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African American Residents in Kansas

The history of Kansas statehood is closely tied to events in the Civil War. From the time Kansas Territory was opened for settlement, proslavery and antislavery forces fought for control of the territorial government. During the territorial era, several African American families chose to move to Kansas. Missouri slave owners crossed back and forth over the border to support the proslavery agenda, bringing with them enslaved people. Kansas Territory was also a passageway to freedom in the North with various stops on the Underground Railroad. By the 1859 constitutional convention and elections, the antislavery movement had gained a majority. The 1860 census counted 625 free and two enslaved Black residents of the territory. Kansas entered the Union in 1861 as a free state.

After the start of the Civil War, Black residents in Kansas formed volunteer military units to fight the Confederates. The First Kansas Colored Infantry, based at Fort Scott, was the first African American unit to see action in the Civil War. In Wyandotte County Black recruits were more numerous than White recruits. By the end of the Civil War, 186,000 Black soldiers were serving in combat troops for the United States, and another 200,000 served in support units. The integration of these units into other army operations was uncommon. The U. S. Congress authorized two cavalry regiments and two infantry units in 1866 composed of African American soldiers. These men were sent to Kansas to fight a series of Indian wars. Nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers, they were first assigned to Fort Leavenworth, the oldest military base west of the Mississippi River. From there the Buffalo Soldiers were sent to western Kansas and points farther west.

After the Civil War, several colonizer promoted Kansas as a land of promise for African American families to settle. The Kansas Constitution, enacted with the new state in 1861, opened the lands to all citizens regardless of their ethnic or racial background. In the 1870 census Black residents made up 4.6 percent of the state's population. In the previous decade the African American population had dramatically risen from 6,237 to 17,108. Black settlement was concentrated primarily in the eastern part of the state, particularly in Atchison, Douglas, Leavenworth, and Wyandotte counties.

A group of homesteaders from Scott County, Kentucky, organized a colony in northwest Kansas. Arriving in 1877, these families founded Nicodemus, perhaps the best known of the Black settlements. This rural community on the High Plains was named for a legendary man who was said to have purchased his own freedom. In a place with limited trees and water, Nicodemus residents faced environmental challenges and persevered growing their community. The first school district in Graham County was organized in Nicodemus in 1879. 

With life in the South becoming increasingly difficult and violent after the post-war rehabilitation, several Black leaders organized colonies to the West. Benjamin Singleton of Tennessee was among these formerly enslaved colonizers who purchased 1,000 acres of public land near Baxter Springs in southeast Kansas in 1873. The following year a group of 300 Black immigrants moved to the Cherokee colony. Singleton's belief that Kansas was an "asylum for the freedmen of the South" convinced 7,432 individuals from Kentucky and Tennessee to follow him and settle in several different colonies in the state. They with them a small amount of resources to start their new lives. Life here was hard and many of the colonies did not sustain the needs of the people. This led to the Exoduster movement or Exodus of 1879, which drew more Black families from the Deep South to Kansas and other parts of the Midwest.

The Exoduster movement, the largest migration of Black families to Kansas, began in 1879. The Exodusters arrived in large numbers in cities along the Missouri River. These families brought fewer resources with them. Not all Kansans welcomed the new arrivals. Others formed organizations like the Kansas Freedman's Relief Association and the Kansas Freedman's Bureau to provided families with some assistance.  Eventually the large numbers of families and workers were resettled in communities around the state.

Although Kansas had once been called the "greatest, grandest and freest of all states," life for Black Kansans could be discouraging and unequal.  White Kansans were not always generous and welcoming to their Black Kansans. Life during bad economic times often proved more difficult for African American residents. A number of Black families left the state for the unsettled territory that would become Oklahoma, and some returned to the South. However, a great many Black families stayed and called Kansas home. Among the many Black-owned businesses that emerged were newspapers in Hutchinson, Kansas City, Pittsburg, Topeka, and Wichita. The Black press in Kansas served as guidepost, information, and inspiration for readers in the state and beyond.

The eastern portion of Kansas saw another wave of black migration during the 20th century. Black miners primarily from Alabama were recruited to cover mining strikes. African American families primarily from Arkansas and Missouri relocated to the Midwest as mechanization of the cotton industry and economic downturn pushed them from their homes in the 1920s and 1930s. Jobs in the thriving meat packing industry offered better economic prospects. The growth of aviation and other industries in drew Black families to Kansas cities in the 1940s and 1950s. Not all Kansans welcomed the arrival of these new families. Some neighborhoods instituted restrictive policies and some businesses refused to provide services for Black customers.

In response to discrimination and the threat of violence, several Kansas women took a stand to protect their families. They developed network of women's clubs across the state, some in conjunction with the National Association of Colored People, that provided advocacy, legal, social, and enrichment initiatives, including a junior girls program that became a national model. 

Governmental policy in Kansas has at times been ambivalent toward racial equality. By statute, state universities in Kansas have always admitted African American students; in 1870 the first Black student enrolled at the University of Kansas, however specific incidents of discrimination have existed. The public school system has not provided racial equality; the larger cities of the first class were allowed to segregate schools. Many Black families have challenged these inequalities in legal cases since the late 19th century. Hutchinson is the only Kansas city with a population of 15,000 or more to have had integrated public schools throughout its history.

The Topeka public schools in the the 1950s were thrust into the center of the national debate over school segregation with the U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. That challenge began earlier with the Topeka chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Although schools in Topeka were segregated and discrimination existed in other ways, they did not have the gross inequalities found in some other states. The 13 Topeka plaintiffs filed a lawsuit on behalf of their children who wanted to attend neighborhood schools but were denied enrollment because of segregation policies. Their legal challenge in the U.S. District Court in 1951 use a "separate but equal" doctrine. Their case was paired with others and was taken to the U. S. Supreme Court by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Thurgood Marshall led a team of lawyers who argued that the effects of separating African American children from others resulted in "a feeling of inferiority." In May 1954 segregation was struck down by the court when it concluded that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka became the basis for national desegregation efforts.

The Wichita NAACP youth group stood up to discrimination and staged the first successful student led sit-in at the Dockum Drug Store in the city's downtown. Students spent several weeks learning non-violent protest tactics before launching their campaign to take a seat at the lunch counter and order a soda. After a couple of weeks the owner relented and served the students.

Representing about 6 percent of the state's population, African American Kansans have made major contributions throughout Kansas history. These Kansans include Gertrude Brooks, Pulitzer prize-winning poet; Aaron Douglas, artist; Ed Dwight, Jr., astronaut; Langston Hughes, poet and author; Eva Jessye, singer, choral director, composer; Hattie McDaniel, Oscar-winning actress; Janelle Monáe, singer and songwriter; Charlie Parker, jazz artist; Gordon Parks, author, photographer, director, composer; Barry Sanders, professional football player; Gale Sayers, professional football player; Lynette Woodard, professional basketball player and coach.

Entry: African American Residents in Kansas

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: August 2012

Date Modified: December 2022

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.