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Singleton, Benjamin(1809–1892) - Entrepreneur, Chronology, Black Exodus Begins

kansas nashville tennessee migration

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.

Singleton, John (1968–) [next] [back] Singer, Isaac Merrit - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Isaac Merrit Singer

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about 6 years ago

Please correct date and place of death for Mr. Benjamin "Pap" Singleton. He died on 17 February 1900 in Kansas City, MO. He was buried in Union Cemetery, Kansas City Missouri on 26 February 1900.

Source: See Library of Congress Authority name listing which cites the Benjamin Singleton death notice that appeared in the 18 February 1900 Kansas City Star newspaper, page 2. Also see 26 January 2013 Kansas City Star article, page 1 and Page 12.

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almost 2 years ago

Singleton, Benjamin(1809-1892) -Entrepreneur, Chronology, Black Exodus Begins