In the years immediately following the Civil War, black southerners did not suddenly leave the South for greater opportunities in the North or out West. Most freedmen placed their hope in Reconstruction, as their Republican allies sought to redeem the South and protect their newly-acquired political rights.
But Reconstruction did not go far enough. The freedmen were never given the allotments of land they’d been promised. The Southern state governments were all recaptured by former Confederates, and all federal troops left the South in 1877, leaving the former slaves to fend for themselves. With no protection, they faced unrestrained violence, especially in the areas along the lower Mississippi River, in northeastern Louisiana and western Mississippi.
In 1879, rumors started to circulate that the federal government was making plans to send boats up the Mississippi to transport black families to St. Louis and on to freedom out West. The promised land, where they hoped to build their new lives, was the state of Kansas.
Kansas had a strong abolitionist history. It was there that John Brown and other white abolitionists first took up arms against the slave South. During the war, Kansas had been a refuge for blacks fleeing slavery, and it was there that blacks were first armed to fight for the Union. After the war, the Republican government of Kansas was strongly in favor of black civil rights.
Believing that boats would arrive any time to take them away to freedom in Kansas, thousands of black families began to congregate on the banks of the Mississippi. The large numbers of people camped on the riverbank, the fact that they appeared to have no leader, and their faith that boats would come for them and that they would be welcomed in Kansas made them national news. Their story seemed like something out of the Old Testament, and they soon became known as “Exodusters.”
Riverboats did eventually begin picking up the crowds, and some 6,000 Exodusters made their way to Kansas.
Although there was neither enough land nor adequate public resources to meet the needs of these new emigrants, Kansas authorities did not turn them away. At both state and local levels, the authorities worked to blend the new arrivals into the state’s growing urban economy. Although many Exodusters had to give up their dreams of land ownership for service jobs in Topeka and other railroad towns, for many it was good enough to be safely out of the South.