The Southern Exodus, (4 May 1879) Baltimore, MD


Even before Reconstruction ended, many formerly enslaved people came to a discouraging realization. They faced the dim reality that the promises of emancipation, the impeachment of a southern president, and the passage of the Civil War amendments would not produce the kind of change they envisioned. The Compromise of 1877 instead sealed a different fate. Rather than protecting African Americans in the South, Republicans ultimately prioritized the re-suturing of the Union in the aftermath of the 1876 presidential election when federal troops were withdrawn from the confederate states.1 In privileging the union of white people over the equality of all, the federal government turned a blind’s eye to the vigilante violence and state-sanctioned carnage targeting southern Black people.2

Southern Black folks thus faced a dilemma: to rebuild their lives in the violent South—the only home they had ever known and the resting place of their loved ones—or leave the South in search of freedom in a new land among a new people. Recognizing the economic threats and violent outbreaks facing their southern communities, African American leaders stepped forward with competing plans to empower freed Black people. Some like Frederick Douglass encouraged African Americans to stake their future in the South. Others like Benjamin “Pap” Singleton mapped out escape routes.

The Exoduster movement emerged in the aftermath of Reconstruction’s failed promises of liberty, land, and labor. The movement involved a mass migration of free Black people from the South to the Midwest and other points north and west. In 1878 and 1879 especially, thousands left the South for a promised land in free states like Kansas—a destination point for those who escaped slavery and free Black people before, during, and after the Civil War.3 Exodusters were enticed to flee the South by such groups as the Real Estate and Homestead Association. These groups organized exit strategies from the South, launching from states like Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas, in route to “bloody Kansas”—a state known for John Brown and blocking slavery from its borders.4 Pap Singleton—who escaped slavery and aided the Underground Railroad—was called the “Moses” of the movement for his leadership of the mass exodus.5 To entice formerly enslaved people out of the South, Singleton helped secure tracks of land at rock bottom prices and planned segregated “colonies” for African Americans in rural Kansas.6 The Exodusters drew on the myths of the biblical “Exodus” to bind them through a shared history, culture, and religion—beliefs foundational to Black Nationalism.7 In groups and on their own, freed Black people took off for this promised land by foot, horseback, and wagon, landing in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado and other states like Indiana. They left the South behind at great risk to themselves as white planation owners tried to block their travel for fear of losing cheap labor.8

Leaders like Frederick Douglass, however, opposed the “southern exodus.” Douglass escaped slavery and prided himself on his “self-madeness,” his ethos as one of the most celebrated abolitionists, and his reputation as a “man of words.” He penned a slave narrative, edited an abolitionist newspaper, delivered speeches against slavery nationally and internationally, and wrote letters and editorials to aid the abolitionist cause.9 In the antebellum period, he consistently opposed African American emigration when abolitionists like Martin Robison Delany called for freed Black people to migrate to the Caribbean, Canada, and countries in Africa.10 Douglass argued during the pre-war era that Black people be given the same natural rights as white people accorded in the “Declaration of Independence.”11

Douglass reinforced his anti-migration stance in the post-war era. He delivered “The Southern Exodus” speech at the Centennial M.E. Church in Baltimore, Maryland before an audience of Black and white congregationalists on Sunday, May 4, 1879.12 Many within the African American community pushed back against his position, even “booing” him when he spoke publicly against the Exodusters.13 An editorial published in the National Republican the following day criticized his anti-migration stance. Capturing the sentiments of many Exodusters, the editorial writer argued that “so long as the late enslavers . . . control public affairs,” Black people will never receive “the rights of citizenship under constitutional . . . guarantees.” The writer ultimately blamed the U.S. government, charging that “The Federal Arm hung listlessly . . . while the late slaveowners have despoiled of his [Black people’s] rights of citizenship.”14

In the end, we see the prescience of both Douglass and the Exodusters. Douglass’s prophesy came true in that the Exodusters faced harsh conditions and lukewarm welcomes in the North and West, with many ending up destitute and segregated in impoverished encampments. Yet, the Exodusters also achieved important successes by starting the first kindergarten (Tennessee Town) for African American children west of the Mississippi in Topeka, Kansas. And Exoduster descendants (John and Charles Scott) were instrumental in building legal support for the precedent-setting Supreme Court case—Brown vs. Board of Education (1954)—the Topeka case that struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine.15 Exoduster communities like Nicodemus, Kansas also remain to this day as a monument to the courage of those who took some of their first steps toward freedom and self-determination.16


  1. William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), 299.
  2. Chandra Manning, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, 2017), 285-287; Heather Cox Richardson, West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 78-94; William Loren Katz, The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States (New York Touchstone Book, 1987/1996), 170.
  3. Richard Sheridan, “From Slavery in Missouri to Freedom in Kansas: The Influx of Black Fugitives and Contrabands into Kansas, 1854-1865,” in Kansas and the West: New Perspectives, ed. Rita Napier (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 164-168.
  4. Bryan M. Jack, The St. Louis African American Community and the Exodusters (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 2-5; Charlotte Hinger, Nicodemus: Post-Reconstruction Politics and Racial Justice in Western Kansas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), 3; Katz, The Black West, 170.
  5. Nell Irvin Painter, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976/1986), 108-109.
  6. Benjamin Singleton, et al., “Ho For Sunny Kansas,” Benjamin “Pap” Singleton Scrapbook, 25, n.d., Kansas Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas,
  7. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., Exodus!: Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 3-4, 6, 10, 15, 17.
  8. Bryan M. Jack, The St. Louis African American Community and the Exodusters (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 193.
  9. David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), xvii-xx. See also: Frederick Douglass, “Self-Made Men,” Address before the Students of the Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, PA, Folder 1, 1874, Manuscript/Mixed Material, Library of Congress,
  10. Martin Robison Delany, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States: Politically Considered (Philadelphia, PA: Self-Published, 1852), 35, 179, 191,
  11. Martha S. Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 90. Douglass made the case against “emigration” earlier in his career. See: Frederick Douglass, “Address of the Colored National Convention to the People of the United States,” Proceedings of the Colored National Convention, Rochester, New York, July 6, 1853, 11.
  12. Frederick Douglass, “Marshal Douglass, His Interesting Lecture at Centennial Colored M.E. Church,” Baltimore American, May 5, 1879, p. 1. The title of the speech is unclear. Neither versions of the speeches in the Baltimore newspapers (Baltimore American and Baltimore Sun) provided a title. John W. Blassingame and John R. McKivigan authenticated the speech by comparing both speech texts referenced in this unit. They titled the speech, “The South Knows Us: An Address Delivered in Baltimore, Maryland.” Yet the editors of Douglass’s papers do not explain the source of the title. The title used in this unit is “The Southern Exodus.” “The Southern Exodus” is the first heading in the Baltimore American version of the speech that we rely on for this unit. The New York Times referred to Douglass’s speech the following day as “Migration a Mistake” but there is no sense that this was the title Douglass used. See: Frederick Douglass, “Fred. Douglass on Whites and Blacks: His Opposition to Colored Exodus From the South,” Baltimore Sun, May 4, 1879; John W. Blassingame and John R. McKivigan, eds., “The South Knows Us: An Address Delivered in Baltimore, Maryland,” May 4, 1879,” in The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, Vol. 4—1864-1880 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991): 496-503; “Lessons of the Exodus:  A Lecture by Frederick Douglass—Migration a Mistake,” New York Times, May 5, 1879, p. 1.
  13. Some felt Douglass had sold out his own people to expand the electoral influence of African Americans in the South. See: “Report of the Minority,” Report and Testimony of the Select Committee of the United States Senate to Investigate the Causes the Removal of the Negroes From the Southern States to the Northern States, Part One (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880), ix.
  14. “Fred. Douglass and the Exodus,” National Republican, May 4, 1879, p. 1; Blassingame and McKivigan, eds., “The South Knows Us,” 496-503.
  15. “Tennessee Town History: From Freedom to the Future,” The Tennessee Town Neighborhood Improvement Association,; Sherrita Camp, African American Topeka (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2013), 44-45, 97. See also:  Brown v. Board of Educ., 347 U.S. 483 (1954),
  16. See: Shawn J. Parry-Giles and J. Michael Hogan, “Rhetorical History, the Public Humanities, and the Exoduster Movement,” Returning to Rhetorical History: Cases, Theories, and Methodologies, edited by Jason Edward Black and Kathleen Turner (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, forthcoming); Hinger, Nicodemus, “Introduction”; Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West: 1528-1990 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 139. Nicodemus was also a biblical figure addressed in John as a “ruler of the Jews” that Jesus said could be “born again.” See: Darcey Steinke, The Gospel According to John (New York: Grove Press, 1999), 6.