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African Americans in Kansas

The history of Kansas statehood is closely tied to events in the Civil War. From the time Kansas Territory was opened for settlement, proslavery and antislavery forces fought for control of the territorial government. It is believed that freed and escaped slaves entered the eastern section of Kansas Territory through various stops on the Underground Railroad. According to the 1860 census, 625 free and two enslaved African American were residents of the territory. Kansas entered the Union in 1861 as a free state.

After the start of the Civil War, African Americans in Kansas formed volunteer military units to fight the Confederates. The First Kansas Colored Infantry, based at Fort Scott, was the first African American unit to see action in the Civil War. In Wyandotte County black recruits were more numerous than white. At the end of the Civil War, 186,000 African Americans were serving in combat troops for the United States, and another 200,000 served in support units. The integration of these units into other army operations was an unpopular idea. In 1866 the United States Congress authorized two cavalry regiments and two infantry units composed entirely of African Americans. These men were sent to Kansas to fight a series of Indian wars. The first post of the buffalo soldiers, as they became known, was at Fort Leavenworth, the oldest military base west of the Mississippi River. From there the soldiers were sent to western Kansas and to points even farther west.

After the Civil War, Kansas was advertised as a good place for African Americans to settle. The 1859 Kansas Constitution opened the state to all settlers regardless of their ethnic or racial background. In the 1870 census blacks made up 4.6 percent of the state's population. In the previous decade the African American population had dramatically risen from 6,237 to 17,108. Black settlement was concentrated primarily in the eastern part of the state, particularly in Atchison, Douglas, Leavenworth, and Wyandotte counties.

What became known as the exoduster movement or the Exodus of 1879, in which freed slaves from the deep South migrated to Kansas, had its roots in an earlier attempt to colonize the state. In 1873 Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, a former slave, purchased 1,000 acres of public land near Baxter Springs. In 1874 a group of 300 blacks established the Cherokee colony on this land. To Singleton, Kansas was an "asylum for the freedmen of the South." To sell his point, Singleton would claim he persuaded 7,432 individuals to settle in Kansas. The majority of these African Americans were from Kentucky and Tennessee. They came to Kansas with at least a small amount of resources to start their new lives.

Nicodemus is the best known of the black settlements. This small rural community was settled in 1877 by a group of freedmen from Scott County, Kentucky. They named their town after a legendary slave who was said to have purchased his own freedom. The African American community had a rough beginning due to scare resources and difficult weather conditions. A few of the original settlers returned to cities in the eastern part of the state or to the South. However, enough people stayed so that the first school district in Graham County was organized in Nicodemus in 1879.

Difficult economic times and political pressures forced thousands of poor blacks to leave the South. The largest migration of African Americans to Kansas occurred in 1879 with the exoduster movement. They were often dependent upon relief organizations such as the Kansas Freedman's Relief Association. Kansans did not eagerly welcome the exodusters, and much of the relief needed to help these African American migrants came from out of the state. Many of the exodusters took up residence in eastern Kansas cities. Eventually they were encouraged to resettle across the state so that no single town would have to absorb large numbers of workers into its labor force.

Although Kansas had once been called the "greatest, grandest and freest of all states," some African Americans found their experiences in Kansas to be discouraging. Although the Kansas Constitution welcomed people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, many whites who had previously settled the state were not as generous to their new black neighbors. Bad economic times also were difficult for African Americans. Some blacks left the state for the unsettled territory that would become Oklahoma, and some returned to the South. However, a great many stayed and called Kansas home.

The eastern portion of Kansas saw another wave of black migration during the 20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s African Americans arrived in Kansas primarily from Arkansas and Missouri where the mechanization of the cotton industry and general and economic times had forced them to leave their homes. Jobs in the thriving meat packing industry provided the lure of better economic conditions. However, not all Kansans welcomed the arrival of African Americans. For instance, certain neighborhoods remained officially restricted in Kansas City, Kansas, until the 1940s, and some businesses refused to provide services for black residents.

Governmental policy in Kansas has at times been ambivalent toward racial equality. The state universities in Kansas have always admitted African American students; in 1870 the first black student enrolled at the University of Kansas. In the public school system, however, racial equality has faced problems. Hutchinson is the only Kansas city with a population of 15,000 or more to have had integrated public schools throughout its history. In the 1950s, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka had thrust Kansas into the center of the national controversy surrounding school segregation. In 1951 the Board of Education of Topeka operated under the doctrine of "separate but equal" with regard to its public schools. Although schools were segregated, they did not have the gross inequalities found in other states. The 13 plaintiffs filed a lawsuit on behalf of their children who wanted to attend neighborhood schools but were denied enrollment because of segregation policies. The case was taken to the Unites States Supreme Court by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Thurgood Marshall led a team of lawyers who argued that the effects of separating African American children from others resulted in "a feeling of inferiority." In May 1954 segregation was struck down by the court when it concluded that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka became the basis for national desegregation efforts.

Entry: African Americans in Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: August 2012

Date Modified: October 2019

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.