The End of Reconstruction and the Arrival of the Exodusters

Exodusters en route to Kansas

For African-Americans in the former slave states, the promise of the 15th Amendment quickly proved hollow. As the searing experience of the Civil War receded, white America began to focus on reconciliation. This slow and difficult process required a shared narrative of the heroism—white heroism—that had strengthened the bonds of the Union.  The newly freed slaves were a matter of less and less concern, in either the North or the South.

Immediately after the Civil War the Ku Klux Klan sprang up, drawing in part on the symbolism and rituals of the Knights of the Golden Circle, and spread rapidly throughout the South. During the Reconstruction period, Federal troops stationed in the former Confederate states kept them partially in check. But in 1877 those troops were withdrawn, as part of the bargain that made Rutherford B. Hayes President. The Reconstruction era officially ended.

The result was devastating for the southern freedmen. In short order, they were effectively barred from voting throughout the South.  Everywhere, a reign of terror began—murder, rape, arson and lynching—all designed to terrify the former slaves into resuming their previous servitude. Even in Kansas, once the bastion of freedom, there were 33 lynchings between 1864 and 1874.

By 1879, thousands of freed slaves were fleeing northward, migrants who referred to themselves in Biblical terms as “Exodusters.” Kansas, because of its Free Soil history and the fact that land was still available, was a preferred destination, with 10,000 Exodusters arriving between 1879 and 1881. They arrived without money, warm clothes, farm equipment or livestock, without any of the supplies they needed to survive.  Destitute, sick and starving, they overwhelmed the resources of the local communities.

In a letter published in Topeka’s Commonwealth in April of 1879, the mayor of Wyandotte, Kansas, described the plight of his city, where he had just issued a proclamation banning all steamboats carrying Exodusters from landing at the docks. “Our city is filled with colored refugees, utterly destitute. Large numbers have died and many are now sick. The city has struggled to stem this terrible tide of pauperism, hoping to open up a way for forwarding these destitute emigrants to western homes.” He reported that all normal business in Wyandotte was at a standstill, as the population attempted to provide food and shelter for the emigrants.

Census listings for the African-American Bettis family seem to reflect the economic chaos of this period. In the 1870 census, Drew Bettis’ eight-year-old daughter Martha is in school, as are three-quarters of the children in his mixed-race neighborhood. By 1875, at the beginning of the refugee influx, he has established himself as a farmer in an outlying area of Leavenworth County, but none of his three school-age daughters is in school, and his family is sharing their home with no fewer than five unrelated teenagers and a toddler. In 1880, with the three oldest girls married or working, the family is doing better than the new arrivals. But it is not until 1885 that the two youngest children, then teenagers, are listed as having attended school in the previous year.

The community rallied to meet the crisis. In May of 1879, the Kansas Freedmen’s Relief Association was formed, under the direction of two doughty Quaker ladies, Elizabeth Comstock and Laura S. Haviland. Donations came in from all over the country. Railroad magnate Jay Gould pitched in as well, donating 1,000 pound of flour, 1,800 pounds of cornmeal, 1323 pounds of bacon, and 400 pounds of beef. Slowly, the crisis subsided, as some migrants gave up and returned home, others found jobs or learned how to wrest a living from the Kansas plains, and white and black leaders squabbled among themselves over the desirability of injuring Kansas’ reputation by accepting help.

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