Free­dom of move­ment

Black his­tory also is a story of mass mi­gra­tion – and of a peo­ple tak­ing con­trol of their fu­ture

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Afi-Odelia Scruggs

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 first 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 iden­tified 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 effects 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 five build­ings mak­ing up Ni­code­mus Na­tional His­toric Site. Oth­ers in­clude churches and the town­ship hall.

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