After Reconstruction ended in 1877, white southerners sought to reassert their power and reverse African Americans’ recent political and economic gains. Increasingly, Black men faced discrimination and threats of violence at the polls. At the same time, many African Americans were forced into exploitative sharecropping contracts, and others faced unfair jail sentences if they refused the contract work.
From 1879 to 1880, these worsening conditions and the dim prospect of land ownership prompted around 20,000 “Exodusters” to migrate to Kansas as part of a mass “exodus” from the South. Kansas became a popular destination due to its romanticized reputation as a refuge for African Americans, its proximity to the South and navigable rivers and railroad lines, and the work of promoter Benjamin “Pap” Singleton. Singleton and his associates encouraged and helped Black migrants, mostly from Mississippi and Louisiana, to relocate to the state.
Thousands of Exodusters traveled through St. Louis on their journey to Kansas. This illustration, from the April 19, 1879 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, depicts the Exodusters’ arrival in the city at the height of the mass relocation. Many travelers regarded St. Louis as the “Red Sea” because they viewed it as a barrier to getting to the “promised land.” When they arrived in the city, most Exodusters had few resources and lacked the funds to continue their travels. In response, St. Louis’ African American community, particularly the St. Louis Colored Refugee Relief Board, led an effort to provide food, funds, and other necessities to the travelers. However, most donations came from outside of the city, as most white residents and city leaders did not welcome the Exodusters. The Exoduster issue became political because the city’s economy was tied to the Southern cotton industry and city leadership feared the mass movement of African Americans would negatively impact St. Louis. In an effort to dissuade Exodusters from relocating in the city, officials employed strategies like quarantining the travelers and issuing aggressive proclamations. As the movement came to a close, many Exodusters made it to Kansas, while some returned to the South, and even fewer remained in St. Louis.
Subject: African Americans
Contributing Institution: Missouri Historical Society
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Region: Kansas City Metro, St. Louis Metro