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Benjamin "Pap" Singleton
A leader in the "Great Exodus" that brought thousands of African Americans west from the post-Reconstruction South, Benjamin Singleton became toward the end of his life a pioneer of black nationalism who launched one of the first back-to-Africa movements in the United States.
Singleton was born in 1809 in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was several times sold as a slave but always managed to escape. Eventually, he fled to Canada, then settled in Detroit, Michigan, where he ran a boardinghouse that frequently sheltered runaway slaves.
Returning to Tennessee after the Civil War, Singleton became convinced that it was his mission to help his people improve their lives. He began in the late 1860's by organizing an effort to buy up Tennessee farmland for blacks, but this plan failed when white landowners refused to sell at fair prices.
Undaunted, Singleton set his sights on Kansas, where he and a partner named Columbus Johnson staked out a black settlement in Cherokee County (which failed) and a second settlement in Morris County. Singleton spread the word about his settlements through posters that circulated widely across the South, and he formed a company with Johnson that helped hundreds of black Tennesseans move to Kansas between 1877 and 1879.
Those who answered Singleton's call to head west became known as "Exodusters," and Singleton himself was described as the "Father of the Exodus." But the massive migration of African Americans from the South that reached a peak in 1879 was not inspired by Singleton alone. The driving force was the withdrawl of federal troops from the South in 1877, which marked the official end of Reconstruction and the return of racial oppression through segregation laws and the terrorist activities of groups like the Ku Klux Klan. By 1879, which became known as the year of the "Great Exodus," some 50,000 blacks had fled to freedom in Kansas, Missouri, Indiana and Illinois, while thousands more had been turned back by whites patrolling the rivers and roads.
In 1880, Singleton was called to testify at Congressional hearings on the alarming migration of blacks from the South. By 1881, however, Singleton had begun a new phase in his campaign to aid his people, organizing a party called the United Colored Links in a black section of Topeka, Kansas, called "Tennessee Town" because so many natives of that state lived there. Affiliated with the Greenbacks, a white workers' party that called for fundmental social change in the United States, Singleton's Links party was intended to help African Americans acquire their own factories and start their own industries. Unfortunately, Singleton soon discovered that there was not enough capital within the black community to achieve this goal.
Shifting his sights again, in 1883 Singleton founded an organization called the Chief League, which encouraged blacks to emigrate to the island of Cyprus. Few responded to his call, so in 1885 he formed the Trans-Atlantic Society to help black people move back to their ancestral homeland in Africa. By 1887, this group, too, had proven unsuccessful. Suffering poor health, Singleton was forced at last to retire from his self-appointed mission, and in 1892 he died in St. Louis. But his vision of a society in which African Americans owned the land, directed the industries and held the power would live on, finding a charismatic champion in Marcus Garvey, whose Universal Negro Improvement Association of the early 1920's briefly realized many of Singleton's dreams.
The exodus was immortalized in this classic Poitier film.
For more information: Nell Irvin Painter, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas Following Reconstruction (University of Kansas Press, 1986).
"Image and Reality on the Kansas Prairie: 'Pap' Singleton's Cherokee County Colony," Kansas History (Summer 1996).