Exodus to Kansas
The 1880 Senate Investigation of the Beginnings of the
African American Migration from the South
By Damani Davis
In the spring of 1879, thousands of colored people, unable longer to endure the intolerable hardships, injustice, and suffering inflicted upon them by a class of Democrats in the South, had, in utter despair, fled panic-stricken from their homes and sought protection among strangers in a strange land. Homeless, penniless, and in rags, these poor people were thronging the wharves of Saint Louis, crowding the steamers on the Mississippi River, and in pitiable destitution throwing themselves upon the charity of Kansas. Thousands more were congregating along the banks of the Mississippi River, hailing the passing steamers, and imploring them for a passage to the land of freedom, where the rights of citizens are respected and honest toil rewarded by honest compensation. The newspapers were filled with accounts of their destitution, and the very air was burdened with the cry of distress from a class of American citizens flying from persecutions which they could no longer endure.1
This quotation is from the minority report of an 1880 Senate committee appointed to investigate the causes of a mass black migration from the South during the 1870s. For African Americans, the “redemption” of the South by former Confederates after the 1876 presidential election resulted in political disfranchisement, economic repression, and relentless terror. The joyful exuberance and hope evident among the “freedmen” at the end of the Civil War—and during the heady days of Reconstruction and African American political participation—had been dashed. Many black southerners sought to escape this predicament by leaving the region and migrating to states in the North and Midwest. Chief among these destinations was Kansas.