Kansas, which had been a sanctuary for runaways during the Civil War, continued to loom large in the minds of many African-American Southerners. Between 1870 and 1890, some thirty thousand migrants settled in the state. Kansas was the closest western state to the Old South that allowed blacks to homestead in the 1870s, and it became a magnet for land-hungry newcomers from Missouri, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, as well as such Deep South states as Louisiana and Mississippi.
The 1862 Homestead Act applied to Kansas and other western states and territories: settlers - regardless of their race or gender - could pay a small filing fee and receive 160 acres from the federal government. In return, they agreed to reside on the land, and improve it over a five-year period. After six months, they could purchase the property for $1.25 an acre.
Another factor pulling black migrants to Kansas was the state's powerful abolitionist tradition. Here, John Brown had first battled to free slaves, and here the first black soldiers joined the Union Army. Kansas had welcomed the Emancipation Proclamation and was among the first to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. "I am anxious to reach your state," wrote a black Louisianian to the governor of Kansas in 1879, "not because of the great race [for land] now made for it but because of the sacredness of her soil washed by the blood of humanitarians for the cause of black freedom."
After the Civil War, thousands of African Americans relocated to areas free of racial restrictions and violence.
The first of these "political migrations" was a mid-1870s exodus from Tennessee. It was led by Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, who recognized the limitations of Reconstruction-era political reform in the South.
Singleton had escaped a dozen times during his years of enslavement, finally reaching Canada as a passenger on the Underground Railroad. In 1874, while working as a carpenter in Nashville, he distributed a circular, The Advantage of Living in a Free State, encouraging migration to Kansas. At least ten thousand African Americans journeyed to the Sunflower State between 1874 and 1890, partly in response to his call.
In 1877, a white developer, together with six prospective black homesteaders from the South, founded the town of Nicodemus. They envisioned a self-sustaining, self-governing black agricultural community on the Kansas frontier. Named after a legendary African prince who purchased his freedom from bondage, the new town quickly captured the nation's attention. In July, the first thirty colonists arrived from Kentucky. They were joined the following spring by an additional 150 men and women from Tennessee, Missouri, and Mississippi.
Nothing in their experiences had prepared the migrants for life on the Kansas frontier. The flat, barren, windswept High Plains, known for blazing summer heat and bitter winter cold, were better suited to growing cactus than corn and wheat. One of the settlers, Williana Hickman, was dismayed to discover that the townsfolk lived not in houses, but in dugouts. "We landed and struck tents," she recalled. "The scenery was not at all inviting and I began to cry."
Despite their initial misgivings, Hickman and most of the early colonists stayed on. By 1880, 258 blacks and 58 whites resided in the town and the surrounding area. For African Americans across the country, Nicodemus became an important symbol of self-governance and economic enterprise.
But the town's prospects were always precarious and, in the 1880s, it underwent a steady decline. The winter blizzards of 1885 destroyed 40 percent of the wheat crop, and settlers began to leave. Two years later, the Missouri Pacific Railroad bypassed the town and, as was the case for hundreds of other communities cut off from the railway, Nicodemus's fate was sealed. After 1888, local boosters ceased trying to attract new settlers, and prominent citizens left the area.
In the summer of 1879, a few hundred people settled in Morris and Graham counties - the vanguard of some six thousand Southern African Americans who would join the exodus to Kansas.
Although the so-called Kansas Fever conjured up images of a leaderless movement of impoverished freed men and women, driven by blind faith toward a better place, it was a rational response to conditions in the South. When a St. Louis Globe reporter asked a woman with a child at her breast if she would return to her former home, she replied, "What, go back! . . . I'd sooner starve here."
But Topeka Mayor Michael C. Case spoke for many of his city's white residents when he refused to spend municipal funds to aid the Exodusters, as they were called, suggesting the money would be better used to return them to the South. The Topeka Colored Citizen, on the other hand, celebrated the migration: "Our advice . . . to the people of the South, Come West, Come to Kansas . . . it is better to starve to death in Kansas than be shot and killed in the South."
The Kansas exodus ended almost as suddenly as it had begun. Its demise was the result of neither white opposition, nor of the advice of leaders such as Frederick Douglass that African Americans remain in the South, nor of the machinations of swindlers who preyed on the people's gullibility. Rather, word filtered back that little free land remained and that many Exodusters were still destitute a year after their arrival. Southern blacks realized that Kansas was not the "promised land." Although migration from Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana continued after 1880, it never reached the level of the spring and summer of 1879.