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Pioneers, Homesteaders & the Exodus

wide shot of the 1800s African American community called Nicodemus

Pioneers, Homesteaders & the Exodus

After the Civil War, African Americans flocked to the Great Plains to become pioneers and homesteaders.

The Great Plains drew several waves of African American migrants after the Civil War, together known as the “Exodus.”

African Americans were drawn to the region for three reasons: (1) its reputation as a free soil, anti-slavery region; (2) the Homestead Act, which offered Americans of all races free land; and (3) the systemic and violent racism of the post-Civil War South.

In the late 1870s, formerly enslaved African Americans from Kentucky and Tennessee made up the migration’s first wave, establishing farming “colonies” in Kansas.

Nicodemus was the most famous and successful African American community, and is the only surviving black settlement west of the Mississippi River.  The town prospered during the 1880s, with its pioneers establishing business, churches, schools, and homesteads totaling thousands of acres.

The second wave occurred as news of Nicodemus and other colonies’ successes spread, and racial violence and political repression worsened in the South.  Thousands of refugees known as “Exodusters” fled Mississippi and Louisiana.  Unlike the Kentucky and Tennessee migrants, the Exodusters lacked organization and funds, faced greater hostility and racism, and had limited success.

The Exodus had notable champions as well as opponents. Sojourner Truth became the most famous champion after visiting Kansas in the 1880s, petitioning Congress and the President to support the movement.  Notably, Frederick Douglass strongly opposed the movement, saying it would undermine the fight for freedom in the South.

In the early 20th Century, African Americans continued to establish farms and farming communities on the Great Plains, including DeWitty, Nebraska and Sully County, South Dakota.  Under the Homestead Act, pioneer families were eligible to claim 160-320 acres – far more than proposed by reparations activists during Reconstruction.  These African American pioneers succeeded in gaining ownership of 3,500 farm claims totalling 650,000 acres of land.

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