organizer of the "Great Exodus" of former slaves from Tennessee to Kansas following the Civil War
Benjamin Singleton was born into slavery in Davidson County, Tennessee, and raised and trained as a cabinet maker. After being sold and sent to New Orleans, he escaped back to Nashville, then made his way to Canada before finally settling in Detroit, where he operated a boarding house that frequently sheltered runaway slaves.
During the Civil War years, Singleton returned to Nashville, where he made a living building cabinets and coffins while living in a Union camp for fugitive slaves. He also spent time preaching to the now-idle, destitute former slaves about going west to farm.
In September 1869, blacks in Nashville held a meeting about migrating from the South. Although they were now free, they were frustrated because of crowded and impoverished conditions, recent outbreaks of racial violence by whites, and the recent electoral defeat of the city's Republican ticket by white Democrats. The meeting failed to gain enough support for an exodus, however, so Singleton and a Sumner County preacher, Columbus M. Johnson, organized a homestead association. In 1872, the association sent a committee to investigate Kansas for settlement. The following year, Singleton and Johnson staked out a black settlement in Cherokee County (which failed) and a second settlement in Morris County.
In April 1875, Singleton, William A. Sizemore, and Benjamin Petway called for a state convention to discuss black migration to the West. The convention formed the Tennessee Emigration Society, sent delegates to Kansas, and resolved: "To the white people of Tennessee, and them alone, are due the ills borne by the colored people of this State." Then the Nashville Colored People's Cooperative Emigration Club was formed "to improve the moral, intellectual, social, and material interests of the colored people." The leaders hoped to relieve crowding in Tennessee's urban black neighborhoods, resettle the black poor, and build a politically powerful society in the Far West.
Singleton, Sizemore, and their followers next formed the Edgefield Real Estate Association. They held rallies, raised funds by charging five cents for parties, and published newspapers to publicize the colored migration. Singleton also circulated posters announcing: "Leave for Kansas on April 15, 1878." In June 1879, he established a colony at Dunlap, Morris County, Kansas. Over 2,400 blacks joined the "Great Exodus," which had stopped by 1882.
In 1881, Singleton organized a party called the United Colored Links in a black section of Topeka, Kansas, called "Tennessee Town" because so many natives of Tennessee had settled there. The party was intended to help African-Americans acquire their own factories and start their own industries. Singleton soon found out, however, that there was not enough capital within the black community to achieve the goal.
In 1883, Singleton founded the Chief League, which encouraged blacks to emigrate to the island of Cyprus. He got very few positive responses to this call.
In 1885, he formed the Trans-Atlantic Society to help blacks move back to their ancestral homelands in Africa, but this plan also failed.
Benjamin "Pap" Singleton died in St. Louis, in 1892.
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This page was last updated on 10/27/2014.