- Date of birth: 1809
- Place of birth: Nashville, Tennessee
- Claim to fame: “Black Moses” of the African American Exodus from the Upper-South
- Nicknames: “Pap” Singleton; “Father of the Black Exodus”
- Date of death: February 17, 1900
- Place of death: Kansas City, Missouri
- Final resting place: Union Cemetery (unmarked grave)
Benjamin “Pap” Singleton was a former bondsman who, later in his life, became known for leading African American migrations from the post-Reconstruction South into Kansas. African Americans feared that the end of federally enforced Reconstruction would mark the return of overt racial violence and discrimination in the South. These fears motivated a mass African American migration away from the former Confederacy and into sparsely populated Kansas, a state already iconic for its antebellum struggle for Free Soil.
Born in 1809, Singleton escaped to freedom in Detroit in the 1850s and returned to his home in Nashville, Tennessee, following the conclusion of the Civil War. His efforts to secure property and homes for African Americans started in Tennessee but did not come to fruition due to high land prices and concerns about overcoming historical racial animosities. Looking to the West, Singleton saw Kansas as a new “Canaan”: the perfect combination of reasonably priced land in a state that held an almost mythic cultural significance in the United States’ liberation narrative. With a promoter’s flair and more than a hint of divine inspiration, Singleton went on to found the Edgefield Real Estate and Homestead Association, through which he helped guide hundreds of settlers from the upper-South to two newly created Kansas colony towns: Baxter Springs and Dunlop.
Foreseeing the negative impact that the end of Reconstruction in 1877 would have on African American communities, Singleton believed that former masters could never truly enter into equal relationships with their ex-slaves. Instead of a continuous struggle to live together, Singleton sought a pragmatic racial separatism from white Southerners. This urge drove his first efforts to help African Americans purchase separate farming communities in his native Tennessee during the late 1860s. Two barriers prevented Singleton from achieving his goal in Tennessee: high land prices and well-founded concerns about racial discrimination and unchecked violence in the post-Reconstruction South. Stymied, Singleton started to explore the possibility of moving a large number of people to Kansas, a state that had more reasonable land prices and an undeniable reputation for freedom in the African American imagination.
Kansas, with the promise of inexpensive land, racial solidarity, and supposedly better treatment for African Americans, seemed like an ideal place for creating a black Canaan. Singleton and Columbus Johnson, an associate with the Edgewood Real Estate and Homestead Association, visited Kansas in 1877 and toured several potential sites for African American farming colonies. Upon their return to Nashville, Singleton and Johnson created leaflets and handouts proclaiming the quality of life in Kansas and the purported benefits of predominately living with members of one’s own race. Singleton used the Edgewood Real Estate Association to drum up interest in migration to Kansas, holding revival-style information and promotion meetings for his agricultural colonies on July 31 and August 1, 1877 in Nashville. Singleton then led his first company of colonists to Baxter Springs in Cherokee County, Kansas, in 1877, and the following year conveyed an even larger group from Nashville to Dunlop County, Kansas. It should be noted, however, that Singleton’s new communities were not the first post-Reconstruction African American settlements in Kansas. Migrants from Kentucky settled Nicodemus, Kansas, just a few months before families arrived in Baxter Springs.
Pioneering settlers at Nicodemus, Baxter Springs, and Dunlop were just the first wave of African American migrants to flee the post-Reconstruction South. A more desperate and economically disadvantaged group, collectively known as “Exodusters,” followed the relatively wealthy Singleton colonists into Kansas. Unlike Singleton’s carefully planned and executed migrations, the Exodusters were a more spontaneous migratory movement of former slaves seeking both a better life and an escape from the resurgent racism in the former Confederacy. Singleton had mixed feelings about the Exodusters. He undoubtedly felt sympathy for their poverty and empathy for their desire to leave the South, but they posed a threat to his colonies’ success. Singleton envisioned his communities as places of racial solidarity, but even so, the farm colonies operated on thin margins and would not be able to accommodate large numbers of additional, unplanned immigrants.
With his communities established, Singleton moved into Topeka, Kansas, in the early 1890s, and began work on an urban, industrial equivalent to his agricultural colonies. Singleton called his new organization the United Colored Links. Designed to protect African American laborers and encourage patronage at African American businesses, the lofty goals of the United Colored Links exceeded its practical grasp. After a surge in membership following its initial summer convention, the United Colored Links gradually lost membership and receded into obscurity. Faced with the marginal success of his colonies, and the collapse of his industrial efforts, Singleton began to reevaluate whether or not Kansas was the Canaan that he hoped it would be.
Benjamin “Pap” Singleton’s final resting place remained a mystery until a group of researchers determined that he is buried in Kansas City’s Union Cemetery. Read about it here.With the demise of the United Colored Links, Singleton spent the remaining years of his life supporting various Back-to-Africa movements. Singleton first promoted Joseph Ware’s plan to send African Americans to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. When that plan stalled, Singleton set up his own Trans-Atlantic Society, an organization whose goals aimed at nothing less than a pan-African movement. Singleton’s participation in these movements suggests dissatisfaction with Kansas and a subtle acknowledgement that leaving Tennessee for the “Sunflower State” did not provide the expected environmental and social panacea. Nonetheless, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton lived out his final days in Kansas City, enjoying a lingering notoriety as the self-proclaimed “Father of the Black Exodus.”
Athearn, Robert G. In Search of Canaan: Black Migration to Kansas, 1879–1880. Lawrence, KS: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978.
Painter, Nell Irvin. Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
Roe, Jason. "Exodusters Mark the Spot." This Week in Kansas City History. Kansas City Public Library.