In the winter and spring of 1879, after the end of Reconstruction, approximately five thousand former slaves fled economic inequality and increasing violence in the Lower Mississippi River Valley to settle in Kansas. Newspaper writers and other observers likened the grassroots migration to the ancient movement of Hebrews from Egypt, calling the migrants Exodusters. In Mississippi, freedpeople living in the rural Delta counties bordering the Mississippi River migrated in particularly large numbers.
After Reconstruction, Redeemer governments of white Democrats who had ruled the South before and during the Civil War passed laws to immobilize former slaves and preclude blacks from owning land. African Americans living in the rural counties and parishes of the Deep South faced the worst conditions. Organized violence made political participation prohibitively dangerous, and economic and agricultural policies trapped tenant farmers in cycles of debt.
As violence escalated and chances at landownership became more limited, pockets of southern blacks began to consider leaving the region. In the mid-1870s, groups in Mississippi sent letters of inquiry to Kansas officials and formed clubs to pool resources and funds for the migration. Several black families in the Delta counties of Issaquena, Warren, and Washington traveled to Kansas in late 1877 and encouraged other families to follow. In the next year, Kansas Fever caught on quickly, and more groups of blacks began to leave Mississippi spontaneously. By the winter of 1878–79, enough African Americans had left the state’s Cotton Belt that plantation owners began to worry about a labor shortage.
In the counties and parishes bordering the Mississippi River, where Mississippi and Louisiana blacks flocked to catch steamships up to St. Louis, authorities harassed prospective migrants and confiscated their belongings. The Exodusters nevertheless remained determined to leave, continuing to pour north from the Delta throughout the spring. Kansas Fever raged unabated until May, when steamboats stopped picking up Exodusters.
Most of the 1879 Exodusters who made it to St. Louis arrived without money, food, shelter, or a means of transportation to Kansas. The city’s Colored Relief Board, an ad hoc group of hardworking blacks, helped the Exodusters survive before national media coverage of the movement generated large donations from across the country. St. Louis’s white community and leaders reacted to the refugees indifferently and sometimes with downright hostility.
In Kansas, a historically free territory and the home of abolitionist John Brown, high-ranking officials greeted the Exodusters more warmly. A Quaker-run relief organization collected donations from old abolitionist networks that stretched all the way to England, helping Exodusters find housing and employment in several counties. The Exodusters themselves, though, did the heavy lifting of establishing communities and carving out new lives in Kansas.
Though African Americans migrated to Kansas and the Midwest from the South both before and after 1879, no other movement approached the intensity and spontaneity of the Kansas Fever migration. Most of the African Americans who left Mississippi in 1879 did not immediately succeed in purchasing land: the majority labored on farms, on railroads, in mines, or as domestics. But almost none of the blacks who made the journey returned to Mississippi. If the 1879 Exodusters did not find economic success or free land in the North, their participation in a spontaneous, grassroots movement defied the oppressive policies of post–Reconstruction Mississippi and spoke powerfully for freedom and against economic enslavement.
- Robert G. Athearn, In Search of Canaan: Black Migration to Kansas, 1879–1880 (1978)
- Roy Garvin, Journal of Negro History (January 1948)
- Nell Irvin Painter, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (1976)