They could have stayed in the land where they had been born, a land that over time their ancestors had come to consider home. During the war the land had been bloodied but the war was over. A few cities and institutions had been destroyed but for the most part key systems and infrastructures had been preserved. Yes, war had ended, and with war’s end some change had come. Were they not free? A big change, for sure, but clearly not enough.
Word spread of a different place, a place with more opportunities, where one could make a fresh start. It would be an all or nothing gamble. Not everyone was sure of such a gamble but some were. Families mobilized. All they need do to reach this promised land was to cross the river. And they did.
Not everyone was happy.
This is how one group’s journey was described by an observer:
“… today there are sixty or seventy … of all ages and sexes on the river bank … singing and shouting … waiting for a government boat that will give them free transportation … These emigrants are the most lazy … too lazy to make a living in this warm and generous climate, where nature holds out to them her arms laden with rich and magnificent fruits that never fail. She points to her lakes … with unfailing yield of food from the waters, and can boast of a soil more productive than any other. Yet this lazy class of emigrants are compelled to go [elsewhere] to make a living or be fed by a magnanimous government. The most important of these emigrants have abandoned comfortable homes, and many of them have no means to pay passage … and what money they had was expended … [They] have been deceived by designing rascals in our midst who have held out flattering hopes and promises for the future that can never be realized. …”
As for that elsewhere considered a promised land? It was Kansas. The river crossed was the Mississippi. The emigrants were African Americans departing the south in what’s considered to be one of the first major migrations after the Civil War. The above excerpts were posted in the Boston Post on May 2, 1879 (just fourteen years after the end of the Civil War and two years after the end of Reconstruction) in a letter written by a resident of Vidalia, Louisiana to his client in Massachusetts. His client owned a Louisiana plantation.
While over six million people were freed by the end of the Civil War, many continued to work the fields where they had once been enslaved. Few other employment options existed. By the late 1870s, white southern elites returned to power and quickly undid many of the advancements made with regard to voting rights and economic opportunities for blacks. As economic pathways disappeared and violence increased, people sought a promised land and that land was out west and especially Kansas, home of the mythic John Brown.
One concern sparked by the exodus of African Americans was, who would work the fields? In his 1879 letter, the author includes a clipping from another southern voice reflecting upon this potential impact and proposed federal actions.
“The proposition of [President] Garfield to appropriate from the Treasury of the United States seventy-five thousand dollars for the relief of these emigrants … it is one the of most “cheeky”propositions, to use a cant expression, we have ever heard. Here is a people, probably in combination with Garfield himself and other haters of the South, who leave their comfortable homes in the South, and under certain unexplained influences go voluntarily to the West to better their condition. They there find only those who have persuaded them into such a wild goose chase … They find the conditions identical with what had been told them over and over again by intelligent men in the country they have left, they find the same difficulties and trials which every class of immigrants have to encounter when moving to a new country, and they are thrown on their own resources to no greater extent than the thousands of white immigrants who every year throng the Western Territories. Why does not Mr. Garfield ask the Congress of the United States to appropriate money for the temporary support of German and Irish and other European emigrants? They are as worthy …
“If this proposition to support this band of crazy wanderers should be adopted and money appropriated for keeping them in idleness, there would be created a drain on the public Treasury which hundreds of millions would not satisfy … and the time would not be long before our Western friends would have a surfeit of their colored brethren. … How long is this peculiar care for this class of our population to continue? … The colored people are as free as the whites … He has the same right as the white man has to emigrate but he has no further right than the white man for assistance …
“The place of those who go from the South will doubtless be soon supplied by the Chinamen, and what would Mr. Garfield say if the people of the South should apply to Congress for a year’s support for the almond-eyed Mongolians who may be brought here to develop our cotton lands?”
There are other letters from that time that echo the same sentiments about the roles of African Americans, the Chinese immigrants and more but I stop here. The history of that time — of emigration, migration and refugees arriving in a new land — is complex and is part of what makes America so darned unique. Though no wall around Kansas or along the Mississippi was mentioned, as I read the words, I could not help but think of Trump. He is nothing new. Nor are the people who look up to someone like him, a man who puts down everyone, and who enables some peoples’ worse base instincts toward selfishness, fear of others and violence.
I do not find hope in these old letters but I am reminded that we as a nation have survived such people and attitudes before. I have seen many stories of late debating whether or not Alex Haley’s Roots should have been remade. I don’t know but I do believe that there are always lessons to be learned from studying and remembering the past.
Boston Post, May 2, 1879, page 2, “The Negro Exodus”