The 1880 Senate Investigation of the Beginnings of the
African American Migration from the South
By Damani Davis
In the spring of 1879, thousands of colored people, unable longer to endure the intolerable hardships, injustice, and suffering inflicted upon them by a class of Democrats in the South, had, in utter despair, fled panic-stricken from their homes and sought protection among strangers in a strange land. Homeless, penniless, and in rags, these poor people were thronging the wharves of Saint Louis, crowding the steamers on the Mississippi River, and in pitiable destitution throwing themselves upon the charity of Kansas. Thousands more were congregating along the banks of the Mississippi River, hailing the passing steamers, and imploring them for a passage to the land of freedom, where the rights of citizens are respected and honest toil rewarded by honest compensation. The newspapers were filled with accounts of their destitution, and the very air was burdened with the cry of distress from a class of American citizens flying from persecutions which they could no longer endure.1
This quotation is from the minority report of an 1880 Senate committee appointed to investigate the causes of a mass black migration from the South during the 1870s. For African Americans, the "redemption" of the South by former Confederates after the 1876 presidential election resulted in political disfranchisement, economic repression, and relentless terror. The joyful exuberance and hope evident among the "freedmen" at the end of the Civil War—and during the heady days of Reconstruction and African American political participation—had been dashed. Many black southerners sought to escape this predicament by leaving the region and migrating to states in the North and Midwest. Chief among these destinations was Kansas.
Because of its history as the home state of abolitionist John Brown and the site of fervent "free state" sentiments during the antebellum period, black southerners viewed Kansas as a place of refuge. Many African Americans believed that Kansas was a unique state where they would be allowed to freely exercise their rights as American citizens, gain true political freedom, and have the opportunity to achieve economic self-sufficiency. These romanticized ideas of Kansas, along with the continued deterioration of their lives in the South, produced a sudden exodus. This "Kansas Exodus," also referred to as the "Exoduster" movement, represents the first major episode in an extensive history of voluntary mass migration among African Americans.
The testimony documented in the 1880 Senate investigation has a value similar to the interviews recorded in the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) slave narratives. Whereas the slave narratives revealed the perceptions of the last generation of blacks who lived under slavery, the testimony voiced by witnesses in the Senate investigation provide first-hand accounts of the experiences and concerns of the first generation of freed blacks. Much of the testimony graphically illustrates the violence and oppression used to disfranchise and intimidate black voters during the South's "redemption." The testimony also reveals the beginnings of the social, political, and economic conditions that caused the Exodusters, as well as future generations of black southerners, to migrate.
This unexpected wave of migration from the South generated considerable public attention and concern throughout the nation. Many white southerners charged that northern agitators were luring away their black labor for political purposes, while northern politicians countered that the oppression of black southerners by their white neighbors was the cause. To resolve the issue, the Senate passed a resolution in December of 1879 stating:
Whereas large numbers of negroes from the Southern States are emigrating to the Northern States; and,
Whereas it is currently alleged that they are induced to do so by the unjust and cruel conduct of their white fellow-citizens towards them in the South, and by the denial or abridgment of their personal and political rights and privileges: Therefore,
Be it resolved, That a committee of five members of this body be appointed by its presiding officer, whose duty it shall be to investigate the causes which have led to the aforesaid emigration, and to report the same to the Senate; and said committee shall have power to send for persons and papers, and to sit at any time.2
The resulting committee, consisting of three Democratic senators (Chairman Daniel W. Voorhees of Indiana, Zebulon B. Vance of North Carolina, and George H. Pendleton of Ohio) and two Republican senators (William Windom of Minnesota and Henry W. Blair of New Hampshire), began to receive testimony on January 19, 1880.
The committee interviewed 153 black and white witnesses from North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Missouri, Kansas, and Indiana. Many of these witnesses augmented their personal testimony with affidavits, letters, and other forms of evidence provided by members of their local communities who were not called to testify.
The black witnesses came from a variety of social and economic backgrounds, revealing a level of class stratification that had developed in the black community soon after slavery. Several of these witnesses were members of the early educated professional class of African Americans—such as John Wesley Cromwell, a lawyer, teacher, journalist, and publisher in Washington, D.C.; O.S.B. Wall, a lawyer, former Freedmen's Bureau agent, and colonel in the U.S. Army during the Civil War; Charles N. Otey, an editor, publisher, and teacher at Howard University; and Phillip Joseph, a journalist from Alabama. Other witnesses had served as some of the first black elected officials during Reconstruction, such as James O'Hara of North Carolina and James T. Rapier of Alabama, who had served as congressmen in the House of Representatives. George T. Ruby, a former teacher and Freedmen's Bureau agent served as a state senator in Texas before that state's "redemption." Similarly, William Murrell and John Henri Burch both served as elected officials in Louisiana until that state was also "redeemed" by former Confederates. Information on some of the other black witnesses indicates that they had become successful land owners, entrepreneurs, and clergymen in North Carolina, Louisiana, and other states.
Men such as these, who had successfully attained education, property, or professional status—many of them either born or educated in the North—were viewed as the natural and expected leaders of the uneducated masses. Most of the general American public, and many in the African American community, assumed that the masses of freed blacks in the South were childlike, did not know what was best for them, and required supervision and guidance from their white superiors, or at least the from the educated class of officially recognized black leaders. Though not always based on any malicious sense of inherent superiority, many African American elites generally accepted that blacks of the uneducated class were susceptible to deception and exploitation due to their ignorance or pitiable lack of knowledge.
This perception led many among the educated black elite in the South, and national leaders such as Frederick Douglass, to vehemently oppose the exodus movement and argue that it was best for the black laborers to remain in the South. Still hoping that the federal government would provide some type of protection, these spokespersons believed that blacks stood a greater chance of regaining political power and achieving economic prosperity in the South because the majority of the nation's African American population was already concentrated in that region. Many of the black laborers and plantation workers, however, concluded that the quality of their lives had become so bleak that fleeing the South to a new land was their only hope.
Thus the Kansas Exodus was an inconvenient blow to both whites, who expected the masses of black workers in the South to quietly conform to their new role as a cheap, compliant labor force, and to African American elites, who expected them to blindly follow the dictates of the official "black leadership" and the Republican Party. It also challenged the idea that freed blacks were incapable of intelligently assessing their own predicament, drawing their own conclusions, and taking action to improve their situation. No member of the educated elite segment of the black community directly organized or led the Exoduster movement. This grassroots movement, generated by indigenous leaders among the masses of black sharecroppers and tenant farmers, sought the full benefits of freedom.
Two of the most prominent figures to emerge as leaders of this movement were Benjamin Singleton of Tennessee and Henry Adams of Louisiana. Neither of these men was formally educated, but both were highly respected for their leadership qualities and ability to organize. They both led organizations in their respective states that promoted migration from the South.
Benjamin Singleton was well known and respected in his Tennessee community as a skilled carpenter, cabinetmaker, and undertaker. During slavery, he ran away several times and finally escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad and later moved to Detroit. After the Civil War, Singleton returned to Tennessee, where he resumed his craft as a carpenter and maker of cabinets and coffins. Working as an undertaker, he saw the results of violence on African Americans by former Confederates. He also resented white landowners who consistently cheated and exploited their black sharecroppers. In 1869 Singleton founded the Tennessee Real Estate & Homestead Association and began to organize blacks in his state to form colonies and settle in Kansas.3
As an Army veteran in Louisiana, Henry Adams garnered the esteem that many blacks held for men who had served in the military. Whites in his community respected him as a highly intelligent and skilled worker. He also had a strong reputation among both whites and blacks as a proficient and skilled folk doctor or natural healer. In his testimony to the committee, Adams stated that he had no formal education but had learned to read and write. After leaving the Army, Adams joined with other black veterans and formed a semisecret organization of about 500 men called the "Colored Men's Protective Union." The group proposed to look to "look into [the] affairs and see the true condition of our race, to see whether it [is] possible [that] we could stay under a people who had held us in bondage, or not." They selected members to travel to various states in the Deep South, work among the field laborers, determine the quality of their lives, and "see whether there was any state in the South" where blacks "could get a living and enjoy [their] rights." They concluded that the resurgence of the ex-Confederates was so pervasive that blacks could no longer remain in the South.4
They formed a new organization called the "Colonization Council" and decided that they would first appeal to President Rutherford B. Hayes and Congress to help them "out of their distress and protect" their civil rights and constitutional privileges. If that failed, Adams recommended they ask the federal government to "set apart a territory in the United States for [them], somewhere where [they] could go and live with [their] families." If the government failed or refused to do that, their final idea was to "ask for an appropriation of money to ship us all to Liberia, in Africa; somewhere where we could live in peace and quiet."5 Adams presented the Senate committee a copy of the letter to the President with all three of the resolutions included. Adams's organization succeeded in getting over 98,000 names of blacks who were interested in emigrating from the South. Most of names were from Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas, with a minority from Mississippi, Alabama, and a few other states.6
Besides the apparent historical value of Henry Adams's interview, there is also much information of potential genealogical value. His recorded testimony includes an extensive list of statements, affidavits, and memoranda that was compiled by the Colonization Council, including the names of nearly 700 black Louisianans who were the victims of various forms of violent terrorism. The list includes each individual's name, the parish in which the victim resided, and a description of each incident.7
Another example of how valuable information can be casually presented throughout the recorded interviews is illustrated by the testimony of John O'Kelly, a black property owner and businessman from North Carolina.
Q: Where is your residence? A: Raleigh, North Carolina. Q: What is your profession or business? A: I am doing a livery business. Q: Do you own any property, real estate? A: Yes, sir; I own some outside of the corporation of the town, and I have got a house and home. Q: You were formerly a slave? A: Yes, sir; I used to belong to General Cox. Q: How much property at a round guess are you worth now? A: I don't know, sir; but I would not tonight take less than $5,000 for what I have got. Q: Have you made all that as a free man? A: Yes, sir; I had nothing at the time of the surrender.8
In this brief exchange, information on O'Kelly's city of residence, form of employment, ownership of property and its worth, former slave status, and the name of his former slave owner are all revealed.
A further illustration of how genealogically relevant information can be presented in the investigation is shown by the interview of Julius A. Bonitz, a white newspaper editor from North Carolina, whose intent was to prove that blacks were not oppressed but were actually prospering in his state:
I know a colored man living near Mount Olive, twelve miles from Goldsboro [Wake County, North Carolina], who is the owner of three hundred and sixteen acres of land. His name is Calvin Simmons. He has, within the last year or two, finished paying for the plantation. He bought it some years ago, on long time, at the rate of ten dollars an acre. He paid for it himself—and his boys—with what they raised off from it. More than that, I have got it from his own mouth that he cleared, within the last year, nearly five hundred dollars on his crop. I don't remember the exact number of years it has taken him to pay for it. I know a number of instances in which colored men have bought lands upon the same terms, and paid for them, and now have them for homes of their own. In my own town there is a man named William Bernard, who owns a fine house and lot. Not long ago I offered him a thousand dollars for his place; but he refused it, on the ground that he did not need the money. It is well located, a valuable piece, and increasing in value every year.9
The first individual mentioned in Bonitz's testimony is a Calvin Simmons. The 1900 census for North Carolina confirms that there was a Calvin Simmons who fits the description.10 There is, however, a discrepancy whether Simmons owned or rented his land and home. The census record does not record him as the owner of his property or house. This evidence still does not mean that Bonitz's testimony is untrue, for the data recorded by census takers could be inaccurate. The census for William Bernard, however, confirms Bonitz's testimony. William Bernard is listed as the head of a family and owner of a house and property that was fully paid for.11
Although census records are not always accurate, they can provide basic data that lead to other more useful records. For instance, Henry Stewart was a resident of Dunlap Village in Morris County, Kansas, which was one among several all-black colonies founded in Kansas during the exodus. The 1880 census lists Stewart, his wife, Arrenes, and his daughter Eliza living on a farm in the Dunlap Village colony, although this particular census did not record whether property was owned by the inhabitants.12
To determine the Stewart family's status in regards to land ownership, the researcher could search and locate them in the "land entry case files" for Kansas. To achieve this, the researcher needs the legal description of the ancestor's land. The researcher can obtain the legal description by writing to the county courthouse with the name of the settler, location, and date. The researcher can also write to the National Archives and request Form 84, "Land Entry Records."
Zachary T. Fletcher's land files also reveal a great deal about his family. The Fletchers settled in Nicodemus, Kansas—another of the Exoduster colonies. Zachary, his wife, Jenny Smith Fletcher, and their two children, Thomas and Joseph, are listed in the 1880 census records for Nicodemus Township in Graham County, Kansas. Within Zachary Fletcher's land case files are copies of his original "homestead affidavit" and the "final proof" letter on which he describes the date of his settlement and the improvements that he had made on the land, which consisted of a "dugout," a "stone house" under construction, and 50 acres of braking. He also reveals that he was the town's "Post Master" and an Army veteran who had served as a private under Capt. John Cook, Company B, Eighth Regiment of the United States Colored Artillery. To confirm his statements, Fletcher provided copies of his postmaster's certificate and a soldier's certificate verifying that he had served in the Army and was honorably discharged on February 10, 1866, at Victoria, Texas.13
Fletcher's military service records and pension file describe him as age 18 when he enlisted in 1864, height 5' 6?, dark complexioned, and born in McCracken County, Kentucky, where had worked as a farmer. The service records also confirm that he had "mustered out" or was discharged at Victoria, Texas in1866.14 The pension file contains an autobiographical letter that Fletcher wrote to verify his age and provide other vital information that was required to prove that he was the person who had served in the military and legitimately earned the pension. In his letter, Fletcher states:
Your honor, My Dear Sir,
I being raised a slave, I have no record of my age, and if there is any, I do not know anything of it. My first master was a batchler, and he died when I was a baby, and willed all of his slaves to his sister Mary, who had married a man by the name of Anthony Robb; . . . she died in a few years, and we was all divvied out with her children . . . and we never all got together untill after the war. [I]n the year 1856–57, I was bound out to a man by the name of Isaac Davis as a race rider. He died in 1863. I stayed with his family until June 1864 at which time I joined the Army, and two days later, my mistress (Mrs. Ellen Davis) came in to my camp and tryed to get me out on the grounds that I would not be 19 years old until the 12th of August of the same year. But as I had on my uniform & had been sworn in she could not get me out.
Next I went back to see my father, just before he died in 1913 and he told me that I was [born] Aug 12 / 45, the same year that Zachary Taylor fough[t] the Mexican war, and that my master Robert Fletcher being of the same political party named me after him—Zachary Taylor Fletcher. The above is the best mostly that I can give you of my age, as all my old white people and all of my brothers and sisters of 10 are dead. Mother died when I was 9 years old and my father died 3 years ago at the age of 93.
We colored slaves [k]new nothing of [the] census and . . . all of the above acts was in McCracken Co Ky, 5 miles west of Paducky [Paducah].15
The Kansas Exodus, as demonstrated by these diverse documents held at the National Archives, is a clear example of how federal records related to a known historical event can be used to find genealogical information. Genealogical researchers must be highly imaginative in their quest to find information on their ancestors. This applies especially to those researching African Americans since such information is often found in less conventional sources. An adequate knowledge of history can help steer the researcher to these potential sources.
Damani Davis is an archivist in NARA's Research Support Branch, Customer Services Division, Washington, D.C. He has lectured at local and regional conferences on African American history and genealogy. Davis is a graduate of Coppin State College in Baltimore and received his M.A. in history at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.
1. Report and Testimony of the Select Committee of the United States Senate to Investigate the Cause of the Removal of the Negroes from the Southern States to the Northern States, 46th Cong., 2nd sess., 1880, S. Rep. 693 (3 parts), p. x.
3. Ibid., 3: 379–391.
4. Ibid., 2: 101–103.
5. Ibid., 2: 104.
6. Ibid., 2: 156–158 and 110.
7. Ibid., 2: 168–214.
8. Ibid., 1: 244–245.
9. Ibid., 1: 136.
10. Entry for Calvin Simmons, Southwest, Lenoir Co., NC; p. 5B; Enumeration District (ED) 50; Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900 (National Archives Microfilm Publication T623, roll 1203); Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group (RG) 29; National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington, DC.
11. Entry for William Bernard, Smithville, Brunswick Co., NC; p. 15A; ED 18; 1900 Census, T623, roll 1184; RG 29; NARA.
12. Henry Stewart, Dunlap, Morris Co., KS; p. 443.4000; ED 139; Tenth Census of the United States, 1880 (National Archives Microfilm Publication T9, roll 390); RG 29; NARA.
13. Zachary T. Fletcher, Nicodemus, Graham Co., KS; Page: 203.1000; ED 98; 1880 Census, T9, roll 382; RG 29; and Zachary T. Fletcher, Canceled Homestead File No. 19752, June 7, 1887, Colby, KS, Land Office; Records of the Bureau of Land Management, RG 49; NARA.
14. Zachary T. Fletcher, Private, Co. B, Eighth Regiment, U.S. Colored H. Artillery (USCT); Compiled Service Records; Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780s–1917, RG 94; National Archives Building (NAB), Washington, DC.
15. Zachary T. Fletcher, Soldier's Certificate, 279,479; Civil War and Later Pension Files; Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, RG 15; NAB.