Exodusters: 1879-1880

Exodust

Exodust

During the years immediately following Reconstruction, 1879 and 1880, there was a massive migration of former slaves from the South north to Kansas. Kansas was a common destination because it was a free state, it welcomed settlement by people of all races, and held symbolic importance as the home state of abolitionist John Brown. It was an “exodus” and the migrants who participated were called “Exodusters.” More than forty thousand mostly poor, uneducated southern blacks migrated to Kansas. Half of them came through St. Louis where they were aided by the local African American community and largely reviled by the white St. Louis civic and political establishment. It was all chronicled in the book The African American Community and the Exodusters, written by Professor Bryan Jack of Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina.

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Transcript:

Don Marsh: ONE OF THE MORE INTERESTING AND LITTLE KNOWN CHAPTERS IN THE HISTORY OF ST. LOUIS CONCERNS A MASSIVE MOVEMENT OF FORMER SLAVES FROM THE SOUTH WHO CAME THROUGH ST. LOUIS LOOKING FOR A BETTER LIFE MORE THAN A DECADE AFTER THE CIVIL WAR . FOR THEM ST. LOUIS WAS NOT A FINAL DESTINATION, BUT RATHER AN IMPORTANT STOP ON THEIR EXODUS. THOSE WHO PARTICIPATED WERE CALLED “EXODUSTERS.” SOME TWENTY THOUSAND TRAVELED THROUGH ST. LOUIS TO CONTINUE ON TO KANSAS, A WELCOMING FREE STATE CALLED “THE PROMISED LAND” BY THE EXODUSTERS. THE MIGRATION BEGAN AS RECONSTRUCTION ENDED. THEY ARRIVED IN ST. LOUIS BY STEAMBOAT PRIMARILY FROM MISSISSIPPI AND LOUISIANA. THOUSANDS MORE ARRIVED IN KANSAS FROM THE SOUTH TRAVELING BY WAGON, BY TRAIN, AND BY FOOT. MOST OF THE EXODUSTERS WHO CAME THROUGH ST. LOUIS WERE POOR AND UNEDUCATED, AND ONLY ABLE TO CONTINUE ON BECAUSE OF THE HELP THEY RECEIVED FROM THE ST. LOUIS AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY. THE HISTORY OF THAT PERIOD IS CHRONICLED IN THE BOOK ….“THE ST. LOUIS AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY AND THE EXODUSTERS” BY PROFESSOR BRYAN JACK OF WINSTON-SALEM STATE UNIVERSITY IN NORTH CAROLINA.

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Bryan Jack: They actually referred to St. Louis as the Red Sea because the name Exodusters they took from the Bible because they were leaving oppression and going to the promised land. And, one actually referred in a newspaper article in a St. Louis newspaper as “this is our Red Sea. We have to get through St. Louis to get to the promised land. So, they saw St. Louis, not as just a stop, but as a barrier that was standing in their way but was a barrier to them getting to the promised land. Which is interesting I think because it goes against the image of
St. Louis as a gateway to the west. Instead they’re saying it is was barrier.

338
IN THE LATE 1870s OLD BARRIERS WERE RETURNING TO THE SOUTH AS RECONSTRUCTION WAS ENDING, FEDERAL TROOPS WERE LEAVING, AND OLD WAYS WERE RETURNING.

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The gains that had been made during Reconstruction for African Americans were begin to be rolled back. The political rights that people had gained in the 13th ,14th ,15th Amendments, the 15th Amendment giving African American men the right to vote…all those rights begin to be taken away. White landowners and former slave owners begin to reassert their political power. Also their economic power. The southern economy was generally based on free African
American labor. Or as slavery ended, on as cheap African American labor as possible.

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AS ONE PAINFUL ERA WAS ENDING, ANOTHER WAS BEGINNING AS THE WHITE SOUTH SOUGHT TO RESTORE ITS ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL ITS PREVIOUS DOMINANCE OVER THOSE FORMERLY HELD IN BONDAGE.

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446 So, they were taking away political rights, economic rights, social rights. This is the very earliest stage of the Jim Crow system begin to be put into place. African American who had been voting since the 15th Amendment were violently dissuaded or killed as they tried to vote. People were forced into labor contracts and sharecropping contracts, thrown in jail if they were viewed as vagrants if they were not under contract to a white landowner. So on all three
fronts…politically economically and socially, African Americans were under attack in the South and this was a response to that. 518

THE RESPONSE? THOUSANDS OF SOUTHERN BLACKS DECIDED TO FLEE. KANSAS…THE FREE STATE…THE STATE THAT WELCOMED BLACKS…WAS THE DESTINATION OF CHOICE

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Some of the Exodusters refer to themselves as refugees. And, I think of them more as refugees from war than as traditional colonists. Sometimes their decision to leave was made in an instant. They would sell everything they had to get the four dollars they needed to buy a deck pass to get them from Vicksburg to St. Louis. Many were under the mistaken impression that if they could get to St. Louis, the federal government would provide them money for transportation to get to Kansas…land in Kansas…tools and mules to get them established for a
year in Kansas. So, many of them are doing all they can do, sell all they can sell to get them to St. Louis in the mistaken belief that the federal government would help them from there. 919

WHITE ST. LOUIS WAS RIDING HIGH AT THE TIME.

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1614

St. Louis leaders, or St. Louis boosters, I should say, called it the future great city of the world. And there was actually a book out by a booster named Logan Reavis who said that St. Louis was a future great city of the world, and they called a convention and had support from 21 governors who argued that national capital should be moved from Washington, DC to St. Louis. And, it was viewed that St. Louis was going to be the next London, the next Paris, St. Louis was going to be the next great city of the world because of its geographic location, its climate, its natural resources sitting on the Mississippi River, its connection between east and west north and south and St. Louis was very full of itself at the time. 1700

BUT THERE WAS A LOT OF “SOUTH” IN ST. LOUIS. CITY LEADERS WATCHED, CONCERNED THE MOMENTUM COULD BE DISRUPTED, WATCHED WITH ALARM AS AFRICAN AMERICANS PARTICIPATED WITH RESTIVE WHITE LABORERS IN STREET DEMONSTRATIONS.

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1411
What had started as a railroad strike became a general strike as laborers took to the streets and essentially controlled the city for a week. And, there had been a racial element to the railroad strike as African American workers, who had not been allowed to in the unions, still participated in the strike. And, in studying the general strike one of the criticisms that the strikers came under was that by allowing African Americans to participate in the strike, they were not only challenging the labor and the economic hierarchy and also breaking down racial boundaries which the city did not like as well. 1446

CITY FATHERS FELT THEY NEEDED TO SHOW THEY WERE IN CONTROL OF THE STREETS. IN 1878, THEY CALLED UPON A MYTHICAL FIGURE WHO REMAINS A PART OF THE CITY CULTURE TO THIS DAY…THE VEILED PROPHET

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The Veiled Prophet

The Veiled Prophet

1510 The first Veiled Prophet was the only one who was deliberately unmasked, and they made it clear that everybody knew that it was Priest a man named Priest who was the St. Louis Police Commissioner who had led the strike breakers. And the original drawing that had appeared in the newspapers of the Veiled Prophet, he looks like Klansman. I have a picture of him in the book and he has a white hood, and a white robe and he‘s carrying a shotgun, a rifle and a
knife, and says that he will not be stopped by anyone, and so there is this racial element to the parade as well, and a short time later you have twenty thousand African Americans showing up on the river bank. 1553

IN 1879 THE EXODUSTERS BEGAN COMING TO ST. LOUIS BY THE THOUSANDS. IT DID NOT TAKE CITY LEADERS LONG TO REALIZE THEY WANTED NO PART OF IT.

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1736

Saint Louis leadership, business leadership, political leadership, were not in favor of exodus and in fact tried to stop the exodus and that one of the things I explore in the book. And, one of the reasons why was that as St. Louis tried to move ahead economically, it was increasingly tied to the southern cotton economy. St. Louis was a major shipping point for southern cotton. As African American labor moved out of the south, southern cotton growers, landowners, felt their entire economy was threatened because their laborers were leaving.
And since St. Louis was tied to the southern cotton economy and St. Louis leaders saw the exodus as a threat as well and refused to help the Exodusters, refused to give them any money, any aid, they tried to discourage the exodus the Mayor of St. Louis, Henry Overstolz tries legally to stop the exodus by stopping the steamboats from bringing paupers into the city which you cannot legally do, thinks about quarantining the Exodusters in the St. Louis quarantine hospital, and eventually just issues proclamations telling the Exodusters, you are not
welcome…leave. Don’t come to St. Louis. And that’s where the African American community steps in and makes it their mission to help the Exodusters continue their journey. 1859

THE EFFORT WAS LED BY AN AFRICAN AMERICAN…CHARLTON TANDY.

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1939 Tandy, the first day that the Exodusters show up, he’s going to friends, anybody he can find, the churches, just to get a roof over the Exodusters heads…to find them clothes…to find them food and to try and raise money to send them off to Kansas. Eventually what happens, the African American community in St. Louis takes it upon themselves for all the life necessities for the Exodusters. And then they publicize the event. Tandy goes on two speaking
tours of the East Coast to try and raise awareness. And former abolitionists and Quakers…other people in the North tried to keep gains of reconstruction going. People began making donations to the Exodusters to help them continue their journey. Almost all of those donations came from outside the city of St. Louis. Over and over again in my research, the African American community in St. Louis is complaining that white religious leaders, white political leaders are doing nothing to help. 2042.

TENS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS…MEALS… AND MOUNTAINS OF CLOTHING WERE DONATED. OVER A PERIOD OF MONTHS, A RHYTHM DEVELOPED. THE EXODUSTERS ARRIVED AND WERE ON
THEIR WAY TO KANSAS QUICKLY.

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2114 Some stayed a month…month and a half. As the relief efforts get up and running, and they get organized, it was generally about a week. The Exodusters come in, they would take care of them for a week. 2125

THE ST. LOUIS AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY RESPONDED TO ASSIST THE EXODUSTERS FROM THE MOMENT THEY BEGAN ARRIVING UNTIL THE MIGRATIONS DWINDLED IN THE EARLY 1880s. THEIR MOTIVE WENT BEYOND COMPASSION.

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2850 One of the interesting aspects, I think, of this story, is that the St. Louis African American leadership who are leading the relief efforts, saw a commonality with the Exodusters, although the African American leadership was generally more educated and succeeding more financially than the former slaves who were primarily farm laborers who were fleeing the South with no money. And, one thing I thought was interesting about the story was that the relief
leaders saw the that Exodusters right to pick up and leave, was not just something for the Exodusters, but was a right that was being threatened for all African Americans if the Exodusters were denied the right of migration. And, in their statements and proclamations that they would release, they would echo the Declaration of Independence, they made it clear that this was a collective right to pick up and leave and start over. And, that if Exodusters were denied the rights of other Americans to pick up and leave, then the rights of all African Americans were being threatened. One of the arguments that I make is that it wasn‘t just
charity the African American Community was doing, but they were also seeing this as a civil rights issue as well 3022

PERHAPS SURPRISINGLY, VERY FEW OF THE EXODUSTERS WHO CAME THROUGH ST. LOUIS DECIDED TO STAY. FOR THE OVERWHELMING MAJORITY…IT WAS MERELY ON THE WAY TO, OR
FROM KANSAS.

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3242 Very few actually stayed in St. Louis. Most made it to Kansas…a very few left Kansas and returned back to the south. One thing that’s interesting that I found…as they were leaving Kansas and returning back to the South, the African American community in St. Louis met them in St. Louis and tried to convince them not to go back to the South…to either go back to Kansas, or stay in St. Louis. 3308

IRONICALLY, WHAT WAS CLEAR TO MANY AT THE TIME, AND CERTAINLY IN RETROSPECT, IS THAT IF THE COTTON GROWERS AND LANDOWNERS IN THE SOUTH HAD MET THE DEPARTURE OF BLACKS WITH MORE INCENTIVES TO STAY…MONEY…PROPERTY…SOCIAL ACCEPTANCE, THE JIM CROW ERA MIGHT HAVE PLAYED OUT QUITE DIFFERENTLY.

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