Benjamin “Pap” Singleton called himself the “father of the Black Exodus.” Singleton and other grassroots black leaders developed the idea that former slaves should migrate to Kansas and other western homesteading sites, rather than remain in the South to suffer racial and economic oppression. Between 1869 and 1881 the Black Exodus idea swept southern black communities, none more than those in Middle Tennessee.
In September 1869 Nashville freedmen held their first meeting to discuss western migration. Randal Brown, a former slave who had suffered a recent defeat in his reelection bid for Nashville’s city council, urged freedmen to resist becoming common laborers and to move west and claim decent land before it was all gone. The initial meetings, however, convinced only a few hundred freedmen families to leave the region’s former contraband camps to settle on homestead land in Arkansas.
A grassroots leader, “Pap” Singleton was more successful in launching a local movement beyond Arkansas–to Kansas. Born a slave in Davidson County, Singleton escaped to New Orleans to avoid being sold by his master. When he was returned to Nashville, Singleton escaped again and made his way via the Underground Railroad to Canada, before moving to Detroit and then back to Nashville at the end of the Civil War. Singleton made a living as a cabinetmaker, mostly finishing coffins for the many freedmen who died in crowded, filthy conditions, particularly in the former Edgefield (East Nashville) contraband camp area near Singleton’s residence.
“Old Pap” and a local preacher, Columbus Johnson, organized a homestead association to promote settlement of freedmen in the western states, where 160 acres of land could be gained if the applicant paid a ten-dollar filing fee, lived on the property for ten years, and made improvements. Johnson preached and recruited in nearby Sumner County, where thousands of freedmen lived in former contraband camps in Hendersonville and Gallatin. While he peddled his services, Singleton encouraged the unemployed and landless freedmen to gain farms of their own. In 1872 his homestead association sent a committee to study settlement in Kansas. The next year, Singleton secured steamboat and railroad transportation for thousands, who left Edgefield to settle in Cherokee County, Wyandotte, and Topeka, Kansas.
In 1875 Singleton, William A. Sizemore, and Benjamin Petway called for a state convention to discuss migration to the West. The Nashville Bulletin, a Republican Party paper, blamed the Black Exodus on “inadequate labor prices and delays in paying the same” in its issue of April 29, 1875. The African American delegates formed the Colored Emigration Society with Nashville’s Nelson Walker as president. As reported in the April 29, 1875, issue of the Bulletin, the convention concluded that “To the white people of Tennessee, and them alone, are due the ills borne by the colored people of this state.”
Named for the Exodus in the Bible, the Black Exodus really took off in 1876, when thousands of destitute African Americans headed west, but many never reached Kansas because of lack of money and supplies. Singleton’s Edgefield Real Estate Association at No. 5 Front Street held several rallies. Singleton even inspired a group of freedmen in adjacent Kentucky to settle in Kansas. In June 1879 he founded a colony at Dunlap, Morris County, Kansas. One of Singleton’s settlements, Nicodemus, survived to become a modern town. Sometime after testifying to a congressional investigating committee about the phenomenal Black Exodus in 1881, Singleton died and was buried in an unknown grave in the West.
Overall, some 25,000 freedmen migrated from the South to Kansas. By 1880, according to the United States Census, 5,418 African Americans from Tennessee lived in Kansas. The mass departure of freedmen from Nashville alone numbered approximately 2,407 persons. However, few Americans, including the descendants of Tennessee freedmen yet living in Kansas and other western states, are aware that a Tennessean, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, led the Black Exodus to the West.