come in for a good amount of coverage, the movement from Kentucky - one of the earliest Exoduster movements - received scant attention. The Kentucky contingent started probably the most famous Exoduster town of Nicodemus, Kansas. Possibly the Kentucky primary sources were not as available as those from Louisiana, but certainly the motivation from treatment of blacks from the Bluegrass state was terrible too.

I found it intriguing that, as Painter mentions, Frederick Douglass opposed the Exoduster's efforts. Douglass apparently felt that the worst that African Americans had experienced was over and that a brighter day was on the horizon. He felt they should stay put in the South and work to improve their lives where they were. Some Exodusters saw Douglass' sentiments as hypocritical in that the former great abolitionist had indeed fled slavery in Maryland and had moved to Massachusetts, then Rochester, New York, then Washington D.C. in effort to improve his lot in life.

Painter explains that comparisons between the Exodusters and the First Great Migration (roughly 1915-1930) are incorrect in that the Kansas movement was a rural to rural migration, while the First Great Migration was a rural to urban experience. The final paragraph of the book provides a thoughtful summary of the whole work:
"The Exodus presented proof that Afro-Americans did not quietly resign themselves to the political or economic order of the Redeemed South. They cared that their civil rights were extinguished; they missed public school education for their children; they minded that they were victimized economically unless they bargained away some of their rights. But lacking the classic took for public redress - the reasonably independent exercise of the vote - their alternative was flight. Exodusters on their way to Free Kansas said no, we do not acquiesce in Redemption; we do no believe that this is the way of American democracy. Yet, of the more than six million Blacks subjected to Southern rule, only a few thousand acted on their faith that a Promised Land of freedom and equality might exist for them somewhere in this country."

On a scale of 1 to 5, I give Exodusters a 4.25.

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