The Wild West of Yester-Year

Benjamin "Pap" Singleton
By Rachel Kovaciny

Carpenter. Escaped slave. Abolitionist. Land developer. Benjamin “Pap” Singleton was all those things during his lifetime. But he’s most remembered for the last one. Why? Because he helped organize the migration of thousands of former slaves from the deep South to homesteads in Kansas.

Born into slavery in Tennessee in 1809, Singleton learned carpentry when he was young. He attempted to escape slavery repeatedly, which resulted in his being sold several times, taken farther and farther south by each new owner. Finally, in 1846, Singleton successfully escaped and made his way north to Canada and freedom. Now in his late thirties, Singleton lived in Canada for several years before making a new home in Detroit, Michigan, after the Civil War started. He worked as a carpenter while aiding escaped slaves cross the border to Canada. Eventually, Singleton could return freely to his native Tennessee. He discovered freed black people there had little real political, economic, or social freedom. Singleton realized a black man on his own had few options to build a better life for himself. Together with a black minister named Columbus M. Johnson, he formed the Edgefield Real Estate Association. Their goal was to help other former slaves buy land together in Tennessee. When this proved too difficult, Singleton and Johnson turned their attention to the wide open spaces of the West. There, they saw hope for a new life, as did so many others of all races and backgrounds in the post-Civil War era.

Singleton and Johnson renamed their organization the Edgefield Real Estate and Homestead Association. In 1876, they traveled to Kansas to seek promising locations for a new colony of freedmen they hoped to establish there. They returned to Tennessee full of enthusiasm and hope. Before long, they were circulating pamphlets and fliers proclaiming Kansas to be a Promised Land of equality and opportunity. They held revival-style meetings to build interest in the venture, with Singleton doing much of the interpersonal promoting while Johnson reached crowds with his oratorical skills he’d gained from being a preacher.

Around the same time, there was a thriving prairie town settled entirely by black Americans looking for a new life in Nicodemus, Kansas. Singleton most likely looked on the success of Nicodemus as a sign that his plan for all-black communities in Kansas would succeed. Reports of equal access to land and water, fair treatment for everyone regardless of color, and plenty of land to settle proved irresistible to many people. In 1877, Singleton led nearly a hundred new settlers to Kansas, where they established a colony in Cherokee County. The next year, Singleton returned to Kansas with an even larger group that settled in Dunlap County. By the end of 1879, the Edgefield Real Estate and Homestead Association had led or directed over 20,000 people to new homes in Kansas. 

Although Singleton and his co-organizer Johnson were not the first to lead black settlers to Kansas, they were tireless and effective in spreading the news of their colonists’ successes. News of their efforts spread through black communities all across the South. People began calling Singleton “Black Moses.” News of these successful new homesteading efforts in Kansas caused the “Exoduster Movement” of 1879, in which between 20,000 and 50,000 black Americans left their homes in the South and East and headed west in the space of only a few months. We have no reliable estimate for how many Exodusters there really were, for this was no organized migration, such as the wagon trains of settlers led by Singleton. Instead, people simply packed up what little they owned and marched westward. Singleton did what he could to raise help for all these new immigrants, but also worried that they would flood his fledgling communities with more people than they could sustain.

In 1880, Congress summoned Singleton before them to explain the Exoduster migration, which people thought he had deliberately started. He gave a stirring testimony about the success of the colonies he and Johnson had helped found, as well as highlighting the conditions that caused so many people to seek new homes in the South. While in the East, Singleton obtained help from the Presbyterian Church to maintain his Kansas colonies. In the mid-1880s, he had moved to Kansas himself and was gaining support for a new venture: starting new colonies in Africa. The United States had already formed the country of Liberia for any former slaves who wished to seek new lives back in Africa. Singleton promoted this idea to those who had moved to Kansas but felt dissatisfied with their situation there. However, Singleton was no longer in robust health and had to retire from his organizational activities before he could send any colonizing parties to Africa.

Benjamin “Pap” Singleton died in 1900 at the age of 91, after over fifty years of helping people find freedom, independence, and hope for their future.