Judy Moore: African American migration after Reconstruction

Published 12:00 pm Friday, July 15, 2022

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During reconstruction, African Americans migrated to the western part of the United States — places such as Kansas and Oklahoma — because of persistent racism, segregation and a lack of economic opportunities.

In the beginning of reconstruction, blacks experienced a burst of political involvement in public office, voting without literacy tests and enjoying equal protection under the law due to the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which passed between 1868 and 1870 by Congress. Unfortunately, once the Democratic legislatures were in power, Jim Crow laws and the black codes surfaced and those agendas were meant to exclude African Americans from political office, job opportunities and safety from violence.

Consequently, blacks became involved in which was known as the Exodust of 1879, in which freed slaves, moved to Kansas from the deep South, and the Oklahoma Exodust. Kansas was advertised as a good place for blacks to settle after the Civil War and with the 1859 Kansas Constitution allowed people regardless of race or ethnicity to settle there with an avenue of opportunity emerging for African Americans.

According to the 1870 census, blacks made up 4.6 percent of Kansas’ population; in 1860 the population climbed from 6,237 to 17,108. Blacks settled primarily in eastern Kansas in Atchison, Douglas, Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties. In fact, the best known black settlement is in the town of Nicodemus. It was an all black town west of the Mississippi settled in 1877 by a group of freedmen from Scott County, Kentucky.

Nicodemus got its name from the legend of a slave who supposedly purchased his own freedom. In the beginning, due to scarce resources and difficult weather conditions, life was rough for the inhabitants. Organizations such as the Kansas Freedmen’s Relief Association assisted the exodusters. Furthermore, out-of-state help assisted the transplanted blacks. However, with the exodusters not being welcomed, a few of them relocated to the eastern part of Kansas or back down South, although many stayed on and the first school district in Graham County was organized in1879 in Nicodemus. With the concentration of African Americans spreading out over vast areas, no single town would have an influx of laborers.

Subsequently, because of racial tension from their white neighbors, many exodusters migrated to Oklahoma, while many made Kansas their home. The exodusters in Oklahoma were descendants of the Muscogee or Black Indians and they arrived in the1800s, escaping violence and racial oppression.

Even though segregation still existed, many African Americans settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and created what is known as the Greenwood District. Separated by railroad tracks — blacks on one side and whites on the other — Greenwood was a thriving community emerging with as many as 100 businesses, such as barber shops, beauty salons, libraries, restaurants, banks, law offices, a movie theater, etc.

Sadly, in 1911 a horrific event occurred when an angry white mob burned down the entire Greenwood District because of their anger at a black teenage boy who allegedly rolled a cart on a white woman’s foot in a hotel elevator. A church was the only building left standing with many people taking shelter there during the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Although many left after this horrendous attack on the Greenwood District, others stayed and rebuilt the community, making it stronger and displaying a resilience that inspires. A monument has been erected so that no one ever forgets what happened. In addition, an education center is being developed.

Finally, migration to the American west for African Americans demonstrated their determination and fortitude to forge a path that would enable them to live out their lives in freedom — freedom to have gainful employment, education for their children and a safe environment to enjoy those liberties.

Despite racism that rears its ugly head every century, black Exodusters established dynamic communities in Kansas and Oklahoma that embodies what we can accomplish with faith and inspiration.

Judy Moore, a tour guide at the Central High Museum lives in Wylliesburg and can be reached at v5agabond2@gmail.com.