Freedom of movement
Black history also is a story of mass migration – and of a people taking control of their future
In the decade after the Civil War, former slaves in the South searched for a way out. They were sickened and exhausted by the racist terrorism that had followed emancipation. Though freed from slavery, AfricanAmericans were routinely cheated, attacked and killed by whites who tolerated them barely, if at all.
“Blacks who realized that Southern whites viewed them as basically units of labor ... insisted that Negroes would have to leave the South,” historian Nell Irvin Painter wrote in her 1976 book, “Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction.”
So they left. The “Exodusters” moved west to Kansas. Some settled in cities like Topeka and Kansas City, and others established towns like Bogue and Nicodemus in the western part of the state. By 1880, thousands had taken part in what historians call the first major migration of former slaves.
This western exodus has been overlooked in many tellings of black history. But scholars are using it and other mass migrations to construct a new framework for studying black history and experiences. Moving beyond focusing only on slavery and its consequences, scholars have identified 13 distinct migrations that “formed and transformed African America,” according to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of the New York Public Library.
Some are well known. The trans-Atlantic and domestic slave trades are the largest of the migrations and also the only ones that were involuntary. The Great Migration of the 20th century – the movement of blacks from the rural South to the cities of the North – is also a touchstone of popular history.
Others are less often discussed: Haitian immigration to the United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s; the movement of free African-Americans to the North in the 1840s; and immigration from Africa and the Caribbean since the 1970s. The voluntary migrations demonstrate independence and a willingness to make choices for a better life – what scholars call agency. “That’s action. That’s taking your life in your hands,” said Painter, a professor emeritus at Princeton.
Sylviane Diouf, visiting professor at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, said studying migration compensates for a bias found in conventional depictions of black history.
“The slave trade, slavery, emancipation, Jim Crow and civil rights – it’s mostly what has been done to (AfricanAmericans),” Diouf said. “But when you look at history through migration, you see how people were agents of their own future.”
Diouf and Howard Dodson, director emeritus of the Schomburg center, were the experts behind “In Motion,” a multimedia exhibit and research project on African-American migrations.
The migration timeline starts in the 15th century with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. From 1492 to 1776, about 6.5 million people came to the Western Hemisphere. Only 1 million of them were Europeans; the rest were enslaved Africans.
“The transatlantic slave trade laid the foundation for modern capitalism, generating immense wealth for business enterprises in America and Europe,” the exhibit says. At the same time, the devastating effects in Africa paved the way for European colonization of the continent.
Dodson says the slave trade also created a unique New World culture.
“A lot of people think about Africa as a country, (but) it’s a continent with diverse ethnic, religious and cultural groups. The population that was enslaved was drawn from all of these,” Dodson said. “In the context of the slave experience, they transform into a new people, creating new languages, new religions, new forms of cultural expression.”
Emancipation after the Civil War brought the hope of freedom, but the reality was more oppression.
“Slaves prayed for freedom, and then they got it,” former slave Patsy Mitchner said in 1937 when interviewed for the Works Progress Administration’s oral history of slavery. “They was turned out with nowhere to go and nothing to live on.”
In fact, the only asset many former slaves had was their labor, Painter wrote in “Exodusters.”
Add in the violence visited upon freedmen and life was truly abominable.
In fact, Painter began researching the circumstances of former slaves because she had a question: Why did people stay in such a horrible situation?
“The answer was they didn’t,” she said.
The schoolhouse in Nicodemus, Kan., is the only remaining black-founded town west of the Mississippi. By 1880, thousands of former slaves from the South had gone west.
WILL POPE/NATIONAL PARK SERVICE The schoolhouse is one of five buildings making up Nicodemus National Historic Site. Others include churches and the township hall.