Singleton, Benjamin “PAP”
Singleton, Benjamin “PAP” 1809–1892
Benjamin “Pap” Singleton called himself “the Moses of the Colored Exodus.” Singleton became a black separatist and, along with Henry Adams, a leader in one of the largest internal migrations of African Americans in U.S. history. In 1879–1880, he served as a spokesperson for the “Exodusters,” formerly enslaved blacks who moved from Tennessee, Kentucky, and other southern states, to settle mainly in Kansas. In a U.S. Senate report (1880), formerly enslaved Henry Adams of Louisiana stated that as early as 1874 blacks from several Deep South states had organized a semisecret “colonization council,” which reportedly enrolled upwards of 98,000 persons desiring to migrate westward. Singleton, though, was very open about his activities, often conducting meetings in churches. Hence, he was much better known than Adams, whose group may have motivated more people to emigrate than Singleton.
By the time Singleton became the public voice of emigration, he was in his sixties and gray-haired; his age and pleasant manner gained him the nickname “Pap.” He claimed credit for establishing eleven colonies of African Americans in Kansas, but the record shows only two communities, in Dunlap County and Morris County. In 1880 he informed a special U.S. Senate committee seeking the causes of the migration that he had brought 7,432 people out of the South, and he proudly but erroneously proclaimed, “I am the whole cause of Kansas migration!”
Singleton was born in Nashville, Tennessee, to an enslaved mother. He fled slavery and went to Canada via the Underground Railroad. He soon returned to the United States and found a job in Detroit. After Emancipation, he went back to Tennessee and encountered ongoing economic oppression and white violence against African Americans. He continued to work in cabinetry and carpentry. In his work making coffins, he saw the bodies of black men and women whom whites had sexually assaulted and lynched. Well-to-do whites who controlled the economy exploited black workers, creating and perpetuating black poverty and hunger. A major crop failure in 1868 in the South intensified the hardship of many newly freed southern blacks. With the withdrawal of federal troops from the region in 1877, oppression of blacks intensified.
Singleton had once hoped that African Americans in the South could develop economic security by saving money, purchasing homes, and moving out of sharecrop-ping. He helped create the Tennessee Real Estate and Homestead Association, which later became the Edgefield Real Estate and Homestead Association. This association vainly sought local land inexpensive enough for blacks to purchase. This effort failed, and Singleton soon began to believe that blacks should settle in new communities separated from whites, and thereby avoid white violence, oppression, and economic competition. He felt that life for southern blacks would begin to improve but, that in the short term, leaving was the best option. Singleton asserted that God had given him the message to lead blacks out of the South. In contrast to Henry Adams, who spent time in dialogue learning people’s needs and opinions, Singleton asserted that he had been told by God to advocate for creating African American settlements outside the South.
Working alongside clergyman Columbus Johnson, also of Tennessee, Singleton selected Kansas as the most attractive destination for new black settlement. It appeared to have a pleasant climate and affordable public lands. Despite opposition from some black politicians, Singleton believed the new colonies would “consolidate the race” and create African American economic independence. Singleton’s promotional pamphlets often contained appealing pictures of lush farm and attractive dwellings. The circulars also contained “exodus” songs such as “The Land that Gives Birth to Freedom.” Kansas was presented as the Promised Land. The movement into Kansas was dramatic. In 1860, there were only 625 free blacks and two enslaved blacks in the state. By 1870, there were 17,108 blacks, and in 1880, 43,107. The migrants came not only from Tennessee, but also from Louisiana and Mississippi.
The colonies in Kansas did not live up to the advertising, and many migrants struggled greatly, some returning to the South. In his later years Singleton continued to work for black progress. In 1881 he founded and became president of United Colored Links, which aimed to use black resources to help blacks break into trades from which whites had excluded them, to help the community’s poor, and to promote black progress.
The black and white working class had little solidarity in this period in Kansas because of the racism of white workers and the racially divisive tactics of factory owners, who paid black laborers lower wages and used them as “scabs.” Although the Links tried to work with white labor groups to end the bar against black membership in labor organizations, the Links ultimately sought to unite blacks to form a separate, distinct, but coexisting black society.
Financial strain and other factors led to the dissolution of the United Colored Links. White discrimination, racism, and economic blockage continued to plague blacks in both the South and North, and Singleton began to believe that blacks could not achieve full success and security in the United States. Singleton then founded the United Transatlantic Society, a black separatist group that advocated migrating to Africa, considering both Liberia and Ethiopia as potential destinations. This organization did not succeed in relocating anyone to Africa, in large part because of the great cost of transoceanic travel. Despite his many setbacks, Singleton continued to fight for better conditions for blacks until the end of his life. He died in 1892 in St. Louis, Missouri.
Fleming, Walter L. 1909. “Pap” Singleton, the Moses of the Colored Exodus.” American Journal of Sociology 15 (1): 61–82.
Garvin, Roy. 1948. “Benjamin, or “Pap,” Singleton and His Followers.” Journal of Negro History 33 (1): 7–23.
Meacham, Mike. 2003. “The Exoduster Movement.” Western Journal of Black Studies 27 (2): 108–117.
Painter, Nell Irving. 1977. Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction. New York: Knopf.
U.S. Senate. 1880. Report and Testimony of the Select Committee of the United States Senate to Investigate the Causes of the Removal of the Negroes from the Southern States to the Northern States. 3 vols. 46th Cong., 2nd sess., Senate Report 693.