Friday, September 18, 2020

The Exodusters

Because of the recent race riots and civil unrest in American cities, I have readers writing to ask why I have not written about black cowboys? The fact is, I am asked from time to time what brought black Americans to the West? Some folks have asked if they came out West as slaves or as indentured servants? Some have asked if all blacks in the West and Southwest originated from Texas? 

Some of my readers have asked about a Texas myth about slaves in the Southwest being given large ranches to care for. There is a story out there that says slaves arrived in the Southwest as the property of Texas slave owners, and that white Texas ranchers entrusted their slaves with the responsibility of maintaining their ranches, land, and cattle herds. Supposedly, those white Texas slave owners gave their slaves legal rights to manage their ranches while they themselves were away fighting in the Civil War. Did that happen? Frankly, I can't tell you if it did or not simply because I have not found evidence of that happening. 

To me, such an idea opens up a lot of questions. The biggest question that strikes me is what would have happened if the rancher didn't return from the war? Then what? Did the ranch become the property of the slaves managing it? And what about the family of the Texas rancher who didn't make it back? 

Because of the fact that ranch wives did, in fact, manage their family ranches when their husbands went off to fight in the Civil War, I really don't put much credence in such a story that slave owners entrusted their holding to their slaves -- especially when I can't confirm the validity of such a myth. 

Of course, it's nothing new for a reader to write to ask if black Americans came West as Buffalo Soldiers? Some of you have speculated about how some Buffalo Soldiers simply stayed in the West after leaving the Army. Frankly, like many servicemen and women do today by staying where their enlistment ends instead of going home, it was not unusual for Buffalo Soldiers to do the same and stay where they were when their enlistment ended. 

When I get the chance to answer my readers, I really try to share with them whatever information that I've found. As for questions regarding when black Americans came West? Well, my standard answer, as short as it is, may sound almost too simple. But really, it is the honest truth summed up in a sentence or two: 

It was no different for black Americans than it was for immigrants coming to America after fleeing oppressive nations. Most black Americans came West because they fled an oppressive South. All for the same reasons as others who came to America's shores -- freed slaves came West on their own volition and in search of better lives for themselves and their families.

That's my pat answer to the question of how and why black Americans migrated West. That's an awful short answer to a long and horrible story of what took place in the South after the Civil War. And yes, the story or their fleeing the South has to do with the "Exodusters."  

So who were the "Exodusters" you ask? The Exodus of 1879 was the first mass migration of black  Americans from the South after the Civil War. While the South's mass exodus did include poor white Americans, the migrants were mostly former slaves. And while some make it sound as though it was only black Americans who fled because of oppression, that's not true.

Those leaving became known as "Exodusters," a name that took its inspiration from the biblical Exodus when Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. While most migrated West specifically to settle in Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas -- with Kansas being especially attractive to them as a land rich in opportunity -- Exodusters also landed in the Arizona Territory, Texas, New Mexico, and California. 

Since several of you have written to tell me how dissatisfied you are with my writing about the Democratic Party's legacy of racism and hate, you're not going to like the truth about why black Americans and poor white Americans fled the South. It's just a matter of history that the Democratic Party had everything to do with those deciding to go West.

Like it or not, after the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era in the South was not a very good place to be if you were a freed slave. It was a horrible place for white Republicans, but freed slaves who supported the Republican Party had it even worst. The long answer about why they left the South has to do with violence, intimidation, murder, mass killings, politics, disenfranchising black voters, and the Democratic Party seeking to regain the power that they lost as a result of the Civil War. These factors created a horribly dangerous place to live for both black and whites Republicans. 

In the years following the end of the Civil War, an angered Democratic Party created militant groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and other domestic terrorist groups to act as the Democratic Party's militant arm. Those groups' mission was to terrorize, intimidate, and murder through lynchings and ambush, free-born black Americans, freed slaves, and white Republican administrators in the South during Reconstruction. Besides beating freed slaves and those Republicans in the South assigned to help freed slaves -- mostly through the Freedmen's Bureau. 

The Freedmen's Bureau, formally known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, was established in 1865 by a Republican Congress. The Freedmen's Bureau was actually established by the Republican Congress two months before Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War.

The bureau's mission was to help millions of people in need in the South during Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Freedmen's Bureau actually provided several social services such as providing food, housing, and medical aid to former slaves and poor whites. The Freedmen's Bureau attempted to re-settle freed slaves and poor whites on land confiscated or abandoned during the war. It also established schools and offered legal assistance to freed slaves and poor whites. I emphasize both freed slaves and poor whites because many are under the impression that it was only an agency that assisted former black slaves. I believe the reason for that misconception has to do with the agency's attempts to locate family members of freed slaves who were separated while they were in bondage. 

Democrats in Congress were in the minority but tried everything they could to stop the bureau from carrying out its programs. Among the things Democrats in Congress did to stop the Freedmen's Bureau was cut the agency's funding and restrict its administrative personnel from being in the South. In the South, along with the politics of race and Reconstruction. 

The bureau was something that President Abraham Lincoln came up with. It was his belief that addressing the problems created by slavery immediately after the Civil War was the best way to ensure a more harmonious future in our country. Sadly, President Lincoln was assassinated by a Democrat anarchist. President Lincoln was replaced with his Vice President Andrew Johnson. President Andrew Johnson was a Democrat and former slave owner. He opposed the Freedmen's Bureau when President Lincoln created it. As soon as Johnson assumed the presidency after Lincoln's murder, Johnson and other Democrats worked to dismantle the Freedmen's Bureau. The Freedmen's Bureau was officially ended in 1872.

While that was all going on in Washington D.C., Democrats in the South had other ways of dealing with Republican Reconstruction administrators and freed slaves. Besides using the militant arm of their party to intimidate and commit murder, Democrats used the Klan and other such groups to burn down the homes of anyone they saw as willing to stand up to them. 

As terrorism and murder increased, Democrats also established Jim Crow segregation laws. Jim Crow laws were state laws voted into state constitutions to mandate segregated churches, public schools, public places, and public transportation, including segregated restrooms, restaurants, and later drinking fountains between white and black Americans. 

The laws in the South during Reconstruction ushered in racial violence, riots, and oppression of black Americans. It was a hostile place with conditions worse than that of the Antebellum South because violence was perpetrated on freed slaves who left the plantations. Democrats who were former slave-owners saw blacks still as property, as less than human. Because of the threat of death at the hands of the Democratic Party's militant arm, it's no wonder many blacks, both free-born and freed slaves, sought to escape the South.

What made black Americans flee the South even faster was what became known as the Compromise of 1877. That was the unwritten political deal among U.S Congressmen who settled the disputed 1876 Presidential Election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. The Compromise of 1877 involved Democrats who controlled the House of Representatives and the Republican minority. It was the only way that Democrats in control of the House would allow for the Electoral Commission's decision to take effect.

As a result of the Compromise of 1877, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes became president. But also as a result of the Compromise, the federal government was to end what was known as Reconstruction and pull the last remaining federal troops out of the South. Once the troops were removed, Democrats took control. 

Of course, along with the federal troops being removed, so were the protections for freed slaves and Republicans in state governments and administration posts in the South. As Democrats took over state legislatures, they changed voter registration rules to strip most blacks and poor whites of their ability to vote. The Democrat Party sought to have the wealthy plantations regain control as they had before the war. As I said before, poor white Americans were in the same boat as poor black Americans. No, there was no such thing as "White Privilege" -- only "Wealthy Privilege."

In a wave of violence following the removal of the federal troops, the militant arm of the Democratic Party, groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and the Red Shirts, increased their efforts to intimidate, terrorize, and heap violence upon black voters all to suppress black Republican voting. Black Republicans were hit by violence, discrimination, intimidation, harassment, and the Democratic Party's militant arm burned even more homes -- all to suppress their voting. 

Democrats created those paramilitary groups such as the KKK to ensure Democrats got into office. Their mission was to disenfranchise black voters through violence, intimidation, and murder, including lynchings. And it worked very well. 

If you think the Democrats who sought power and control were quiet about it and did it clandestinely, that was not the case. In fact, Democrat militant groups disrupted Republican meetings, they killed Republican political leaders and state officeholders, intimidated voters at the polls, or kept voters away from the polls altogether. 

In Louisiana alone, there were over a thousand political murders in the late 1860s and 1870s. Most of the victims were freed-slaves. Imagine this, over two hundred freed slaves were killed in the Opelousas Massacre. More than a hundred Republican blacks were killed by the Democratic Party's militia in the Colfax Massacre. 

Known as the "Opelousas Massacre," it was a race riot from September 28 until November 3, 1868, in Opelousas, Louisiana. It started as a riot that turned into widespread attacks on Black Americans in the vicinity. In all, it's believed anywhere from 200 to 250 Blacks were killed. 

As for the Colfax Massacre, which has also been called the Colfax Riot, it was a race riot that took place on Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873, in Colfax, Louisiana. In the wake of the contested 1872 state election for governor of Louisiana and local offices, a group of White Democrats armed with rifles, handguns, and a small cannon, overpowered Republican freedmen and state militia, which included Black troops. 

The state militia had occupied the Grant Parish County Courthouse there in Colfax after the riot broke out. After the White Democrat militia promised to allow all of the 70 or so Republicans, both Black and White, to leave the city. After the Black freedmen and White Republicans surrendered to the mob and taken prisoner, what took place was ghastly. 

Late that night, after being held as prisoners for several hours, those who surrendered were killed by the Democrats who promised them safety. While it is believed that only a handful of White Republicans were killed, it is really unknown how many Black Republicans were killed. The reason for that had to do with the fact that many of the Black Republicans were killed, and their bodies were thrown into the Red River. Some estimates say that from 70 to 160 militia freedmen who were murdered by white Democrats. Black Republicans were being found dead on the river for weeks. 

As for Democrats disenfranchising the vote of both black and white Republicans, Democrats regaining political power passed state laws requiring poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements, and other political schemes to deprive freed blacks and poor whites who were registered as Republicans of the right to vote. It worked, and they effectively disfranchised nearly all blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites. 

Starting in the 1870s, it's believed that hundreds of thousands of blacks and poor whites registered as Republicans were removed from voter registration rolls by way of Democratic Party disenfranchising tactics. As surprising as it might sound, more poor whites registered as Republicans have been disfranchised --mostly because of poll taxes and literacy tests. By some estimates, many hundreds of thousands of registered Republican blacks and poor whites were deprived of their right to vote.

Of course, those who could not vote -- could not run for office or serve on juries. This meant they were shut out of running for all offices at the local and state, and federal levels. Because of this, there was a one-party voting block in the South for decades. Democrat control was with an iron fist. 

As a result of the Compromise of 1877, the Reconstruction Era died. With it, so did all hope for national enforcement of adherence to the newly created 13th, 14th, and 15th Constitutional Amendments that the Republican Congress passed in the wake of the civil unrest after the Civil War. As the last federal troops left the former-Confederacy, the issues of state rights and race returned. 

Political power, control, state rights, excessive tariffs, and slavery were why Democrats pushed our nation into a Civil War in 1861. And while some say the Union and subsequently the Republicans won the Civil War, by 1877, the former-Confederacy and the Democrats had reaffirmed control over the South -- and a return to "home rule" was the order of the day.

How bad was it for non-political blacks and poor whites in the Democrat-controlled South? The Democratic Party had a grip on the labor force. It was total and reminiscent of slavery. For example, the Democrat-controlled state legislatures passed vagrancy and "anti-enticement" laws to make it illegal to be jobless or leave a job before one's labor contract ended. This meant blacks and poor whites were stripped of independence since wealthy plantations controlled them. Yes, this was a new form of slavery that affected both blacks and whites. A new form of slavery that lasted generations.

This Was The South That Led To The Exodus of 1879 

While blacks and poor whites had been fleeing the South ever since the end of the Civil War specifically because of the violence and intimidate by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and the Red Shirts, which were the Democratic Party's militia, the end of Reconstruction saw the first real mass migration of freed slaves leaving the South. With their exodus, places like Kansas became overwhelmed. In fact, it is said that the reality of life for the Exodusters in Kansas was difficult. Many who attempted to homestead remained poor. Many went to work for others on farms only to find conditions as pitiful as was had in the South. 

It's said that most successful black Exodusters were those who migrated to urban areas, bigger cities and towns, where manufacturing, domestic help, and trade work could be found. Of course, as with any place with an influx of cheaper labor, resentment broke out among many of those already there. And yes, there was resentment from whites who were already there. Mostly, their resentment was over a large influx of new labor arriving as competition in what was already a limited job market. That's not an excuse for their resentment. That was just the reality of the situation -- newcomers are blamed in many cases when jobs become harder to find. That happens even today.

It's said that Kansas, in particular, became a place where many whites resented the presence of blacks fleeing the South. While, in some cases, it was simply a case of not having enough jobs for everyone arriving, in other cases, it was a matter of a drain on social support and local governments that was not being able to provide relief to the new arrivals. Because of local government failing to meet citizens' needs, some Exodusters founded their own black communities, partly by using the Homestead Act of 1862. 

Homesteading was a practice where governments awarded "free" land to settlers. That practice dates back to the early Colonial period, long before the 13 British Colonies declared their independence. As with what Spain did in Florida, Texas, and California, and the French did in Louisiana, the British promoted homestead settlements in the "New World." Most were huge land grants awarded to settle the land through private ownership. Of course, the owner takes risks, including to his life, to keep it. 

After the United States won its independence, our government kept up the practice. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established the Northwest Territory, modern-day Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. That pact prohibited the extension of slavery into that territory. Over the years, land-grant legislation in the United States was tied to the issue of slavery. Homesteading was a heated issue because Republicans wanted to open the land to settlement -- to individual farmers who were not slave owners. At the same time, Democrats sought to make the land available only to slaveholders. Because of that, homesteading and the admission of free states and slave states into the Union were tied together.

The Homestead Act of 1862 changed that. It was only after most Democrats left the U.S. Congress to join the Confederacy that the Homestead Act of 1862 was passed. In fact, since it was passed during the Civil War, Democrat slave owner legislators could not stop it from passing. Because of that, Republican President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862 into law.

A homestead was a plot of land, typically 160 acres in size, awarded to any U.S. citizen who pledged to settle and farm the land for at least five years. The only requirements were that the applicant must be at least 21 years of age, or be the head of a household, and the applicant must never have "borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies." Of course, that last clause meant that ex-Confederate soldiers were ineligible to apply for a homestead after the Civil War.

With the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed U.S. citizenship to black Americans, including freed slaves, the Homestead Act applied to freedmen. A Supreme Court decision in 1898 enabled immigrants to be eligible to apply to the federal government for a homestead as well.

From 1862 to 1934, the federal government granted over a million and a half homesteads to private citizens of all colors. Those million and a half homesteads represented approximately ten percent of the entire landmass of the United States. It is still considered one of the largest transfers of land ownership from a government to individual citizens. 

As for the "land rushes," homesteaders rushed in to settle the land on a first-come-first-serve basis. The Homestead Act facilitated the settlement of territories in the West and the Midwest. It turned the Great Desert into America's Breadbasket. And yes, Exodusters who fled the terror of the South benefitted from the Homestead Act of 1862. 

The Homestead Act created small parcels of land out of millions of acres of land -- all specifically meant for settlers. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave free land to Americans willing to improve it. This was absolutely true regardless of race, sex, or nation of origin. That meant all American citizens, including black Americans, freed slaves, women, and immigrants, were all eligible to apply to the federal government for a "homestead," a 160-acre plot of land. To keep a "homestead," a "homesteader" had to meet certain requirements for five years. If the "homesteader" met those requirements and lasted the five years, which only a third of the homesteaders ever accomplished, then the land was theirs. 

As for Exodusters who became homesteaders, they were on equal ground with white homesteaders. And whether a black homesteader wanted to start a farm or a cattle ranch, that was his choice. It was certainly not up to someone else. In the West, a freed slave, as with whites and anyone else, realized that the limits to their achievements were only the limits that they put on themself. 

Many of those fleeing the war-torn South, black and white, became cowboys. 

Exodusters made up a large part of the black cowboys in the Old West. It is believed that black Americans made up 25 percent of all cowboys who were in the West in the mid-1860s at the end of the Civil War. Many former slaves already had skills in working and handling cattle. While the cattle drives were new to most all, many freed slaves who headed West at the end of the Civil War worked for the same pay and on completely equal footing as the white, Mexican, and Native American Indian cowboys.

As for the black and white cowboys who worked in the cattle industry specific to the time period between 1879 and 1884? Many white cowboys came West after the Civil War, many fled the South escaping the oppression there. As for the black cowboys, it is believed that most were among the Exodusters who also fled the South during Reconstruction and headed West. 

Did they find what they were looking for? In my opinion, I believe they did.

As for black cowboys, they found freedoms unimagined if that's what they were looking in the West. It's true. They were treated equally to white and Mexican and Native American Indian cowboys in terms of pay, responsibilities, and expectations on the job and off when riding for a brand. All ranch hands worked for equal wages. All lived by the Cowboy Code. Color didn't matter. What mattered was one's character, an ability to pull one's own weight, and a desire to do what was right.  

Black cowboys were offered opportunities that were never offered to them in the South. As cowboys, blacks were offered freedoms the same as were offered all cowboys. They were free to vote for who they pleased. They were free to attend whatever church they desired, discuss whatever they wanted to talk about, go where they wanted, associate with whomever they pleased, to carry guns, to work, to earn,  to build a good life for themselves and their families, and of course free to leave if they had a mind to do so. In the West, they found what was never afforded them. 

Frankly, the West and the cowboy life offered freedoms to black Americans fleeing persecution by Democrats in the South. And in essence, they found the freedoms which they were deprived in other parts of the country. They also found a cattle industry that offered equal pay and equal opportunity that was really ahead of its time.

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. Oh, what a long read! A fantastic bit of history, I am so glad now to know. Thanks, Tom!


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