The so-called father of the black exodus, as Benjamin “Pap” Singleton called himself, was a former slave and grassroots leader who facilitated the migration of other former slaves to Kansas and other homesteading sites in the West where they hoped to be free from the racial and economic oppression that they had known in the South. He worked through what he believed was God’s plan for him to help his race by moving westward, later encouraging African American owned businesses in order to strengthen the economic conditions of the race.
Little is known about Benjamin “Pap” Singleton’s early life, from his birth on August 15, 1809 to the mid 1870s. Records show that during early adulthood he worked as a cabinetmaker in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was born a slave and spent his early years. To avoid being sold, he escaped to New Orleans but was later returned to Nashville. He was sold to owners who lived in Alabama and Mississippi but apparently escaped repeatedly and was captured and returned to his hometown. During one of his escapes, he went on to Windsor, Ontario, for a brief period and then lived in Detroit for a time. There he worked as a scavenger and also managed a boarding house where fugitive slaves were often sheltered. When the Civil War ended, he returned to Nashville.
Singleton was determined to ensure the safety of black people in Tennessee and beyond. In fact, he considered that he had a God-given mission to relocate these oppressed people from former slave states to states that offered them a friendlier environment than they had known. When he returned to Nashville, he saw continuing evidence that many whites were hostile, even cruel toward blacks. In the late 1860s and 1870s he lived in a section called East Nashville, on Edgefield, across the Cumberland River that separated that section from the main part of town. He worked as a cabinet and coffin maker (possibly as a carpenter) in Nashville as well as in the surrounding counties. In fact, many of the coffins that he made were for blacks who were killed by white vigilantes. Some of the coffins were for the freedmen who lived in contraband camps near his Edgefield residence, who died from crowded and unsanitary conditions. Singleton envisioned a better life for the people of his race; he wanted them to be independent of whites and own their own land. Land in Tennessee was too costly for blacks; therefore, he looked elsewhere for land where they might settle.
Meanwhile, Singleton claimed that he was a Ulysses S. Grant Republican, but he was more interested in economics than in politics. In 1875, he was elected to the Tennessee Convention of Colored Men. Around this time, Singleton and two other craftsmen—W. A. Sizemore and Columbus M. Johnson—were active in the convention as well. So was another Singleton associate, A. W. McConnell, who in 1874 was elected to the Davidson County Republican Convention and was a Davidson County delegate to the State Convention of Colored Men. In Exodusters , Nell Painter asserts that the National Convention of Colored Men that met in Nashville around this time overshadowed Singleton’s work as well as that of the Nashville convention’s circle of Sizemore-Singleton-McConnell. All three men spoke at the 1875 State Convention of Colored Men and advocated migration out of the state.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, on August 15
Settles in Edgefield section of Nashville, after many escapes during slavery; works as cabinet and coffin maker
Makes first scouting trip to Kansas in interest of homesteading
Co-founds Edgefield Real Estate and Homestead Association
Elected to the Tennessee Convention of Colored Men; gains prominence for efforts to establish migration movement
Makes inspection tour of Kansas with Columbus Johnson
Testifies before U.S. congressional committee investigating the black exodus; settles in Tennessee Town, a section of Topeka
Founds Trans-Atlantic Society
Dies in St. Louis
In September 1874 Singleton and Sizemore, a carpenter and a member of the Davidson County (Tennessee) Republican Central Committee, founded the Edgefield Real Estate and Homestead Association located at No. 5 Front Street. Painter states that Sizemore “may have actually been more important in the migration movement in Tennessee than was Singleton.” Columbus M. Johnson, a preacher, who recruited in nearby Sumner County’s former contraband camps located in Hendersonville and Gallatin, also worked with Singleton and possibly did so longer than any other man. He went with Singleton to Kansas to explore the possibility of homesteading; Johnson also became the Kansas-based agent for Edgefield Real Estate and Homestead Association.
Migration was Singleton’s central interest. Although he urged blacks to migrate to Kansas, he had tried to address the interests of those who wanted to remain in their old homes in Tennessee by seeking to buy farmlands. When that proved too expensive, he pursued what he thought was the only alternative—an exodus to Kansas. He visited Kansas in 1873 to survey homesteading possibilities. He and Columbus Johnson went to Kansas on an inspection tour in 1877 and returned to Nashville to promote his efforts in the local press. His real estate association held mass meetings during 1877 and 1878 and on July 31 and August 1, 1877, opened a mass meeting in Nashville to all residents of Tennessee. While some five hundred black laborers attended, many race leaders failed to attend. In 1879, Singleton made serious inquiries with government officials in Kansas regarding homesteading in that state.
Black Exodus Begins
The black exodus took off after Singleton and his association promoted their work through speeches and at festivals and picnics and distributed leaflets to blacks throughout the South. By some accounts, the migration really began in 1876; however, the lack of money and supplies prevented many African Americans from reaching their promised land. Association members led more blacks to Kansas in 1877 and 1878 and founded at least four all-black communities: in Cherokee, Graham, Lyons, and Morris counties. They incorporated Singleton colony in Dunlap, located in Morris County, Kansas, where Singleton lived temporarily between 1879 and 1880.
Some of his settlements survived into modern times, such as Nicodemus, which survives as a collection of buildings protected by the National Park Service. Some migrants settled in Topeka in a community known as Tennessee Town. The movement continued, and in 1879 some 20,000 destitute African Americans migrated to Kansas from Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. In 1880, some 2,407 African Americans from Nashville left for Kansas. Many “exodusters” suffered continuing hardships that they had known in their home states, such as difficulty in finding work, which resulted in economic problems. Others were successful and appreciated the move. Still others went to sites farther west.
The migrants’ situation took on political meaning as Democrats accused Republicans of encouraging the move for political reasons. In 1880, Singleton was a witness before a U.S. Senate committee that investigated the exodus. The Republican Singleton was never shaken by the Democrats’ cross-examination. He even gained fame for his claim that he was the whole cause of the Kansas migration. For his work, according to Stephen W. Angell, he became known as “the Moses of the Colored Exodus.” By now, however, he was no longer an advocate of migration to Kansas.
From the late 1880s on, Singleton lived mostly in Tennessee Town, a neighborhood near Topeka named for the sizeable number of Tennesseans who settled there. He became politically active, founding and supporting many short-lived political associations. One of these was the United Colored Link that had as its mission race unity in order to establish African American-controlled businesses and to work through the Greenbacker Party to form a coalition with white workers. In 1885, Singleton organized the Trans-Atlantic Society, an outgrowth of his failed effort in 1883 to form a successful Chief League to support emigration to Cyprus, the island in the Mediterranean. The society also called for repatriation of African Americans to Ethiopia. By 1887, nothing more was heard about the group or its movement.
The dates of Singleton’s activities, including his birth and death, vary in published sources. Whether he was married or had a family is thus far unknown. For a number of years he suffered poor health and, according to some sources, he died in St. Louis in 1892 and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Benjamin “Pap” Singleton achieved a part of his dream and had a long, established record of working to improve conditions for the people of his race. His mission was enormous but the financial support that he needed to achieve it was never forthcoming.
Benjamin "Pap" Singleton
Father of the African American exodus. Born: 1809, Nashville, Tennessee. Died: February 17, 1900, in Kansas City, Missouri.
He was born a slave in 1809, but after 37 years of bondage Benjamin Singleton escaped to freedom. He made Detroit his home and operated a secret boardinghouse for other escaped slaves. Following emancipation, Singleton returned to his native Tennessee.
After the Civil War, African Americans in the South enjoyed the rights and privileges of American citizenship. But when the federal troops were removed, their rights were no longer secure. The Ku Klux Klan emerged to strike terror and death to Blacks who refused to submit to their will. A sharecropping system virtually re-enslaved Black tenant farmers.
Because Kansas was famous for John Brown's efforts and its struggle against slavery, Singleton considered the state a new Canaan, and he, like a "Black Moses," would lead his people to the promised land. Singleton traveled through the South organizing parties to colonize in Kansas. Singleton distributed promotional posters and handbills which touted “Sunny Kansas” as “one of the finest countries for a poor man in the world,” with “plenty of stone and water, and wood on the streams.” One poster described, “large tracts of land, peaceful homes and firesides, undisturbed by any one.”
Between 1877 and 1879 nearly 300 African Americans followed him to Kansas. Some lived in "Singleton's Colony" in Cherokee County. Others settled in Wyandotte, in Topeka's Tennessee Town, and in Dunlap Colony near present Emporia. Singleton advocated the organized colonization of blacks in communities in Kansas and testified about the "Exodusters" before a committee of the U.S. Congress in 1880.
A second wave of nearly 20,000 African Americans came to Kansas in 1879 and 1880. Unlike the first groups of immigrants that had resources and arrived in smaller organized groups, these “Exodusters” had no money and they arrived daily by the hundreds. The communities in which they tried to settle were already struggling economically and were not prepared for such a spike in population. The communities appealed to the state government for assistance, resulting in the creation of the Kansas Freedmen’s Relief Association in 1879. The mission of the KFRA was to collect and distribute resources for struggling African Americans in Kansas. Though many African Americans came unprepared, most who remained were able to improve the quality of their lives and made important contributions to the state and the communities in which they lived.
Known affectionately as "Pap," Benjamin Singleton died in 1900. Through his last years he took great comfort and pride in the role in played as "Father of the Negro Exodus."
Entry: Singleton, Benjamin "Pap"
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: June 2004
Date Modified: June 2017
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